Impact & Playing Bigger

Ambivalent about Ambition

By June 11, 2012 10 Comments

Photo by Christa Gallopoulos

You feel the calling to do that thing.

Maybe you feel called to write the book, to tell your story.

Maybe you long to start the business that fills you up with passion.

Maybe you dream of building that beautiful, wildly unique home.

Maybe you feel “assigned” to share a particular idea in the world, and transform the status quo.

But you wonder: Is that silly, grandiose? Is that selfishly ambitious? Is there something dark, or false, or frivolous about this?

It’s no wonder you are concerned. You’ve seen the dark side of ambition: political leaders who abuse their power, billionaires who abuse the system, corporate empire-building that harms the earth. You don’t want to harm, exploit, or deny others. You don’t want to become materialistic or unkind.

And yet…that big calling inside. That big dream for your self-expression, your contribution, your financial security, your joy.

My colleague and friend Lianne Raymond has something brilliant to say about this. Her framework has been making a huge difference for me, and I’m excited to share it with you.

She differentiates between “actualization” and “ambition.”

She says, “Actualization is an awkward word for the beautiful and somewhat mysterious essence in every human being and every living thing to grow into the fullest expression of itself. You see it in a flower that bends to the sun. You see it when a baby pushes herself up to take a tentative step, falls and does it all again, over and over until she is walking. I see it in my artist friend Sharon who says, “I have drawn and painted all my life. I can’t not do it.”

In other words, actualization is about the full expression of your gifts and impulses to create. In my courses, this is how we define playing big. I don’t think ambition will save the world, but I do think actualization will. If we are actualizing, we are bringing forth the incredible gifts, talents, contributions, love and light within.

Lianne writes that ambition, by contrast, is driven by needing to impress others or reassure ourselves we are enough. It’s about needing to “win,” or to gain acclaim. It tends to be rooted in insecurity.

Lianne suggests that we ask ourselves, around any dream or goal, is this “originating from a place of actualization or ambition?”

I have been asking myself this all week, as I face little choices in my business, but also as I’m doing some big picture planning, and it is so, so, helpful.

Is the desire to offer this course coming from ambition or actualization?
Is the idea to partner with this person from from ambition or actualization?
Is the desire to write for that publication coming from ambition or actualization?

In asking this question, I’ve had a couple interesting insights: 1) The stuff I’m doing from a place of ambition has a stressed out undertone to it. 2) The stuff I want to do from a place of self-actualization is much more interesting, creatively fresh and likely to lead to worldly success.

That’s the paradox. Most of the time, and particularly for entrepreneurs, creatives, innovators, and leaders, worldly success will come from self-actualization, not ambition, because it’s in self-actualizaiton that our wildly unique contributions come through.

For more guidance on how to answer that question and more of Lianne’s wise reflections on this topic, check out the post here. I highly, highly recommend her blog too – she doesn’t write that often, but I am always blown away by her work when she does.

Here’s what I believe: you are brilliant. You are a divine creation. When the channel is unblocked and you are up to the work of actualization, amazing contributions will flow forth from you into the world.

Wishing you a beautiful weekend.



Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • I love this distinction between actualization and ambition. It has taken me decades to embrace what I’ve up until now called my “ambition.” But according to Lianne’s definition, what I’m truly after is actualization.

    I *used* to be very “ambitious,” in all the not-so-yummy ways that Lianne outlines: needing to impress, to win, all coming from a place of insecurity.

    What I want now is no less big, but coming from a more grounded place, from a place of wanting to make a difference, to fully express my gifts because it’s what I was put here to do, rather than because I need to impress or prove myself.

    All of which feels sooooo much better!

    For anyone reading, I cannot recommend Playing Big more highly. Thanks to your program, Tara, I’m teaching courses, making offers, and putting myself out there in a way that I would not have been able to do even a year ago. Your Playing Big program should be a required course for every woman!

  • Melissa says:

    Such an important and helpful distinction you’ve drawn here. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me – although, I can’t really think of a time when these insights wouldn’t help. Thanks for your generous thoughts.

  • Mari Beth says:

    Wow, the power of words and the gifts of people who share their wisdom! Thank you for this re-framing. I fretted all last night about not being good enough in a new art course I’m taking, I mean waaaayyyyy not good enough after looking at the professionals on the website. Wow are they good. Then I got your email this morning, and it has inspired me to focus on coming from a strong lifelong desire for artistic actualization. Of some kind or another! Maybe my scribble sketches will feel like meditations and that they’re coming from a whole different “source” of kindness, love and generosity, and not of competition or defensiveness. What a difference. Now, if only I can hang on to this….I’m going to have to print and post this one!

  • Nancy says:

    I am so thankful for this blog and the messages you are bringing to me at this time. It is like the universe is speaking to me through the people around me telling me to stay strong. That this too shall pass. As a successful business owner for over the last 15years i now am feeling rocked by the economy and situations out of my control. I am not use to being back at the bottom of the latter. I now look at my first life (as I like to call it) to see what I can do differently and Actualization as oppose to Ambition is exactly what I needed to hear. It is from this place of Actualization that I wan to rebuild my business back to a place that carries out my dreams and purpose, not a place where I feel trapped by work and keeping up appearances. I am not sure how I will hold on to this but thank you for setting the seed in place. I want to take care of this idea and nurture it to grow and become strong…. thank you!!!

  • Tara, this is wonderful- the distinction you and Lianne have created brings SUCH clarity!

    I’ve been intently making this shift over the past month or so, and I’ve been calling it force vs. easefulness. The ambition vs. actualization framework adds depth, meaning, and clarity to what I’m in the midst of. Thank you!

  • Tina says:

    Hi Tara,
    many thanks for the introduction to a very inspiring lady, I’m looking forward to spending some special time in her company.

  • RitaJC says:

    Great post! Thanx for sharing!

  • Lianne says:

    I have to tell you all how deeply gratifying it is to read these comments – I so appreciate hearing that they shifted something for you. It’s the only reason I can sometimes get myself to write. Reading this makes me want to share more. So thank you all so much for that and thanks to Tara for inviting my ideas into her space and letting me connect with all of you. xox

  • Actualization instead of ambition…what a mind opening idea. Having been brought up in a male family where ambition was the only motivation. It always felt wrong to me that emphasis on winning. I longed for love, for connection, for flow even though I didn’t have the words to describe that longing let alone the support.

    What I do now, with my art, is small, and yet it is a big step for me. I am making pieces with my hands in clay, not unusual but I love it. I have to connect to do it…with myself and with the clay. I have such a deep level of desire to do this. When I get caught up in making more money, I can now see is that ambition taking over.

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