SINGAPORE: In the video game Super Mario, the goal is to get coins, hit blocks, look for shortcuts and, importantly, run whenever possible to level up.
“Unless absolutely necessary, never stop running. Remember, you have a time limit to finish the level, and the faster you get through, the better your score will be,” states the WikiHow page on the game.
It is an ominous warning that, for as long as I can remember, was eerily analogous to my career trajectory which began way before entering the workforce.
Along with many Singaporean millennials, I learnt the importance of dreaming big, being passionate and giving my all from young. I firmly believed hard work and passion were the two unicorn coins I had to grab and hold onto to proceed to the next level in life.
In school, this translated into zealous goal-setting and overachievement. Every milestone was a fleeting but significant dopamine hit that left me wanting more, even as I got to all the “coins” and “blocks” I was supposed to.
I embraced the rat race before I knew I was a rat, making my first few years in the workforce relatively breezy.
Like any self-respecting Type A person, my body was chronically attuned to ambition. Never mind that my goalposts shifted as soon as I reached them, the overall goal was to keep running, whether that meant hitting the next promotion, getting a salary increase, or doubling down on ambition.
Then my video game was short circuited by, well, the circuit breaker.
When I was made to slow down, I realised many of my old habits were unsustainable, not least my relationship with career and ambition. The hamster wheel was all I knew — but it could not continue.
AN UNHEALTHY DEFINITION OF SUCCESS
Unless you’re one of the psychotic few who’s managed to be productive during a pandemic, COVID-19 has forced most of us to reconsider our somewhat acceptable working cultures.
Stuck at home, the performative aspects of work have fallen away. Some of us no longer feel the need to dress up for work or engage in office politics, like keeping tabs on which colleagues are getting plum assignments.
Without the physical office, the importance of boundaries around work and life has become even more crucial. A lack of these can lead to varying degrees of problematic overlap, whether it’s working non-stop from the time one wakes up to taking one too many naps.
Many of us have long gathered our core sense of identity from our professional accomplishments, turbocharged by social norms and cultural expectations.
For instance, and at the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, male ambition largely manifests via the inherent expectation for men to be the breadwinner of the family.
Women, however, seem to have a more complicated relationship with ambition.
We’re told that we can — and should — aspire to ‘have it all’ to be successful. We are expected to want both motherhood and a full-time career, implying that we are somehow lesser without either ambition. And if we don’t have both for whatever reason, we had jolly well be either an exceptional mother or have a kick-ass career.
A culture that sees tangible goals, from career milestones to getting married and settling down, as markers of success invariably pegs personal success to external validation. If we’re not recognised or rewarded for being ambitious and driven, then there is almost a lack of purpose.
We’re also taught to admire people who seem more ambitious, such as those ranked on “30 under 30” lists, never mind that we might be on a completely different career path.
We nurse and nurture our pathological obsession with pursuing blind ambition, inevitably leading ourselves to a certain, common outcome: Burnout.
Most of us feel we have no choice but to carry on with the status quo because, like Super Mario, running is the only way to hit more goals and escape our current level in life.
A NEW NORMAL FOR AMBITION
When we are this focused on constantly striving for more, the enforced slower pace of life can be more uncomfortable than expected. Having to rethink our idea of ambition can be disorienting because it requires a shift in perspective for what we’ve been told is a fundamental part of our identity.
On one hand, not everyone has the luxury to use this down time to reflect on broader values and beliefs, when we’re stressing over financial fallout or have to deal with retrenchment.
But while grappling with uncertainty can make us more determined to hold onto any remaining semblance of control over our lives, including meticulously planning our career trajectory in the new normal, the need to redefine professional ambition isn’t a bad thing.
Ironically, we’re able to focus on doing good work for its own sake when we’re less obsessed with arbitrary but common hallmarks of ambition — getting awards, being promoted more often than your peers, earning a certain amount before a certain age, and even chasing after praise from bosses or envy from colleagues.
Producing good work simply because we believe in the work allows us to stop rooting our sense of self-worth in how fast we ascend the career ladder or which rungs we’re scaling.
Rethinking our ambitions also means being more intentional about our motivations behind certain career goals, like gunning for a promotion. Are we genuinely excited by the job scope? Or have we simply been told we must reach for a rank above us to prove that we’re driven?
It means figuring out why we have a random salary figure in mind before we’d consider ourselves having “made it”. Where does this figure come from? Does success consistently and directly correlate to our income, or is there a point where income stops factoring into success?
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Figuring out the answers is key to a healthier relationship with work.
All this is, of course, easier said than done.
Conventional markers of success and ambition will remain relevant or important to an extent, since most of us find it hard to be continuously intrinsically motivated.
But as someone who’s been career-oriented since time immemorial, this central change in my relationship with ambition will require shifting gears. It will take time, but I’m starting to see how criticism or praise might influence what I do, but won’t define who I am.
Even though it’s still early days, these mental boundaries make it easier to draw physical boundaries while working from home too.
My huge ambition was always my favourite part about myself, until I reached a point where hitting more career milestones didn’t do it for me anymore. Sometimes it even made me wonder if I deserved my accomplishments.
I would run harder and faster, resulting in even greater cognitive dissonance when I wasn’t as happy as I should’ve been from hitting all these coins and levelling up at a respectable speed.
If not for the pandemic, I probably wouldn’t have slowed down just yet, despite my depleting stamina screaming for a break.
Now that I have, I see what happens when ambition is largely driven by external factors: The more you run from yourself, the faster you run into yourself.