People are driven to succeed for all sorts of reasons. For some it is fear of failure, for others it’s a competitive drive to beat peers. Some want to shift beyond the lives they experienced as children. Some want to show up the people who’ve told them they can’t succeed. If you look at all of the motivations though, they can be divided into two main categories. One is negative motivation, the other is positive.
Negative motivation is being motivated by a negative consequence. Clearly fear of failure is one of those. While the outcome of negative motivations can be attention to detail, and ultimately success, the underlying emotion is fear. In some situations anxiety (or stress) can be positive. In psychological jargon good stress is called eustress. However, taken too far, stress becomes damaging. High anxiety has been linked to high blood pressure, poor immune functioning, poor short- and long-term memory, insomnia, heart disease and many other conditions.
Positive motivation is all about striving. It’s about reaching goals, stretching for a better life or to reach one’s potential. To an extent, striving is a good thing. However, in its extreme it can also have some negative consequence. A single-minded focus on one goal goes hand-in-hand with ignoring other important aspects of life. In my practice, I often see high-performing individuals who have forgotten about having balance in their lives.
Whether your drivers are positive or negative, it’s critical to think about your definition of success. How will you know when you’ve succeeded? If you’re thinking it’s money, then consider this: the richest nations in the world are not happier than poorer nations. In fact, there appears to be a ceiling on the extent to which money buys happiness. Research over the last 10 years indicates that people earning an income of $80,000.00 to $100,000.00 per year are the happiest.
In fact, the field of positive psychology has revealed that there are three “types” (for want of a better word) of life. The happy life is a life filled with things that make you happy. That might be material things, or fun activities. The drawback with fun things is that the fun wears off; you have to keep upping the stakes to be happy.
Then there is the engaged life. This is a life centred on doing things that are intellectually engaging and productive. Inherently these activities evolve, to remain engaging. The problem is, often being engaged is also not sufficient to sustain happiness, research tells us.
Finally there is the fulfilled life. This life involves being engaged, but also involves relationships with people and contributing to the community. Happiness is most enduring when life includes the right blend of fun, engagement and connection with others.
So back to ambition. Many people focus on where they want to be in their careers, giving less thought to the broader picture. Take the time to step back and consider your broader picture and your definition of success. It’s all very well to be at the top of the corporate ladder, but if you’re there alone – and suffering stress and anxiety – you may find yourself wondering why you’re not satisfied.