A recent visit to San Francisco, overflowing with meetings and precious time with friends, reacquainted me with my brightest self and darkest demon: ambition and anxiety. Since the start of the year, I have been in an emotional, exhaustive ping-pong tournament between the two. Unfortunately, anxiety had been winning more battles than I like to publicly admit and I felt absolutely helpless. Sleepless nights, 4 am note-taking sessions, constant dark eye circles, unannounced tears on the elliptical, hours of research and failed attempts at meditation tools, constant conversations with my best friends asking, “What is wrong with me?” My “fixer” brain was on overdrive and I forgot how fragile my ambitious nature can be in the face of self doubt.
Driven people are so gosh darn admirable. We love talking about ambition, achievement, progress, productivity, passion, whatever buzzword is trending to synonymously illustrate ambition. We, as a society, place ambition on the American Dream pedestal and praise people like Sheryl Sandberg for writing a book called Lean In. Yet, we rarely connect the relationship between drive and anxiety, because anxiety is not sexy. Anxiety is the ugly crier at the end of the bar who has had too much tequila.
For ambitious folks like myself, it is embarrassing to talk about anxiety and how to manage it, especially when feeling resigned to think it’s the “new normal” or “should be expected” when you have a major life change. To the smart, driven people who likely struggle with this as regularly as I do: ambition and anxiety go hand-in-hand and we need to know how to care for ourselves when the negative cycle starts to overwhelm the mind, as it did for me the last several months. A few ambition-driven-anxiety tips for you:
Friends are your greatest weapons, specifically the equally ambitious and vulnerable kind. Call on them, lean on them, get their opinion. Though I knew how hard it was going to be to leave my best friends behind in San Francisco this past year, I forgot how integral they were to my well being. My trip last week showed me how powerful it is to have close friends who can relate to my shifting duality between neurotic hard work and self doubt. Not just for feeling a sense of belonging, but according to Solomon’s Paradox, friends can also see our problems more clearly than we can as individuals. Additionally, in revisiting one of my favorite and necessary Harvard classes Positive Psych (on recommendation from my friend Alex during this trip), I was reminded that my professor and TF studied a large group of my peers and found that social support was the greatest predictor of happiness during periods of high stress. Your friends are your greatest assets. Use them. Which brings me to my next point...
Positive psychology and other tools and resources exist for a reason. Use them, use them regularly and not just when things go awry. As my brilliant friend Logan reminded me last night:
“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” - John F. Kennedy
When my positivity and health began to unravel under the heavy burden of constant anxiety, I desperately sought out all the tools imaginable. Articles, books, podcasts, guided meditation (which I’m terrible at), breathing exercises, yoga, regular exercise (which barely helped me float, see above: unannounced crying during cardio), talking to my mom and best friends and, when all else failed, a few glasses of wine. I tried everything up to the point of seeking out a doctor for medication. What I did not realize until my trip to San Francisco was that I had let my best tools lapse when things were good, and as soon as stress kicked in, I was not prepared to handle the anxiety and sleepless nights. I needed my friends’ reminder to check myself and build those resources back in to my routine.
Know what works for you. As soon as I realized my greatest tools had fallen by the wayside, I set aside my desperate, misguided energy and reset my focus. You need to know what works for you. My personal best resources are smart female friendships and writing. The former because I need a sense of belonging, relatability and I need these deep, meaningful friendships to remind me that it’s okay that I am really intense and equally anxious. I needed to be reminded that there are wonderful and terrible aspects to having an unquiet mind. Plus, close relationships are the greatest predictor of happiness, so we should all invest our time in close friendships. As for writing, that is an outlet I know works well for me. I write to work through questions and I write for gratitude. If you’re looking for your tools, check out what we learned from Tal Ben-Shahar and Shawn Achor at Harvard 10 years ago. Try them on, and create your habits.
Accept the inevitable: If you are ambitious, it is also likely that you are highly anxious. I discovered it is impossible for me to be one without the other, but it is okay. Coming to terms with this inevitability helped relieve a good portion of my anxiety. At least, for now, my sleep has improved, my focus is back and I am no longer crying on the elliptical.