This morning I sat across the table from my husband at IHOP as we worked on our crossword puzzle and gobbled down our pancakes while chatting about our kids, work and the upcoming MLB season (go Yankees!). There was nothing particularly extraordinary about this morning because this pancake gobbling, crossword puzzling routine is one that we engage in nearly every weekend; and yet, today, in the midst of the normalcy of our Saturday morning, I was suddenly hit with a wave of emotion that, were I not in the middle of a busy IHOP and worried about looking like a lunatic, would have brought me to tears. I was suddenly overcome with feelings of such peace, joy, love, gratitude and overall well being that I almost couldn’t breathe for fear of losing the moment. This, I thought to myself, is what contentment feels like.
Lately, I’ve been wrestling with this notion of contentment because I feel as though there is such a tug of war going on within my psyche. On the one hand, I hear all of the messages out there about finding peace where you’re at and being content with what you have. These gurus and sages preach simplicity and the art of slowing down with the mantra “less is more” inscribed above the doorways of their tiny houses or ashrams. On the other hand, there are those who tout the value of the hustle lifestyle and who encourage a “slay all day” mentality with planners that are filled with goal tracking spreadsheets and travel mugs that are filled with copious amounts of caffeine–all necessary in their pursuit of empire building.
Which approach is the right approach? How do we fashion a lifestyle that recognizes and honors the value of each of these schools of thought that seem to be in direct opposition with each other? And…is there something inherently wrong with us if we tend to be more naturally pulled in one direction over the other?
These are the questions that I have been pondering lately as I battle with a burning desire to kick things up a notch in my life and career and yet still long to relish the peace and serenity of contentment. As someone who is definitely more geared toward the ambitious, dream chasing, high energy way of things; I think that I’ve always subconsciously judged those who weren’t also driven by ambition to be lazy or at the very least, uninspired. Maybe this isn’t the case though. Maybe I’ve been too hasty in my judgement. Maybe they’ve just found a way to live their lives in the emotional space that I enjoyed for a few moments this morning.
This has caused me to take some time this afternoon to really dig deep and think about these two conflicting notions of contentment and ambition and explore what each one looks (and more importantly feels like) in my own life. As I spent time wrestling this out on paper (I tend to do my emotional wrestling with a journal–far less messy and no collateral damage), I came up with a few thoughts that resonated with my spirit so I wanted to share them with you. I’ve come to the conclusion that (at least for me), contentment and ambition do not have to be mutually exclusive. Balancing the two can certainly be a challenging dance at times but it is something that I believe can be accomplished and to my surprise and delight–is something that I’ve mastered far more than I’ve given myself credit for. Oh sure, my habitual striving sometimes steps on the metaphysical toes of contentment; but then I’ll get caught up in the rhythm of the dance and find myself lost in feelings of true, contented bliss. The trick is learning how to flow with the dance and understand when to let each partner take the lead. Here are a few of the steps that I feel must be present in order for this dance to be a thing of well choreographed beauty as opposed to a disjointed exercise in futility.
Finding a Balance Between Contentment and Ambition
1.) Know your natural bent. As I mentioned earlier, on the contentment/ambition spectrum, I definitely fall somewhere way over on the ambition end of the scale. I enjoy being engaged in the active pursuit of a goal that fires my passions and I tend to have a high energy personality. I enjoy weekends but not so much because they give me time to rest; more because they give me time to pursue projects that I’m working on. I have a hard time just sitting still and relaxing in front of a TV (at the very least I must have a knitting project handy to keep my hands busy) and an even more difficult time shutting down my brain at night when it is time for me to hit the sack. My planner is my best friend and I love tracking my goals and schedule in it (if you’re curious as to which planner I use, it’s the InnerGuide Goal & Success Planner. I have the pretty Mint Swirl hardcover version and I LOVE it. Seriously–this planner has CHANGED MY LIFE. If you need a planner that will help to increase your levels of motivation, productivity and happiness, THIS is the planner for you!) I am someone who can’t seem to stop thinking, planning, dreaming and acting when it comes to the projects that I am passionate about. I have big aspirations for my life and I genuinely enjoy the pursuit of those aspirations.
On the other hand, I have friends and family members who seem to be completely happy where they are at in life and enjoy spending their free time relaxing with Netflix or a good book. They don’t necessarily feel the need to move any higher in their careers because they are happy and comfortable with their current lifestyle. They look at me spending my weekends feverishly typing on a book manuscript, managing several social media platforms or putting together an e-course to later market to FabYOUlous Life readers and think that I’ve lost my ever lovin’ mind.
I believe that in order to successfully navigate the complex dance between contentment and ambition, we must first understand and embrace our own natural tendencies so that we can learn to recognize the beauty that they bring to the dance. When we can accept our natural desires rather than fight against them, the dance becomes fluid and graceful rather than forced and awkward.
2.) Create your own definition of contentment. As I thought more about the feeling that I experienced with my hubby at IHOP, I realized that part of the reason for my sense of overwhelming contentment was the knowledge that I was actively working to pursue my goals. Sure–at that exact moment I was stuffing my face with pancakes and working on a crossword puzzle, but in the larger scheme of things, I knew that I was taking steps every day to move myself closer to the big goals that I have for my life. This knowledge is what allowed me to truly relax and enjoy the present moment. This knowledge also contributed to my contentment levels because, as someone with a naturally ambitious nature, a large portion of my enjoyment in life is found in the pursuit of my passions. Rather than viewing this passionate pursuit of something bigger as a hindrance to contentment, I now understand that (in my case) it is actually a key contributor to my contentment.
3.) Understand that downtime isn’t lazy and hustle isn’t obsessive. I’ll confess–downtime is a struggle for me. I am not very good at vegging out (unless I’m on vacation on a beach somewhere, I definitely relax better at the beach) and when I have taken downtime, I’ve often felt like I was being lazy. On the flip side, I know lots of people who look at hard working entrepreneurs who spend their weekends hustling deals and building empires and think that they are too obsessed with work. While I definitely believe that either of these two things taken to extremes can become lazy or obsessive; I understand that in moderation, these two modes of operation can dance together beautifully. Yes–I work on the weekends. It doesn’t feel like work to me because it is the work of my soul, but nonetheless; I spend a lot of my weekend on the computer as opposed to curled up on the couch watching TV. In order to counterbalance this, I am learning to be more intentional about taking downtime. One of my favorite downtime activities is reading. I LOVE to read. I especially love to read books that I know will contribute to my personal development. My current favorite book is The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte. It is a book that allows me to enjoy my downtime while also providing me with encouragement as I work to accomplish my goals.
I believe that making space in your life for the passionate pursuit of goals as well as intentional downtime can lead to wonderful feelings of contentment. For more suggestions on how to better capitalize on intentional downtime, click here.
4.) Be grateful for where you are and what you have. Yes–I have big things that I want to accomplish in my life. I am not however; unaware of the many incredible blessings that I already have in my life. I am grateful to live in a wonderful home in a gorgeous state with my incredible husband. I am grateful for our three young adult children who fill our lives with so much joy and make us so proud. I am grateful for the love and support of extended family and the camaraderie of good friends. I am grateful for the good health that I am blessed to enjoy and a level of physical fitness that allows me to live an active lifestyle. Truly, my list of blessings could go on and on and that fact is not lost on me. Just because I have new and different things that I desire for my life, does not in any way diminish the gratitude that I feel on a daily basis for all that I already have. If ever I start to feel the angst of discontentment or as though I’m taking my blessings for granted, all I have to do is remember back to the years in my life when I felt trapped in an abusive/toxic marriage and was struggling with an out of control eating disorder that was trying desperately to kill me in the form of slow suicide. There is nothing like absolute darkness to magnify the brilliance of light. I am grateful to now be living every single day in the warmth and beauty of the light.
For more ideas on how to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in your own life, click here. Putting the power of gratitude to work in your life is one of the most effective ways to experience true contentment.
5.) Remember that you call the shots in your own life. The bottom line is that, there is nothing that you really have to do. Sure, doing or not doing something might have consequences that you’ll have to accept, but when it comes to making choices for your life, there are very few things that you absolutely must do (outside of breathing, eating…basic bodily functions…you get the picture.) It is wonderful to feel energized and motivated around a goal, but sometimes it can feel just as wonderful to unplug, disconnect and take a nap. You are the one who ultimately must decide which one will bring the most long term contentment into your life.
Ultimately, my conclusion regarding contentment is that it is an active form of growth that makes room for both ambition and simplicity in life. It encourages striving for passion driven goals and recognizes the value of mindfulness and rest. It is a feeling that can be experienced while hammering out two more chapters on your book manuscript or while relaxing in a hammock in your back yard. By intentionally thinking about your own definition of true contentment and then putting strategies in place to help you experience more of it, you will be well on your way to living a truly FabYOUlous life.