28 | Are You Ambitious (or More Like Me?)

Would you say you’re an ambitious person?

What does ambition mean to you?

After rediscovering an old review for the Atlum Schema LP, I was reflecting on this word. It celebrated its fourteenth anniversary in June, and I found the full video of the launch show from Harbour Lights Cinema in Southampton.

The review said:

“This is an ambitious, almost audacious debut from Atlum Schema. Back in the mid-eighties this would have been called ‘big music’ full of ideas, aspiration and emotion. The album has an incredible depth and variety, some memorable songs and sounds excellent. ‘Hold On’ could easily be a hit single if it got any airplay, and elsewhere ‘I Can’ is a moving story of lost love and regret. This is the sort of album that is either going to disappear without trace and be picked up on in 20 years as a lost classic, or it might just make its way onto this year’s Mercury Prize list. Either way, give it a listen now. You will be intrigued and impressed.”

– New Sound Wales

Other than having a comforting and terrifying realisation that the album is now only six years away from being picked up as a lost classic (it didn’t make it onto the 2009 Mercury Prize list), I was struck by the word “ambitious”.

We were chatting about it in a Haven Open Kota session too. Not everyone relates to ambition, imagination, and goals similarly.

Retrospective Ambition

In a post from the old blog, I wrote about ambition: “I have always been highly motivated and driven to succeed at the things that pique my curiosity. In some senses, I am very ambitious. But my ambitions are difficult to define, and as a multipotentialite, they can be hard to measure.”

I still resonate with this.

I’m not sure “ambitious” or “audacious” are words anyone would use to describe me as a person. At least, I never have ambitious or audacious plans.

So this difference between the creator and WHAT we create intrigues me. Can we do ambitious things without being “ambitious” people? What does it mean to have ambition?

I didn’t set out to create anything ambitious or audacious. I rarely do. But things can spiral occasionally. Once the ideas gather momentum, things can get a little out of hand.

This kind of ambition doesn’t feel ambitious when it’s happening. At least, not in the way I think of ambition. It’s not driven by a desire to achieve.

It emerges from the playful question, “What if?”

Experimental and Conceptual Ambition

In this episode of The Gentle Rebel Podcast, I take the idea that some people are Conceptual types and others are Experimental types and thread the notion of ambition through it.

I first explored this distinction with Kendra Patterson on the theme of late bloomers.

What’s The Difference?

More conceptually oriented people can imagine a future outcome and figure out the best path to get from here to there. In contrast, experimental types start where they are and build incrementally, accumulating and integrating discoveries and experiences that take them from one step to the next.

Imagine Where You’ll Be in Five Year’s Time

Conceptual people can base their ambitions on what they imagine the future to look, feel, sound, smell, and taste like. But this is not as easy for experimental types. Imagining what life will look like in five years is impossible. As an experimental friend said to me recently, “Ask me where I’ll be in five years, and I’ll have to give you a call to let you know in five years”.

In other words, life is unlikely to look like you can imagine it looking when you’re experimentally minded. Things will be learned and changed along the way.

Our common assumptions and ways of operating in modern society build around conceptual models. We are encouraged to use labels, boxes, and measures for everything. And yet, so much of the world (and humanity) doesn’t fit that way of thinking.

Common Conceptual Assumptions

A conceptual mindset can be beneficial at times. It helps us stay focused and organised on particular things that need certain types of attention. It’s perfect for short-term goals and projects.

In the episode, I consider the usefulness of some commonly accepted notions like “always begin with the end in mind”, genres, and “what you want to be when you grow up”.

Ambition and Imagination

I often hear people say that we need figures brave enough to dream big and imagine radically new horizons to get us out of the mess we’re in as a world. I recoil at this idea. It’s a jump to a conceptual framework that makes sense in theory. Still, it relies on individual visionaries and, as such, falls way short of our collective potential to imagine.

So I wonder if we ignore the collective power of experimental imagination at our peril. I want to see a future based less on ambitious individual vision and more on building through creative collaborative wondering (and wandering).

A future that grows piece by piece in the direction we have chosen to head together. Forget utopian promised lands flowing with milk and honey. Experimental imagination grows from the inside out. It can’t be conceptualised initially because we have no idea where it will take us. Looking back at how far we’ve come, we will say, “What an ambitious and audacious journey”. But only because we didn’t know we’d end up here en route to where we were going next.

Ambition and Limits

It’s interesting to consider the different relationships with limits concerning ambition for experimental and conceptual people.

Experimental types might appear ambitious because their work keeps growing through the limits they encounter. An album might sound like an ambitious piece of work, but only because it wasn’t imagined to end in the way it did before it was started. It would be impossible to conceptualise the end because the end emerges as each step leads to the next along the way.

Conceptual types identify an ambition from the outset and work towards the limits they set. They can dream big and set huge goals for themselves. The goal itself sets the limits.

Anchors and Ambition

“An anchor keeps a vessel at bay, planted in the harbour, unable to explore the freedom of the sea”

– The Minimalists

We discussed this in our Open Kota conversation—the image of anchors in our lives and how they can provide us with different things. Does an anchor give us freedom or does it inhibit our freedom? It depends…

These are not permanent positions but places we might end up in for a while.

  • Safely Anchored: securely integrated and committed to something or somewhere – finding meaning and connection
  • Safely Unanchored: free to explore, discover, and grow (not needing to worry about ending up somewhere new)
  • Unsafely Anchored: trapped, stuck, and unable to let go (being held onto by something that isn’t helping us grow)
  • Unsafely Unanchored: aimless drift without appropriate resources (panic mode or giving up because there’s no obvious way to land)

Foundational Bedrocks of Life

We might feel safely/unsafely anchored/unanchored to these core areas of life:

Place – physical environments
People – relationships
Projects – our occupations (e.g. work, school, hobbies, interests etc.)
Philosophy – our core personal values
Person (Self) – our self-awareness of natural temperament

What’s your relationship like with each of those areas right now?

Pick The Lock

I’d love to chat with you if you would like to receive some support and help to make sense of this. Book a Pick The Lock (one-off “choose your own price” session).

We can take that bedrock and hold them up against how you’re anchored right now and think about what would need to shift for you to be in a more desirable position with it.

Over to You

Do you identify with these experimental/conceptual descriptions? How might these ideas help you in your relationship with ambition? Feel free to share your response in the comments below or via email through the contact form. I’d love to hear from you!

  1. Mr.Andy. Im a high school student from malaysia and i’m 15. Next year, i’m going to be 16 so i need to choose classes that’s suitable for me in the future. But the problem is, i’m confused with what im going to be. Overall, i find myself as an artist because i have a talent to draw, illustrate and cartooning. The real problem is, my mother doesnt want me to be an artist. instead, she only wants me to keep my talent as a hobby and not as a career. I tried so hard to find any other types career that i ‘might’ be interested in and yet, i couldnt find any. So sir, please help me. I’m scared that i might chose the wrong decision.

    1. Hello Keyra, lovely to hear from you, and great to hear that you’re so excited about your art. If there is one huge thing that I would say it is don’t allow the pressure from the idea that you have to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life dictate too many of your decisions. It sounds like you have a lot of passions and interests. You are still young and working things out. Any decision you make now will not lead you to disaster if it feels wrong down the line. It might not even be a choice you have to make – keep making art if that’s what you love to do, take it seriously, and see where it leads you. You already ARE an artist, whatever job(s) you might end up doing.

      My biggest thing is just don’t worry too much about making the wrong decision – you will learn invaluable things about yourself and about the things you really want to do whatever decision you make, even if that is: ‘nope, I don’t want to do this job’.

      I hope that helps a bit.

    2. Hi,Keyra! we just got the same feel..my mother is really like your mother..
      I don’t no what to choose and Im afraid if I choose the wrong class

  2. This one resonates with me as I try and navigate my way through a career as a singer songwriter and working musician. I’m well aware that the people I admire are people with intrinsic ambition as a main drive. Of course we all have the extrinsic kind – who doesn’t want to accepted and respected to some extent?, but this is the kind I think needs to be kept in check and should take the lesser role, for me anyway.

    1. Yeah totally agree. We do all have an extrinsic thing. For me it’s often the extrinsic stuff that happens that I am retrospectively proud of rather than overtly striving for it! Good thoughts.

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