Here’s What Healthy Ambition Looks Like in the Age of Burnout

According to a career expert.

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Maybe you’re feeling it, or maybe you’ve just heard about it. In any case, you probably know that burnout is a big problem by now—to the point where now it has an official medical diagnosis. This has made us reexamine our relationship with ambition as a culture. When Adam Moss stepped down from his role as editor in chief of New York Magazine in January, he said, "I've been going full throttle for 40 years; I want to see what my life is like with less ambition."

Moss isn’t the only one. Suddenly we’re all wondering if this life of too much coffee and too little sleep all while relentlessly pursuing our goals is really worth it. At the same time, this concept is confusing: Should we be ditching our ambition altogether? The short answer is no, but it’s complicated. Here’s what healthy ambition looks like in the age of burnout. 

Boundaries and a real love of what you do are key.

According to Sara Dawson, career and health coach with Ama La Vida, healthy ambition is synonymous with drive. “It is a relentless focus on a desired goal or outcome,” she explains. “It is motivation and follow-through.”

Meet the Expert

Sara Dawson is a certified health and career coach with a B.A. Communications from the University of Washington. Her coaching approach combines the right system, support, and accountability so you can begin elevating yourself in the areas that are most important to you. Through her coaching relationships, she helps co-create steps forward in your health, career, and life.

If you’re relentlessly focused on something you don’t love, though, you’re probably headed straight for burnout—so make sure you really examine that thing you’re going after with so much drive. “When someone is ambitious and passionate about their goal or work, it radiates out of them. From friends and family to Uber drivers, they genuinely love talking to others about their work,” Dawson says. 

No matter how much you love what you do, though, you need to acknowledge that you can’t do everything. And that means getting your priorities straight and setting boundaries. “You may still reserve Fridays for date night or ensure you never miss your kid's soccer game,” suggests Dawson. “You need to be able to make sacrifices to pursue your goals but know where to draw the lines to prevent you from becoming consumed by those goals.”

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There are burnout signs to look out for.

Whether your ambition is misdirected or you’re not the best at setting boundaries, there are important signs of burnout to look out for in yourself and other people in your life. If you’re falling off the map and not seeing the people you care about, that’s a big one. Because no matter how much you love your work, you need to prioritize your relationships, too. 

Another big one? Exhaustion. “If someone looks completely drained, acts out in ways unusual for them or is sick all the time, that’s a sign of burnout,” says Dawson. So if you’re running on coffee and four hours of sleep, it’s time to make a change ASAP. 

When you stop doing things you love—other than pursuing that one big goal, of course—that could mean you’re burned out or headed in that direction as well. “If someone starts giving up on their hobbies or personal passions in pursuit of a professional ambition, this is a sign that they may become burned out,” explains Dawson. 

Is ambition the same thing as greed? 

Unfortunately, ambition and greed are often synonymous in our society—especially if you’re a woman. But according to Dawson, ultimately greed and ambition aren’t similar at all. “Ambition and greed could be seen as similar when ambition is misdirected,” she explains. “But ambition is a positive character trait. Ambition supports our personal goals and outcomes in a way that is supportive of ourselves and those around us. Ambition may be driven by something completely unrelated to finances or not even self-serving at all. Ambition is a drive to make an impact.”

In other words, go ahead and pursue those goals with everything you’ve got. As long as you’re willing to stay aware of those sneaky signs of impending burnout, of course. 

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