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Under Pressure: How Your Own Ambition Is Crippling Your Happiness


We are young twenty-somethings.

We’re busy trying to prove ourselves to the world, and we’re consumed by the ambition to create a successful life for ourselves. We itch with hunger to succeed and we are eager, and we are so wrapped up in what could be we find ourselves having very little time for what is. This includes our own well-being, and we don’t even notice that we’re taking less care of ourselves.

We spend day after day trying to side hustle, attempting to fill in lengthy job applications, and trying to make it work. It rarely feels like enough, and we are tirelessly pushing and pulling ourselves in different directions and forcing our skillsets to the extremes.

Then we do the worst thing we can do. We compare.

The act of comparison is one of the most hurtful things you can do to yourself. It either fuels your ambition or dampens it like a soggy campfire.  If it fuels your ambition, then all you can see is the forceful drive of your dreams and you devote all your time to fulfilling them. If it puts out the flames of your ambition, then you find yourself slumped in self-pity.

Each day is devoted to becoming something. The days that are not spent in the interest of our futures are spent procrastinating with Netflix while we beat ourselves up over it and shove Doritos into our mouths. On days like that, all we want is to avoid. I’d even urge people to avoid engaging in conversation with me on these days. If it’s not about “Pretty Little Liars” (and how pretty Ezra is) or what I’m eating for lunch then I don’t want to know.

The lights have dimmed since we walked across the stage to collect thanks at our graduation ceremonies. Nothing was as we imagined. We took risks that didn’t pay off, and we took jobs that didn’t pay well with some not paying at all.

Every time life knocked us down, we got back up and got right in it’s face. We took responsibility for our lives and we do little but think about what else we can do to further our aspirations. We run, and we chase down those goals that have never left our heads.

We can get so busy running towards something we don’t see all we run past along the way. We are pushing people away with our persistence, and we’re frustrated with useless solutions that are presented to us. Everything else goes on the backburner, and if experience is what makes life then what kind of life are we living if we’re focused on a singular journey? What are we doing to ourselves if we are abandoning our youth and neglecting relationships?

It boils down to how we measure our happiness. We measure our happiness as a state of mind that arrives after reaching success. We tell ourselves it’s in that dream job, paying off our student loans or buying (not renting) that perfect apartment. We measure our happiness by ambitious benchmarks, and we are less invested in emotional achievements than those of our career.

We are ignoring today as we focus on tomorrow, but tomorrow has yet to arrive and all we have left are hours that we won’t get back. We’re forgetting all of the optimism and limitless possibilities that we held onto as we grew up. We’re busy trying to not become a statistic of failed graduates and in the meantime, we’re forgetting to live.

There will be a resounding and irritated groan from our elders. They will accuse us of being ignorant to the blood, sweat and tears that they sacrificed in order to make it. They’ll say we are self-entitled and that we complain too much. That’s easy for them to say, all they have to worry about these days is anti-wrinkle cream and how to use Facebook. This is a stereotype, of course – and I wonder how they feel about it.

Despite our ambition, we don’t think we’re better than each other. We know that we’re not, and that is a problem. We know that the chances are that someone will outshine us at a job interview and we know there will always be the best of the best. The days of believing we were the crème of the crop have long gone, and we tend to blame the economy. That, and there are so damn many of us wanting the same dreams built of silver skyscrapers and fireworks.

Our self-esteem is at constant war with our ambition. Our egos are deflated but our ambition tells us we need to be fiercer, stronger and ruthlessly brutal. This duality that we all have to face is a tough thing to tackle, but we can’t avoid it.

The thing about ambition is that it is a cruel mistress. It demands both time and energy, but it doesn’t provide you with a pat on the back when things go wrong. Even when things go right it will never be satisfied with the end result, and it will always push you to your limit.

We seek validation, and we search for evidence that proves our quest is worth the effort.

We won’t apologise for being ambitious, for all the stereotypes insist we are lazy. We won’t apologise for being competitive, as it’s more crucial than ever to win the game. However, we don’t know what to do when our own dreams push us down so low that we almost lose our entire grip on them.

I graduated two years ago. I say I haven’t accomplished anything, yet I have more published work than I would ever have imagined. I also learned a lot of hard lessons with money, work and happiness. I emailed The White House and got a reply, and I perfected my daily eyebrow routine. So there’s that.

The issue I kept facing was my own disappointment in myself. For the last six months I’ve expected results, and I have expected more from myself. My own expectations and unrealistic demands have done more harm than any rejection letter ever could. It got to a point where I couldn’t even sit down to write, because I had indulged in comparison, self-pity, and succumbed to doubt. My ambition left me at a loss for words, and with a constant struggle to do better.

The damages we suffer along the way are inevitable. We need to lose things, because without it we can’t expect to gain anything. We need to be taken down a peg or two, so we can rise higher. At least it gives us a thicker skin, and that’s something that will last far beyond our twenties.

About the Author

Shelley Phillips

Shelley holds a B.A. in Media Studies from Swansea University, Wales. She enjoys keeping up with a critiquing TV shows, blogging, American politics, and baking snicker doodles. She hopes to one day work as a journalist.