The delicate balance between gratitude and self-improvement

How to let ambition and appreciation coexist


9 minute read

What do you want out of life?

A few years ago I was chatting with my sister and her husband about my life goals. I realized I wasn’t sure what they were; up to about that point in my life I always had “something else” to look forward to:

  • Finishing elementary, middle, and high school
  • Graduating College
  • Landing a salary job

Up to this point it made sense to follow the same path everyone else was on. The problem is once you start your career you don’t have much else to work towards… besides more working.

“I mean, I’m 25… I have 40 years of work ahead of me – but besides that – what should I do with my life?”

According to what I have heard from basically every person the next steps seem to be:

  • Getting married
  • Having kids
  • Buying a house

Now, say those are still the next steps… then what?

Do you think this is why people have mid-life crises? They run out of “boxes” on life’s checklist and don’t know what to do with themselves - so they buy something reasonable like an expensive car to bring some passion in their boring life. Consumerism tries to convince you that buying bigger, better, and more expensive things is the obvious next step in you life – but we know there are much more fulfilling things than that.

So: instead of getting bigger and more expensive things you decide to pursue experiences, career growth, building relationships with others, and giving back to the world… Great - I’m very on board with this. But - when do you decide you have achieved enough? Everyone has heard stories of parents who focus on their career and neglected their children, or those who their passion for a hobby take over their lives. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful and/or to make an impact in the world. But when does that desire and passion turn into an unhealthy obsession?

Now you’re thinking, “this is where gratitude comes in; you need to be happy with what you have in life.” Yes - you’re right. You can find plenty of articles online explaining how you should be grateful for what you have in life, otherwise no promotion will be good enough, no salary high enough, and no goal you reach will ever leave you satisfied. But… here’s the kicker - too much gratitude can lead to complacency.

What’s more important, gratitude or ambition? What is going to bring you more happiness in life? What about more fulfillment? These two feel like very conflicting mindsets.

One quick disclaimer: like anything else I have written thus far I am not saying how you should or shouldn’t live your life; I’m just providing some food for thought. There are plenty of people who have lived much more difficult lives than me that can argue why either one of these are much more important than the other.

Mindset 1 - More Gratitude

I need to be much more grateful for everything I have in my life. I need to live each day aware of all the ways that life is going well for me.

I like to think of myself as an optimistic person; I do a decent job at staying happy and grateful - but I know I can be better about it. Being grateful is more than just saying “try to look on the bright side”; it’s about being very aware of what I have in my life and understanding that life is never really that much better or worse than it currently is. Sure there are things that are less than ideal that I face in my life almost every day, but I make the conscious effort to stay happy and not let minor inconveniences have power to make my day less amazing than it can be.

PSA - this is not to be mistaken with pretending to be happy when you are not. It is important to feel ALL emotions. Sadness, anger, and fear are JUST as real/valid emotions as happiness and gratitude. Mark Mason summed it up quite nicely in his book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”:

“Denying negative emotions leads to experiencing deeper and more prolonged negative emotions and to emotional dysfunction. Constant positivity is a form of avoidance, not a valid solution to life’s problems”

Mark Manson

People (especially in the US) often try to mask their unhappiness with false positivity and gratitude. Americans focus on how perfect everything is supposed be instead of acknowledging that life has challenges and hardships. Sometimes we are going to be in a job we don’t love. Sometimes we are going to have heartache. Sometimes others will take advantage of us and hurt us. Sometimes we will make mistakes or bad decisions and will have to pay the price for that. Gratitude doesn’t replace/ignore that these negative things happen; it simply allows us to view them as opportunities to grow from.

So - hardships aside - why not be grateful for everything you have in your life? Many would argue that you should end there. If Buddhist monks can spend over half a day meditating and find that life is fulfilling then why can’t we just be grateful for what we have and be done?

The difference between a Buddhist monk and you (besides a shaved head) is your intention. Being grateful for what you have in life is vital, but being content with a life that you have not intentionally planned is an outright waste. That monk made the decision to pursue meditation and a life without belongings; staying where you are in life because “it’ll do” is selling yourself short.

Mindset 2 - More Ambition

I need to drive myself to be more successful and not settle for mediocrity. ‘Being content’ in a bad situation is just me lying to myself and will never lead me to be the person I have the potential to be.

If you get too content with where you are in your life you start to drift. Unintentional drift can lead to a lot of regret. How many times have you reflected on your past and thought “If I had just done this, this, or this I would be SO much further in life than I am now?” Sure, hindsight is 20-20, and I completely get that it is important to learn from the mistakes we have made, but what about the days we wasted doing meaningless things?

A guest on a podcast I recently listened to said their suggestion for living a more goal-oriented life was to treat each day like you were watching it on replay at the end of your life. Would you be happy with the decisions you made or upset that you didn’t do more? Now - I’m not advocating the negativity that reflecting on our past mistakes often brings, but I AM encouraging you to live a life that your future-self will be proud of.

“So – I can’t be too content… got it. I can’t be too happy at my job, or with my relationships with others, or my health, or my finances, etc.” Well, this may lead to success down the road, but at what cost? If you aren’t happy with your job are you going to like your next job THAT much more? There will always be more to chase – whether that be a more prestigious career, a more “exciting” life, or any other goal you have for yourself.

So – pick your poison:

  • Stay grateful and be happy with the situation you are in. Live a very average and uneventful life because you were too content and didn’t pursue success.

  • Don’t settle for mediocrity, pursue success, and make an impact in the world. Constantly live trying to do more and always feeling like you didn’t quite live up to your potential

Finding your yin and yang

So - what is the right balance for you? I think it’s much harder find that balance than we often admit. First, be honest with yourself. Are there things you are even slightly unhappy with? You don’t want to focus on negativity but also can’t let false positivity hold you back from something better.

I love the idea of intentional living/planning. Over the last few months I have been constantly re-evaluating what my ideal day, week, month, and year would consist of. Then, every few weeks I restructure my daily/weekly plans to align with these intentions. This way I am constantly living a life I am proud of, but also a life that is leading me to where I want to be in the future.

Instead of “looking forward” to that next promotion or lifestyle change you focus on the present and how small things you do each day can make you a better person now and later.

Don’t want to make a plan or be intentional? That’s fine - if you are okay drifting. Don’t know where to start? Try some self-reflection:

  • What are four accomplishments you have been proud of in the past year?

Struggling to come up with something? Maybe it’s time to make a few changes. Start planning out an ideal day then move to a week. Don’t let the reason you didn’t live your happiest/most fulfilling life be because you didn’t prioritize what matters to you.

Brick by brick

Not sure what you have the capability to do? I’ll leave with a great quote from Wait But Why, one of my favorite blogs:

“No one “builds a house.” They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries—they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built—but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.

Nearly every big undertaking can be boiled down to a core unit of progress—its brick. A 45-minute gym visit is the brick of getting in great shape. A 30-minute practice session is the brick of becoming a great guitarist.

The average day in a wannabe author’s week and a real author’s week looks almost the same. The real author writes a couple pages, laying a brick, and the wannabe author writes nothing. 98% of their day is otherwise identical. But a year later, the real author has a completed first draft of a book and the wannabe author has…nothing.

It’s all about the bricks.”

Grab some bricks, build your house. You can do it.

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