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5 Ways to Cope When Your Ambition Causes Anxiety

A bunch of colored papers with question marks on them.

Whenever I talk to people about their careers, our conversations have an undercurrent of anxiety to them. Many speak of the time when “everything will fall into place” because they will have achieved a milestone. It may be a graduation, landing a particular job, achieving a promotion, starting a nonprofit, or switching careers entirely. However, I’ve noticed that their anxiety about their progress usually causes them to be stagnant and not see the opportunities around them in the present. They are just going through daily motions, waiting for the grand milestone.

As someone who is extremely analytical and anxious myself, I’ve found ways to manage my jitters and preoccupations during times of transition. These are five truths and activities I live by to manage anxiety while working towards my career goals:

Your career pace is a part of your story, and thus is part of your purpose

My Bachelor’s degree took me nine years to complete. Most of my friends obtained their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the time it took me to cross the finish line. While this fact is bothersome when I think of all the accomplishments my social sector peers were realizing during that time, I needed those nine years. I would not have made the contacts that I did nor participated in certain activist groups if it had turned out any differently. I am living one of my goals today—working at a nonprofit in Texas in community engagement—because of who I met and what I did while completing my degree.

While not progressing as quickly as you might want can be frustrating, pay attention to what you are learning in that moment. Don’t ignore day-to-day growth and small wins.

Uncertainty can teach you about your path

The biggest anxiety trigger for many of us is the unknown. The unanswered questions. We want direction or we want the certainty of our decisions. I once heard this quote by Rainer Maria Rilke, "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

OK, you may not be one for inspirational and feel good quotes, but there is truth here. One thing you can do to embrace your progress to be comfortable with uncertainty. This might seem counterintuitive, but try imagining what life would feel like if you had all the answers for every event. If we are honest, life would feel dull, staged, uneventful, or rigid. We learn about ourselves when we tackle the unknown.

I also try to remember that regardless the outcome of something uncertain, I am writing my story. I am no passenger on some crazy ride. I’m in the driver’s seat, and I am going where I need to go and living the life I want to live.

Remember: People need you now

What are our anxieties telling us? That we will somehow be able to do more, be more, change more, and help more once certain milestones are achieved? This is false thinking! We can be who we want to be and do most of what we want without achieving that promotion or landing that job. Sometimes we forget that while chasing our ambitions we are running past opportunities to use the skills we have for people who need us now.

Through my nine years of working on my Bachelor’s degree and working full-time, I decided to step out of my routine and volunteer. I signed up to volunteer once a week at a food pantry. After a few months, I was training new volunteers and took and more leadership role. I loved it and I was meeting the needs of my community while simultaneously realizing my future career would be in community programs management.

Volunteering is a great way to flex your intellectual muscle and leadership skills. Those who are burned out on volunteering should tap into their creative conscious and think of ways to engage the community they live in. Is your community in need of a networking group for social sector professionals? Can you facilitate workshops at local/national conferences? Slow down and see where you and your special skillset are needed right where you are.

Go to the bookstore and pick up the biography of your role model for inspiration and assurance

You may not know this yet, but your role model’s life hardly went as planned. I guarantee it. They had doubts, fears, and were not always sure about certain choices. The good news? They came out on top and even went on to inspire you and countless others.

My personal hero is Mother Teresa. Once a year I reread “Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.” It is a compilation of her journal entries and within those entries is an incredible tale of a woman who truly had days when she had no idea what to make of her life. She often wondered how to proceed or live her purpose. I find that encouraging, because at times I do feel down about not always being at the top of my game career wise.

Read through the biography of your role model to remind yourself that the obstacles and anxieties you encounter are not stumbling blocks to success and dreams fulfilled, but completely normal bumps in the road that will make you a better, stronger person. If you already own the biography, dust it off! Give it a good read. Draw parallels between their life and yours. Trust me: You will find parallels!

Find your happy place (literally)

We all have our happy place. It may be an activity outdoors in nature, sipping on our favorite beverage in a coffee shop for hours, or taking cooking classes to up our food game. My personal spot is in front of my window at dawn, watching the sun come up. There is something about a new day with new opportunities that clears my head and lifts my spirits. Whatever your happy place may be, make it a priority in your time and budget to engage in these activities. If needed, scale back on other commitments or costs for your place. Recognize that in order to get where you need to be with the energy required you need a clear head and a happy heart.

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About the Author | Nadia Sullivan graduated from Madonna University with her degree in Community Development. She is currently the Community Programs and Engagement Intern at the LIVESTRONG Foundation.