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Impatience is a virtue… said the overly ambitious employee with their eyes set on their next move. Ambition is a great characteristic to have, especially early on in your career. It will help you stay on track, push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and keep you far away from the dreaded work complacency bug.

But while you are busy being ambitious, you tend to miss important lessons and skillsets around you. Ambition changes your focus forward – to what’s next, blurring out what is.

I know the narrowing of focus first-hand. I spent the first seven (that’s generous) years of my career so overly ambitious that I missed critical opportunities that would have propelled my career forward even faster.

I ignored the small things, the lessons, the connections, and the work.

My ambition scared people. My bosses felt threatened; their bosses didn’t know what to do with me; my peers didn’t want to be on the same team as me because I was too intense; and so on.

Only as I look back can I see how the approach I took wasn’t the best one, it wasn’t the most efficient one to move up. Learn from my seven-year ambition cloud.

How to Stop Being Overly Ambitious and Still Move Up

Create a Clear Map of What You Need to Learn in Each Role

For every job you take or create, you need to go into it with a clear set of skills and knowledge that you want to learn from the position. You shouldn’t see a role only as a bump in salary, a higher title, or the next stop on the promotion chain.

Each job can teach you something – usually it’s a lot of somethings. But if you are only worried about what’s next, the same lessons will keep hitting you in the head.

Use the roles that you are given, the projects that are handed to you, the annoying coworkers or boss who just doesn’t “get it,” to create your learning plan. Be specific and think outside of your everyday role. “Hard skills” are great – learning a program, how to process something, etc., but also focus on the “softer skills” – interpersonal communications, how to change perceptions, creating your work persona, and so on.

These skills should absolutely be part of what you will need to be successful at the next level, but here’s the catch: until you have learned each and every one of them, the next level shouldn’t be a second thought. Your map will get you there when you focus on your needed skills while doing the job you are in.

Fully Understand Your Why

I talk about “the why” a lot when it comes to your career – in general and in specifics. Understanding “the why” for you, will help you stay ambitious, but also keep it in check. If you know why moving up, getting promoted, or focusing on ruling the world is so important to you, you will be able to constantly remind yourself and work towards something specific.

One of my own worries when I was overly ambitious was that if I took my eye off the prize, I wouldn’t make it to the next level. It took growing up (ugh – how old-sounding is that?) and realizing that I wouldn’t wake up tomorrow with a personality transplant. I will still be motivated, focused, driven, ambitious, and so on – even if my immediate focus was on the present.

I had no “why” at the time. My ambition was solely focused on moving up, earning more money, and proving the proverbial “someone” wrong. I’m still not sure who that someone is, but I digress.

Create your why. Not your parents why; not your friends why; not the why you think you should have. Be true in why your ambition is so important to you, and that truth will keep you moving in the right direction.

Ambition Isn’t the Same for Everyone

Drive and ambition shows up differently for people. You may be externally ambitious, in that everyone knows what you’re seeking, while your cube-mate may be thinking the same thing but never express that out loud.

Your ambition belongs to you. Don’t judge someone else for “not being as ambitious” as you or for being ok with the position they are in. Maybe they have mastered the above two points and are moving along with their career stealthily; or maybe they are ambitious in a different way.

The point is, like religion and politics, ambition is off-limits in the work environment (ok, maybe that’s my work utopia world, but you get my point). Focus on your own growth, development, learning, and path – not what others are or are not doing to help you get there.


This post originally ran on LifeAfterCollege.org.