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Ambition and Happiness: Having Both at the Same Time

Ambition and Happiness: Having Both at the Same Time

Chocolate and…peanut butter. Joy and…peace. Ambition and…happiness?

Ambition and happiness aren’t two words you normally see coupled together. For many of us, the word ambition conjures images of deadlines, office politics, competition, and stress.

What image does it not conjure? Happiness.

How do you stay centered and happy, in the midst of work that can be stressful, demanding, and unpredictable? How can we be happy and ambitious at the same time? I posed these questions to a panel of three successful senior leaders, all of whom have taken deliberate paths toward finding harmony between ambition and happiness.

The leaders include: Erin Anderson Wenz, Vice President and Senior Engineer at BARR Engineering; Lindsey Hillesheim, Ph.D., AI Strategy & Solutions at Hewlett Packard Enterprises; and Rita Khan, Chief Digital Officer at Mayo Clinic. Here are some of the biggest takeaways.

[Related: Defining Talent: Three Conflicting Beliefs and How to Navigate Your Natural Abilities]

Direct your ambition to stretching and learning. And reframe it as “ambition and happiness” rather than “ambition or happiness."

These leaders are energized by growth and complex challenges:

Put yourself in situations where you don't know what you're doing fully - you’ll learn what you need to know along the way.
Find an opportunity that excites you and bang the door down.

Anderson Wenz, Hillesheim, and Khan all challenge the premise that ambition and happiness are at odds. Instead, they define “ambition” in terms of the work, rather than the trappings of title or power.

They focus their energy and attention on the outcomes they can control or influence. When faced with seemingly intractable challenges, Khan’s typical response is, “Bring it on.”

It’s a strong reminder that the perspective we bring sets the lens of how we (and our teams) view challenges. The panelists also highlight that ambition and learning go hand-in-hand:

Whatever you do, you always have to keep learning... We have to continue evolving.

Aligning your values and purpose to your work is the game changer.

Khan shared that, earlier in her career, a leadership coach asked her to focus on her purpose. Her initial response?

That’s fluff - let’s get to the real stuff.

After exploring the idea and clarifying her own values, she realized that purpose was the real stuff. After she shifted her focus from climbing the corporate ladder to having impact, her career stepped on the gas. And she was doing work she loved.

Khan summarized it this way:

I had drive, not purpose. I had friends who are passionate, and I was envious. I hadn’t found passion in my work, but I was a hard worker. When I looked at myself and identified my values, I was able to direct that energy: Supercharge your drive with passion.

All three leaders are energized and find happiness-on-the-journey when their work aligns with a purpose rooted in their values. For Anderson Wenz, it’s helping cities adapt to climate change. For Khan, it’s improving health outcomes through digital innovation. And for Hillesheim, it’s helping scientists and engineers do game-changing R&D.

Identifying your purpose will show you your north star.

[Related: How to Unpack Your "Why"]

If the culture doesn’t support you, don't feel like it's your responsibility to figure it out.

It's normal to be in an unhealthy culture and feel like it's your responsibility to work it out - many of us have the sense that we need to “just weather this,” or “just desensitize myself.”

But toxic cultures and unsupportive leaders are detractors from realizing our full potential - they can damage us. Be brave enough to leave environments that aren't nourishing or that don't value you for what you bring to the table.

But also figure out if it’s the culture or if it’s something else. Sometimes, you need to raise your hand.

Be careful when evaluating whether a culture is unsupportive or something else is going on. Even if you are interested in taking a broader role, others may not know about your drive.

Anderson Wenz shared her experience becoming a partner in her firm. After coming back to full-time work after years of a reduced schedule, she realized that people at her company might not have realized she was ready for the next step.

She developed a data-centered case quantifying her contributions (“lots of charts and graphs”). The data raised her visibility and demonstrated that she had already been operating at a partner level. Subsequently, Anderson Wenz was promoted.

Be prepared to take the initiative to showcase the value you bring to the table.

[Related: Are You Seen as Strategic Enough to Lead Others?]

And always remember, every one of us is human.

This theme shows up in multiple ways.

Hillesheim underscores the value of patience. First, patience with ourselves:

Self-reflection and discovery aren’t quick processes and shouldn’t be rushed.

And, second, patience with the process:

Sometimes you have to let things take the time they need to unfold.

Khan emphasizes that:

We are all people - we all have challenges, no matter the titles we hold. Don’t let titles of others hold you back, don’t be afraid to provide your ideas and input...or fear of feeling inferior, because of your own doubt… Have confidence. Even when you’re not sure of the answer, know that you’ll figure it out.

And Anderson Wenz has ambition in many areas of her life - at work, with her family, her community, and with her own wellness - and reminds us that we only have so much to give:

You have a limited amount of energy. You can do it all, but not at the same time. Organize your life in ways that will fill you up. If it's not that, that ambition is for someone else.

Perhaps the overarching takeaway is that, although strong technical skills and hard work are a necessary foundation for your role, real and sustained success is rooted in an intentional mindset, with your values at your core. And that supports happiness and ambition, at the same time.


Sarita Parikh is founder of jomanity, a startup focused on helping people live every day with more joy and more humanity. She is passionate about shifting technology to the common good.

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