are you swimming in ambition - or are you drowning in it?

Not Waving but Drowning. It's the last line of poem that always moves me...and it's the difference between ambition and actualization. It's easy to get confused between the two, because from the shore they can look the same. But one is waving and one is drowning.

Not Waving but Drowning


Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith

Waving. Drowning. Actualization. Ambition. In Love Rest Play Grow, the class I recently gave, this was one of the key ideas we explored: the difference between ambition and actualization.

Actualization is an awkward word for the beautiful and somewhat mysterious essence in every human being and every living thing to grow into the fullest expression of itself.

You see it in a flower that bends to the sun.

You see it when a baby pushes herself up to take a tentative step, falls and does it all again, over and over until she is walking.

I see it in my artist friend Sharon who says, "I have drawn and painted all my life. I can't not do it."

When we are swimming in actualization we feel light, bouyant, the water is supporting us and we don't worry if we swim so far out that we occasionally lose sight of the shore. The water is warm. We are in our element. We feel at one with the water.

Ambition is not inherent in us. It is something we learn from the world, from our parents, from school. It is possible for ambition to be in service of actualization, but more often it interferes with it and at the very worst it completely displaces it. (Jen Louden has a great article on the heaviness of turning the actualization of others into ambitions for ourselves.)

Once we become initiated into the world of ambition we often lose sight of what is in us to become and instead focus on what is outside of us - on what seems to please and impress others. (Tara Sophia Mohr has a great article about getting lost in pleasing others.) The root meaning of ambition says it all - "eager or inordinate desire of honor or preferment; a striving for favor, courting, flattery; thirst for popularity."

When we are swimming in ambition we may start out feeling good, but after awhile a heaviness sets in. All the layers we have put on of approval seeking and people pleasing and material success make it hard to float. When we try to go into deeper water, suddenly we are out of our element and feel dragged along and under by some unseen force. The water is cold. We become tired, everything becomes a struggle - the water seems to be against us and no matter how close we are to the shore, we feel too far out.

Here are the things I've noticed about ambition and actualization:

Characteristics of Ambition                             Characteristics of Actualization

~ need to impress                                         ~ authenticity
~ need to win                                                ~ vitality
~ status seeking                                           ~ creativity
~ pursuit of acclaim                                      ~ playful
~ pursuit of recognition                                 ~ meaningful
~ rooted in insecurity                                    ~ rooted in self-esteem
~ reaching for success                                  ~ growing into oneself
~ temporary satisfaction                               ~ continual integration

With myself and with my clients, I am always paying attention to whether dreams and goals are originating from a place of actualization or a place of ambition.

Sometimes I see my clients waving and I smile and wave back.

Sometimes I think they're waving, but when I look a little closer, I realize it's time to throw them a life preserver so that they can come in from that cold, ambitious water before their heart gives way.