A woman sits, defeated, with her head in her lap

Ambition & Burnout

Ambition & Burnout

Ambition. What some may define as the key ingredient to success- the main motivator that keeps us moving, eager to pursue more, even during unpredictable times. From our very first moments in life we are taught and pushed to aspire to be more, do more, achieve great things. From doggy paddling in the shallow end of pools and taking the training wheels off of our first bikes to constructing the perfect supplemental essays for schools we could only dream of getting into, ambition is what keeps us going. 

But with great ambition comes an even greater obligation to do more once we do begin achieving all we had initially hoped for. Leaving high school with leadership positions and involvement across multiple campus organizations, I expected my dream school to offer me the exact same experience immediately upon arrival. But I was met with a harsh reality check: college is nothing like high school. Everyone around me possessed grand skills and talents, which I could never hold. Everyone had their purpose, a vision they were pursuing almost without effort as they fell seamlessly into the atmosphere of our institution. Meanwhile, I was simply lost- fading idly into the background of the colorful environment surrounding me. I found myself face to face with structures that seemed bigger than the dreams I was trying to pursue, bigger than me and anything I could offer. Feeling alien in my own environment, imposter syndrome, loneliness, and insecurity completely halted any growth I had intended for my first semester in college. Trying to be someone, something, anything besides what I was actually feeling left me in complete disarray. 

I was falling short of all of my initial ambitions and instead focused on the one thing I knew I had control over: school. I spent every single night trying to prove myself through my

studies, locking myself within the walls of my dorm room or long overstaying my welcome at the Literatea courtyard to prove that I could still achieve something. And throughout that time of trying to prove myself through continuous academic validation, I lost sense of myself and plummeted into an inevitable state of burnout. All my happiness relied on grades, until those grades- mere letters on a screen- became meaningless. The only thing I still held a drive for eventually lost any worth within the labyrinth of my mind and I was left with nothing besides the pounding in my own head. 

People always root for big ambition, but never tell you that too much ambition can become catastrophic. Like most of my peers, I found myself expecting too much, striving to be too much and was ultimately left with utter disappointment and exhaustion from trying to force a version of myself I simply wasn’t ready to be yet. Ambition is the driver of all success, but ultimately can become the root of inner disappointment and a loss of motivation that can leave one completely hopeless. 

Finding myself in this haze of extreme exhaustion, I didn’t think there was anything I could do. Burnout was burnout and I simply had no means of finding my way out when it was all I could feel. I felt completely alone in this state of being until I spoke out about what I was experiencing, quickly realizing that everyone was facing similar battles. In a state where I thought I was completely alone, I came to realize that almost everyone around me was struggling to some extent with the way they felt they had fallen short of their own ambitions. There was an eager urge to become someone as soon as we entered college, but a lack of acknowledging that we would first have to find comfort within the new independence and surroundings we gained.

That moment marked a turning point for me. In realizing that these worries weren’t solely exclusive to my mind, the weight on my shoulders seemed to ease its toll and finally gave my chest the space it needed to breathe freely. Being able to stand back and acknowledge the place I was at in life, straying away from the I-have-managed-to-completely-ruin-my-life-at-eighteen mindset, it finally registered that I was still in control of my life, I always had been. 

However, this time I knew that reaching with too much intensity, too much vigor, could completely shatter the fragile pieces that held my being together. Refusing to be left with jagged shards of hope again, I decided to take charge of my life in a step-by-step process. Before diving full speed into a I’m-in-control episode, I focused on pieces and bits of my life that I wanted to improve. One of the hardest requirements of this process was learning to let go of the version of myself that I critiqued myself for falling short of being. 

Not claiming to be any sort of life expert, but I think my dramatic nights of playing All Too Well (10 minute version, duh) by Taylor Swift for hours on repeat (a special I’m sorry to my RA Lesly who lives across the hall) taught me a lot about myself. 

Feelings are entirely natural. 

Burnout, although it really sucks, is entirely natural. 

The state I pushed myself into was entirely natural, and although it would have been nice to not experience it, not doing so would have made me miss out on learning more about myself and what I need to feel okay. Learning to incorporate balance and friendship and laughter back into my life while still fulfilling my responsibilities brought back a light that fully dulled out my first semester of college. Adding more substances of value to my life somehow pushed me to want more and do more. It gave me the energy to be me again.

I think most importantly, I learned how important my relationship with myself was. I lost a piece of me trying to check all the “freshman year experience” boxes, some boxes that didn’t even align with who I was or wanted to be. Rebuilding the connection I had with myself, going back to old hobbies and adding in new ones, changed everything. Being me again allowed me to attract the right people and get in touch with the energy that helped me get into USC in the first place. Being me again brought back the ambition I had lost throughout the prior months. 

Ambition relies on balance, drive, and wellbeing. To be ambitious is to be able to take on all you strive for, knowing that you can handle it and have more to fall back on incase it doesn’t work out. Without taking care of yourself, putting yourself first, you simply can’t act on your ambition without tearing yourself down in the process. Ambition and burnout can go hand in hand, but it doesn’t have to.