Struggling with ambition burnout? Read these 7 expert tips on how to cope

Ambition burnout, or feeling exhausted as you try and achieve your career goals, has become all too real during the pandemic. Career coach, Selina Barker, shares her expert tips on how to deal with it. 

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“You can have ambition, but not too much” is one of the most well-known lines from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay collection, We Should All Be Feminists – it even made it into a Beyoncé song. 

Adichie’s phrase tackles the idea that ambition can be a divisive concept for women. Ambition is considered a positive thing, a quality successful and productive people have, but at the same time, negative stereotypes can be placed on ambitious women no matter how they act.

Ever since the pandemic began, ambition has taken on a whole new meaning for those women who’ve had to put their career aspirations on hold due to the onset of one of the biggest recession on record and long-term changes to the way we live and work

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This feeling of career stagnation has been termed ‘ambition burnout’: a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion after having to put your career goals on hold, or trying relentlessly to achieve them.

“Burnout is specifically related to when you are overdoing it, pushing yourself and not looking after yourself,” says Selina Barker, a careers coach and the author of Burnt Out: the exhausted persons guide to thriving in a fast-paced world.

“Ambition is a beautiful thing, but when it piles on the pressure it can burn you out,” she adds, noting that pressure is particularly high right now due to an uncertain job market.

If you’re experiencing ambition burnout, Selina has shared her advice on how to deal with it, from practical steps you can take to how you can change your mindset when it comes to success and goal-setting. 

Selina’s expert advice for dealing with ambition burnout 

Define what success looks like to you

We’re fed so many ideas of what success is but if you want to feel genuinely fulfilled by your career it’s important to figure out what success means to you. This will help you understand if the areas you’re focussing your ambition on are actually helpful to you.

“What are the activities that make me come alive?”, “What are the worlds I want to inhabit with work?”, “What do I want to make happen?” and “How do I want to feel?” These are questions you should ask yourself when you’re thinking about what you want to achieve at work, according to Selina. 

It’s important not to just focus on extrinsic goals, she stresses. “There’s nothing wrong with saying you want to own a home one day but you also need to ask yourself how you want to feel and how you want to express yourself.”  

Embrace experimentation

“Everyone thinks they should know the moment they’re out of school or university what they want to do and that’s such a crazy amount of pressure,” Selina says. “A lot of people actually spend the first 10 years of their working lives trying stuff out,” she adds, explaining that this is something you should embrace. 

If there’s something you think you might be interested in – try it out. There’s no shame in realising something’s not for you and moving on. This life experience will only benefit you in the long run, says Selina.  

Don’t wait for your dream job

The idea of a dream job is often something we carry through from childhood. Even if it is something you’ve only set your sights on recently, fulfilling it immediately (or ever) can be an unrealistic idea. 

Pretty much every job requires compromise and with the job market so heavily affected by the pandemic, trying to find a role that perfectly suits you has become even more difficult.

“Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to do what you want to do in the world,” Selina advises, suggesting you find new, accessible ways to pursue a dream career. This could be through starting a blog, volunteering, or doing one aspect of your dream job as a hobby, like photography or writing

“We’ve got to be creative and resourceful and use what we have to hand,” Selina says. This will help you feel more fulfilled and help you build up vital skills you might need for your career. 

Remember careers are not a straight line

“People love to tell you their career story,” Selina says, explaining people will often look back and talk about their career as an experience of direct progression. But, really, most people’s experience won’t have been like that at all. “The idea that you should be on that ladder and it only moves forward – it just does not work like that,” she says.

If you’re ambitious, but feel like you have nowhere to channel your aspiration because you don’t know what kind of career you’d like, Selina, suggests treating it as a positive opportunity to try new things. It will allow you to achieve more when you’re not limited to one dream job. 

Try and put things into perspective

The months since lockdown first began have felt like a lifetime for many people. Putting your ambition on hold for that long can feel overwhelming. Selina says it’s crucial to try not to feel stressed about having lost a year. “In the grand scheme of things, that will not hold you back,” she says. “Take the pressure off yourself and realise that everyone is just figuring it out as they go along.”

There’s no time limit on your career. If you feel rushed now, then you always will. “You’ve got to embrace the unknown because that’s not going to go anywhere,” Selina says, adding that challenges you’ve faced over the last year will leave you even more equipped to handle other challenges that crop up throughout your career. 

Prioritise spending your time on things that make you happy

It can be easy to prioritise work and success as the most important thing in your life but, really, your happiness and mental health should always come first. If you’re feeling exhausted by the pressures of your career, take some time to do things that will make you genuinely happy.

“Doing things that make you come alive and lift your spirit will help you understand what it is you want to do,” Selina says. “The things you enjoy doing do need to be an essential part of what you do for a living.”

Be wary of social media

When ambition becomes negative and leads to burnout, it’s usually motivated by comparing yourself to other people and putting yourself down as a result. 

Selina advises taking regular breaks from social media and unfollowing anyone who makes you feel negative about yourself or your career, even if they don’t intend that to be the case.

“We’re very influenced by what we see online about what success should look like but we need to get in the habit of asking ourselves: ‘What do I think success looks like?’” she adds. 

Read more about ambition and careers on Learn about more ways to tackle burnout in The Curiosity Academy class: Biohack your way back from burnout

Images: Getty, Nicole Engelmann

  • Selina Barker, career and life design coach

    Selina Barker is a Career and Life Design Coach
    Selina Barker is a career and life design coach and the author of Burn Out.

    Selina Barker is a career and life design coach who has been helping people deal with burnout for over a decade. She has coached a long list of clients including Google, Apple and UN Women, to recording artists, best-selling authors, and leaders in the creative and music industry. She is also an author and podcaster. Her book Burnt Out: the exhausted person’s guide to thriving in a fast-paced world is out now, published by Aster. 

    Image: Nicole Engelmann