You probably subscribe to this blog because you’re a highly self-motivated person trying to figure out how to build a successful career.
You think about big questions like “what do I want to do in life,” “how will I get there,” and “what does success mean to me?”
You may know exactly what you want to do, or you may be absolutely clueless -- surrounded by people who seemingly have their shit together. Perhaps you can’t help but compare yourself to those around you, which causes you to chase every opportunity as a stepping stone to beat the competition.
As an ambitious person striving to achieve your version of success, you are somewhere on the spectrum of being deeply excited or terrifyingly anxious about the future.
This week, I’m going to unpack why we strive for more in our careers and the role of anxiety and excitement. To start, a bit about me:
On this spectrum, I’m heavily skewed towards feeling excited about the future.
Whether it’s a project at work, the journey of this blog, or my life, thinking about the future is exciting, often more so than the present.
As I reflect on my first year in LinkedIn’s Strategy & Analytics rotational program, I can’t help but notice how the prospect of the future motivates me and my peers.
The program is split into four, six-month rotations. Leadership assigns the first two “core rotations” to build foundational skills, and analysts have full reign to choose the latter two “elective rotations.”
Given the variety of functions, projects, and people we can work with, it’s natural for analysts to hyper-optimize the future and try to engineer the perfect elective rotations.
It’s something that I spend a fair chunk of time thinking about.
My excitement stems from my desire to do more, experience more, and learn more. This results in always striving for something new, seemingly discontent with the status quo.
Interestingly, the same phenomenon happens if you’re towards the anxious end of the “how I feel about the future” spectrum.
Anxious and ambitious people strive for bigger and better things throughout their career. Rather than being driven by excitement, they are driven by nervousness and fear of what could happen if they don’t take control of the future.
And like those driven by excitement, the result is discontent with the status quo and an ambition for more.
The secret to becoming a high-achieving person is to harness this ambition, regardless of whether it's driven by excitement or anxiety. However, this can be seen by others as climbing the ladder, not being grateful, or always being unhappy with the present.
A previous manager of mine who spent much of his career in Silicon Valley’s most elite companies once commented on this:
“There are so many ambitious people here, so many shiny opportunities, and so many peers -- younger and older -- doing amazing things. It’s easy to get carried away and focus on the future... on what could be instead of what is.
”By and large, I agree with his observation. The prospect of future success should not hinder your ability to appreciate today.
If you’re a student, this means appreciating the education you are getting, the people around you, and the resource-rich environment you are in.
However, I struggled with understanding how to apply this quote to my life without compromising on ambition.
Should I stop focusing on the future? Do I need to be complacent to appreciate the present?
As part of our annual training through the Strategy and Analytics program, we took a powerful workshop on interpersonal skills, leadership, and other soft skills. Surprisingly, most of the workshop was about retraining our mindset to shape our perspective in life.
One specific concept that the lecturer brought up was the paradox of discontent and gratitude. She shared the following quote:
“Discontent is a very useful thing. As long as a man is contented with his present lot, so long is it difficult to persuade him to come out of it. Therefore it is that every reform must be preceded by discontent.” - Gandhi
Gandhi believed discontent with the status quo is the driver of progress. Whether that’s societal, personal, or career progress, I believe this is universally applicable.
However, discontent without action is just complaining.
Progress = Discontent + Action
Had Gandhi not mobilized Indians to protest for freedom, the outcome of his discontent would be no different than friends complaining to each other over drinks.
Relating this back to our careers, I recently had a fascinating conversation with a friend who’s an ex-founder and head of operations of a high-growth startup.
He attributes much of his success to taking action when others wouldn’t. Throughout his career, he noticed that many colleagues were exceptional at pointing out problems in a project, function, or company. But most did nothing about it.
Instead, he decided to act whenever he came across a problem worth solving. He became known as the guy that makes problems go away. And this simple philosophy is a major contributing factor to his incredible accomplishments to date.
While discontent (identifying the problem) and action (solving the problem) are crucial to progress, this formula does nothing to guarantee happiness.
As a thought experiment, what does progress with your career look like?
● What is the best internship you’d love to land?
● What about full-time role?
● What happens after the full-time role?
● Do you want to end up at graduate school?
These are questions that many high-achieving people constantly think about to push their careers forward.
The answer to any specific question is not important. Regardless of where you are in solving these questions, there will always be another looming career question ahead of you.
Even if you land your dream internship at a top company, as an ambitious person driven by anxiety or excitement, your mind will likely jump ahead and start thinking about full-time positions.
Given that you’re an intelligent, motivated, and hard-working person, you will probably land your dream full-time position too. But nothing changes. Your mind will start racing about promotions and the next step after your first job.
There is always more to achieve.
While discontent and action enable career progress, it can also cause greed, entitlement, and perpetual dissatisfaction.
So how do we solve this?
I’ve often heard gratitude being defined as “being happy with what you have.” This used to bother me, because it implied that being grateful means we should also feel guilty of striving for more.
But after the interpersonal training workshop, I realized gratitude and discontent can, and should, coexist.
Be grateful for the opportunities you have, but hungry for more.
I’ll leave you with my current working hypothesis from this reflection:
Discontent (and action) is necessary for achievement but needs to be coupled with gratitude for a happy, fulfilling life.
Without discontent and action, progress is never made. But without gratitude, the progress doesn’t matter.
What do you think?