Balancing Ambition and Fatherhood
Another day of mild work chaos is over, 3 steps forward, 2 steps back in pursuit of the dream. Did we make progress today? Who knows, but we showed up and gave it our best again. Now work thoughts must leave the brain and load up the family focus , it’s time to rush home and see my son before he goes to bed. I have exactly 53 minutes before he is down for the night with nothing but a battalion of soothers for company, dreaming about whatever infants dream about, which for mine is probably ripping overpriced books apart.
As I excitedly open the door and open my arms wide to greet him, His reaction, which was a few weeks ago, a frenzied scrambling to come up in my arms, has now turned to barely acknowledgement or mild indifference. An Amazon delivery driver gets a better reaction.
Swallowing this deeply crushing setback, I pick him up for a cuddle and I am immediately reminded of how aggressively loud, surprisingly strong and squirmy this tiny pot bellied human is. Ok, back down you go, sorry for interrupting you as you were rehousing the pots and pans from that drawer to the floor.
Despite not getting what I was hoping for, I love my son intensely. He is the crowning achievement of my life (though technically my wife did all the hard parts). He is the most important thing in my world and a brand new source of inspiration for the person I want to be. Maximising my time with him is a no brainer.
But there is something within me that actually makes this a yes brainer.
Like many others, I suffer from a condition called ambition, and I'm struggling to find the cure. I used to think ‘If I just get to ‘x’ then I’ll be satisfied.’ but now I’m wise enough to know that I was just lying to myself. This will probably never leave me. In the same way an addict needs a fix, I need to do more, aim higher. I think it’s gotten worse over the years. I have this need to achieve, to do the thing, to prove, to progress, to be better than yesterday. I will make a lot of sacrifices to satisfy my addiction to doing. But herein lies the problem.
To repeat my earlier point - , my son is the most important thing in my world, my wife a close second. For this statement to be true, then there has to be a conflict with my need to pursue ambitions, or at least an upper limit on what I’m prepared to sacrifice. The good news for me is that I’m not a special snowflake. There are tons of people with ambitions far greater than mine. And there are tons of people with kids and families they adore. There are a great number of people at the intersection of this Venn diagram.
A Step Too Far
Elon Musk is an example of who I do not want to be. Though I can admit I am a superfan and am in awe of his achievements and aspirations, It gives me anxiety just thinking about how consumed he must be with his work, while thinking about how he makes time for his 11 kids. Though he is many orders of magnitude more intelligent than I am, so maybe he has already created multiple Elon cyborg clones to help him navigate this issue.
There are many other examples of incredible people throughout history who did great things, what is not often discussed is the sacrifice to family they often were prepared to make. John D Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein…It’s a long list. It fills me with deep sadness to imagine a world where I do great things, but to leave my family feeling like they were second best. This is not the way (for me).
I don’t exactly know how to balance the scales for myself, but I think at the root of it is aligning my ambitions with family. And to be clear, what I don’t mean is -
‘If I achieve this thing, my family will receive all these great benefits, then we will all be happy’’.
Before my son arrived I would have probably believed this. Now I know that this is flawed thinking. There is only really the now, the present, when it comes to family or even life. There’s only - Are you here or are you not. Are you creating moments and memories for you and your loved ones. If you finally get to the end goal, but lose your loved ones along the way then was there any real point to your lofty quest? The people that say yes are likely the people that have their names carved into the annals of time. I’m not willing to pay the same price so I’m content to aim for a scribbled footnote on a park bench.
Aligning pursuit of ambition and family time, for me at least, lies in being the best example I can be to my son. I want my son to work hard, so I will work hard. I want my son to aim high so I will aim high. I want my son to love, care and take time for his future family so I will make sure he sees that from me.
Needs and Fulfilment
Luckily one of my favourite and fulfilling things for me is to play and interact with my son. This coupled with the fear of missing out on things, such as seeing him develop and grow, makes me want to be a very present Dad. The time goes quickly and it’s not coming back.
So what is the perfect amount of family time, is there such a thing as enough? To many people there is probably no upper limit to maximising family time. For me, my selfish need for fulfilment gets in the way. And unfortunately it is a need. Like sleep. One can’t simply just remove sleep to gain more hours. It would be detrimental to health and reduce the quality of family time. Similarly, I also can’t stop my ambition and work in pursuit of it. To do so would also be problematic. Feeling unfulfilled quickly turns to frustration, resentment and often general unhappiness. These are feelings that you do not want to harbour at all, let alone bring anywhere near your family.
Of course, the above should only be considered after partners and kids needs and fulfilment requirements are met. Happiness can be a tricky path to navigate. Maybe the cure is to defeat the demon of ambition and the need to achieve. Is there an inverse life coach that one can work with to be happy to achieve less? This seems a little strange but it’s probably a thing.
I think ambition is a great thing, to me it’s a superpower. It would be only the relentless unconstrained pursuit of ambition that would be a problem for everything else on my life. I like the idea of reframing how we can define ‘achievement’. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to do great things. But much of what would define great things would likely come from external validations. If you want to have your name written into history, that’s for other people to see. You’ll be gone.
Achievements also could be measured by the strength of relationships we create. The positive impacts we had on others. The memories we create with our loved ones. The legacy values we pass on to the next generation. Focussing on these as part of an ambitious pursuit, can help to align the balance. The idea is not to temper ambition, that would be like superman deciding not to fly. I believe we should take full advantage of the superpower of ambition, but - become crystal clear on what you really want to achieve with the time that we have.
New achievement reached today, I just taught my son where his toes are.