Ambition Isn’t Selfish If It Fuels Your Creativity For the Greater Good

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A few years ago, actress Reese Witherspoon wrote an essay that was published in Glamour magazine about women and ambition. She observed that women are judged too harshly for being ambitious. Men with ambition are seen as powerful and appealing, while women with ambition are seen as selfish and less worthy of being hired or promoted than their male counterparts. The double standard had to end. “We have to change the idea that a woman with ambition is out only for herself,” she wrote.

I have never forgotten that article. Witherspoon’s sentiment has stayed with me ever since. Ambition gets a bad rap sometimes for bringing about negative reactions in people. But ambition is not to be feared. It is not to be hidden away, especially by women, who may have the desire to achieve meaningful things. “Ambition is simply a drive inside of you,” writes Witherspoon. “It’s having a curiosity or a new idea and the desire to pursue it.”

Other writers and creative types have weighed in on the topic. The famous artist Salvador Dali once wrote, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” Without those wings, we might as well swim with the ducks.

Maya Angelou writes, “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” It takes more than ambition to be successful. It’s one thing to reach for the highest goal, such as publishing a best-selling novel. But it takes a truly wise person to write a novel that touches the hearts and souls of readers.

There are different ways to look at ambition. For many, it’s a negative trait best left under wraps. But then how will you ever achieve your greatest work? The true measure of creative genius is finding the right balance of ambition. Too little ambition and you risk undercutting your opportunities and underselling your talents. You come across as lacking confidence. Conversely, exhibit too much ambition or the wrong kind of ambition that doesn’t help the greater good and people see you as arrogant.

Where is the happy medium? As writers and creatives, it’s not only okay to be ambitious, it’s imperative. Without ambition, you may never accomplish anything meaningful. Ambition fuels your dreams and your passions. That’s the positive side of ambition.

But ambition has its darker side too. The dark side of ambition drives you blindly toward outcomes that not only hurt others but can ultimately derail your best efforts. Under the influence of the dark energy, you can become more focused on your competition – who is standing in your way of success. The key is to harness ambition’s positive energy without getting sucked into its darker forces. It can be all too easy to fall into that trap. You have to remember that it is just that – a mind trap.

Here are a few suggestions for making peace with the ambitious side of yourself so you can take advantage of its positive energy.

* Be aware of how you feel when you are ambitious. How do you describe your energy level – high, low, medium? Do you feel energized, determined and optimistic about the outcome of your endeavors, or do you feel angered, aggressive and driven to the point of madness? Higher energy and optimism are signs of the positive side of ambition. More important, it makes you feel happy about your work.

* Recognize ambition’s positive energy. Use that energy to create something useful, make a positive impact on others’ lives, or simply make other people happy. When you feel ambitious, it’s usually to DO something or to create something — climb a mountain, write a book, or build a business. Those are positive outcomes of ambition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it helps others. But if your ambition is to tear something apart or hurt someone, then you have fallen under the darker side of ambition. Always choose ambition’s positive energy.

* Don’t waste your ambition on people or situations that won’t respect or appreciate it. (Another pearl of wisdom from Ms. Witherspoon.) Once you recognize that there are people in your life (bosses, for example) who don’t appreciate your ambitious ideas, quickly move on. Find another company or project that will welcome your ambitious ideas.

* Recognize that everyone has some level of ambition. Some people have more ambition than others, but that doesn’t mean others have no ambition at all. It just means they haven’t tapped into it yet. While many people use ambition in healthy ways, others may subdue their ambition, believing (erroneously) that they are being selfish for wanting more than they have. Or they use their ambition to serve their own purposes rather than for the greater good.

* Being ambitious means taking a few risks. As someone once told me, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where all the best apples are.” Even if it means risking your well-being by falling out of the tree.

* Remind yourself that it is not selfish to be ambitious. If your ambition calls for creating meaningful work that people will enjoy, then it’s not selfish to indulge in your craft. If your ambition calls for you to leave behind your family so you can go to medical school in a different city, it’s not selfish to want to improve your education so you can help heal people who are sick. If there is an overriding desire to help others, then ambition can only help you achieve your goals.

When you learn to tap into the positive energy of ambition, great things can happen.

Why Writers Are Bigger Risk Takers Than Most Non-Writers

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How much of a risk taker are you? Not just in your life, but in your writing?

At first glance, it would seem that writers are not big risk takers. Writers are frequently perceived as thoughtful, introspective and cautious. That may not be true necessarily, but the cerebral nature of writing gives writers those qualities.

The reality is that writers are bigger risk takers than most average folks. Think about all the ways you’ve taken risks with your own writing.

* Writers risk putting their thoughts down on paper. The very act of doing that shows a certain level of commitment to the writing process. Putting words down on paper (or typed onto a computer screen) feels more permanent. It makes the stories, even in their most primitive forms, seem more real than if they were left alone in their brains.

* Writers risk exposing their emotional lives. Some feelings are so deeply hidden and so deeply felt that it is only by writing about them and with them that writers can truly embrace them. Writers take ownership of those emotions. Writing helps them process those feelings and give them life on the page that is both socially acceptable and healing.

* Writers risk looking ignorant or foolish. There may be times when writers express an unpopular opinion. The way around that is to do plenty of research to help support that opinion. Back up those opinions with factual data and studies or interviews with experts. There will always be people who disagree with you or who don’t like what you write. That is par for the course. That is the risk of being a writer. Writers will never please everyone, which is probably why they focus on pleasing themselves.

* Writers risk criticism of their work. Let’s face it – the world can be a sour, cruel place. Not everyone plays nicely in the sandbox of life. People won’t think twice about tearing down all your hard work, whether because of their own jealousy, fear or insecurity. Writers will need to develop thick skins to ward off those blows. But the satisfaction of doing work that they love is worth the brief moment of pain that harsh criticism can bring.

* Writers risk sharing too much of themselves. Especially in memoir writing, writers expose so much of their personal lives on the page that would make most non-writing people cringe. It takes courage to share stories of trauma, pain, anxiety and disappointment. It’s much easier to share stories of joy and triumph.  It takes courage to reveal the darkest sides of our souls. But it is a necessary evil if those revelations help heal others who experience a similar pain.

* Writers risk anonymity. They risk the possibility that no one will ever read their work. Writers can toil for weeks, months, or even years on one literary masterpiece only to see it never published. Or if it does get published, it gathers dust on the bookshelf. But like the risk of criticism, most writers probably won’t mind the risk of anonymity because it’s the writing process that gives them the most pleasure, not the outcome.

* Writers risk their pride. Many writers I know are not afraid to show their work to others when the story is still in its rawest form. It takes courage to ask others for assistance. Others, like myself, prefer to wait until the piece is nearly 100 percent finished before asking people to review it. Somehow it does not seem fair to ask people to review work that is still in progress. That’s like asking someone to view a partially finished jigsaw puzzle. You only see part of the picture, not the entire piece. Many writers are willing to set aside their pride to welcome suggestions for improvement along the way.

If you feel you don’t put enough risk into your writing, there may be ways around it. For starters, try something new and different that you would normally not consider doing, says Kellie McGann a contributor at The Write Practice blog. For example, if you’ve never been a big fan of poetry, sign up for a poetry class. Because the creative process for writing poetry is different than for other types of writing, you can learn a different approach to putting words and phrases together to tell a story.

It’s important to push yourself to try different things, McGann writes. “If you always write about what you know, you’ll never be a better writer,” McGann says. Which flies in the face of a long-held belief that we need to write what we know.

The next time you feel stuck in your writing or you just want to experiment with a different writing technique, do something different. Take a class or do something that is out of your comfort zone. Taking risks are necessary to open the flow of ideas. Or as McGann writes, “When we take risks, we step into the unknown. That’s where ideas begin to flow.”

Of course, not all risks go well. In fact, some fail miserably. There’s no worse feeling that taking a leap of faith and falling flat on your face.

So what can writers do when that happens? Grieve, suggests author Annie Neugebauer at Writer Unboxed. Give yourself a few days, or even a week to process the disappointment. Give yourself permission to mourn the loss, the failure. Set a time limit too so the grieving process does not go on indefinitely. Then when that week is up, roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

The writing process is filled with risk. Embrace the adventurous, risk-taking part of your soul. It may just help you become a better writer.