Getting Out of the Race

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A selfie of me almost 10 years ago after the Broad Street Run in Philadelphia. My hair is red and tied in a side braid. I have earbuds in. I'm wearing a blue tank top and you can see the ribbon from my medal and heart-shaped sticker on my chest that reads:

While hiking with a friend this weekend, our conversation turned to a topic on both of our minds: mindless ambition.

She used the perfect metaphor to describe this experience: Years back, she started running for fun and exercise. Soon after, someone suggested they do a 5k together, so she sharted running 5ks. But then she heard about half-marathons, so she upped her mileage and starting running those. And once she'd completed some half-marathons, of course, she started training for marathons too. Because that's just what you do.

I consider her one of my fittest, healthiest friends. But I haven't heard her talk about running in ages. I asked why she had quit. Had her knees gotten creaky? Had a tendon torn?

She said: "No. I was just sick of spending four hours every Sunday training for something I didn't love to do, and then being too tired to do anything else after that."

She'd never truly loved running and yet had been giving it all of her free time.

We shook our heads and marvelled that our younger selves would have never considered saying "no thanks" or "not now" or "not anymore" to be options in a situation like that, in life or at work. No one forced us to keep passing milestones or climbing rungs, and yet we did so all the time without asking ourselves "why" or "do I want this?"

Kids are taught there's a defined order to everything. In family life: Marriage, kids, grandkids. In the workplace: Contributor, Manager, Director, VP. The path is always linear and movement must be forward, forward, forward – more, more, more.

Raise your hand if your path has been this predictable. (I'm guessing it's still resting on your keyboard or your lap. Mine is too.)

We're not told that we have a choice in the matter. That we can zig and zag as many times as we want. That actually, the more comfortable we are zigging and zagging, the more resilient we are when life forces us out of our lane unexpectedly.

I work with a lot of clients whose mindless ambition set them adrift. They find themselves washed up on a shore miles from their dream destinations, simply because they rode whatever wave came in for them. And now they've got their binoculars out to find a more hospitable place to spend their time.

Here's a lesson that they've learned, however quickly or however late: Not everyone's goal needs to be advancement. A far more universal goal is to be happy – and sometimes that kind of happiness means slowing your pace or getting out of the race, at least for a time.

Journaling Activity

  • When in your life have you progressed on autopilot?
  • In hindsight, were there moments when you wished you had stepped back, stayed put, or switched lanes entirely?
  • Are there any areas of your life that are on autopilot now?
  • Are you excited to progress, or are there areas where you'd prefer to make another choice?