Ambition, Striving and Acceptance: Permission to Relax

'Happiness can exist only in acceptance.' ~ George OrwellClick To Tweet

I suspect you’re a bit like me… that you’re highly goal oriented. That you are motivated to accomplish big things and have an impact in the world – whatever that looks like for you. But being ambitious and striving for success can come at a cost. Usually, that cost is the inability to be content with what you already have… acceptance.


As a leader, I’ve come to appreciate that being comfortable with ambiguity is important. But even more important is embracing contradiction. And this contradiction between hunger for ‘more’ and acceptance of what you already have has become a favourite of mine.

So today we’ll unpick this contradiction just a little bit, and hopefully we’ll both find a way to have more acceptance without giving up on our dreams!

Striving and ambition are about future orientation…

'Big results require big ambitions.' ~ HeraclitusClick To Tweet

I have written previously about Phillip Zimbardo’s work on Time Orientation. Ambition is about the future. It’s about action now to create something bigger/better/faster in the future. People with high levels of ambition tend to be higher in future orientation.


Ambition is usually a good thing! It helps us to delay gratification. It enables us to put in the hours of practice. It equips us to overcome setbacks. And it is one of the driving forces behind the progress of the human race.

But often, achieving those ambitions – and the striving that is necessary to do that – requires you to sacrifice something in the now. Like sleep. Or happiness. Or time with people who are important to you.

Now I have to confess that not only am I high on Zimbardo’s ‘Future’ orientation index, but my number one strength in Gallop Strengths Finder is “Futuristic”. So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that I have a tendency to set fairly ambitious goals for myself, and also for my team.

… but it must be balanced by a healthy dose of present and past

'The end of labor is to gain leisure.' ~ AristotleClick To Tweet

Otherwise, what is it all for?


Life is not some giant race to the end. You only get one, and if you spend it fretting about what you can achieve tomorrow, you will find your tomorrow has none of the people or memories in it that would make it a worthy prize for all that striving.

Building acceptance

So if I accept that my ambition for tomorrow, and my willingness to strive for it aren’t going to go away, what could I do today that would enable me to enjoy the journey?

Because the practical implication of striving on a daily basis is that you set small steps to achieve – mini-milestones if you will – and sometimes you don’t get them done… so you feel like your day has been wasted… no progress.

But is that really true?

What can I do right now to be more forgiving of myself when I don’t achieve the things I set out to do, and what can I do to be more accepting of exactly where I am right now?

Practice gratitude daily

“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” ~ Harvey B. Simon, MD – Harvard Medical School

This might sound a bit ‘la-la’ when you first hear it, but repeated credible studies have found a strong correlation between deliberately practicing gratitude and feeling good. This effect is sustained over the long term, and is so simple it’s a no-brainer for me.


I include gratitude in my morning meditation and also write down at least three things I am grateful for in my journal in the evening.

These don’t have to be big things! It can be a friendly smile from a stranger. Or a great latte from your favourite cafe. Or a hug from your kids.

Make time to meditate

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday - unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” ~ Sukhraj S. DhillonClick To Tweet

Some people have a mental block about meditation – they assume its hard, or weird, or unpleasant. And I suppose it can be these things, especially if you over think it.


I use two different tools for meditating.

The first is heavily guided, and walks through six phases: connectedness, gratitude, forgiveness, vision for the future, perfect day and support. It’s really easy – you just follow the voice guides.

Headspace is also guided, but does a bit more to teach you the core skills of meditation so that you can also use them unguided.

Replace perfection with progress

'Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it's a shield.' ~ Brene BrownClick To Tweet

When you think of something you want to do/create/become, you see it in your mind’s eye as a complete and perfect thing – exactly the way you hope it will be.


But reality is messy. It seldom unfolds exactly the way we thought it will. And that has to be OK.

Focus on making progress rather than achieving perfection. One leads to fulfilment, and the other to disappointment. Which would you rather have?

Remind yourself of what’s important right now

Some things are impacted by the passage of time more than others. Within the scope of your own life, you will likely be able to work for more years than you will have children living at home with you. Because the time when your kids need you (and you are a role-model for them) is comparatively short, it becomes more precious than work.

Likewise, at some point you will stop working. At least for pay. And your life partner and your closest friends will be more important than your job. Likewise having hobbies and pastimes that give you joy.

There’s a lovely metaphor for this that I try and remember: in your life you will juggle many balls; family, friends, work, community… but some of them are made of rubber and some are made of glass. If you are going to drop one, make sure it is made of rubber.

Schedule relaxation

'There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.' ~ Henry David ThoreauClick To Tweet

What gets scheduled gets done… but most of us operate on the misapprehension that the default state is relaxation, and that the ‘work’ is what must be scheduled.


For most high-achievers though, I’ve found the opposite is true: the default is work and busyness – and the leisure never gets scheduled.

This changed for me this year, when I started using Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner. Before each weekend is a two page spread called the “Weekend Optimiser” where you decide in advance how much time you’ll dedicate to sleep, to relaxing activities with important people in your life, and to a range of other rejuvenating things. If you don’t schedule it, it tends not to happen.


What do you do to practise acceptance? Let me know in the comments below.


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