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Disciplined Practice as Self-care

Posted on June 16, 2017

I am ambitious! I’m also trying to feel okay saying that publicly!

This post builds upon a previous post on Grit that started out this self-care deep dive. Please take a moment to review Grit and the Growth Mindset. As I mentioned in the previous post, I believe that striving for greatness is an important aspect of our self-care. Focusing on improving our skills and expertise not only allows us to provide better services, but it also puts hard days and things that might eventually lead to burnout or compassion fatigue into a greater perspective, taking away some of their adverse effects.

Google Dictionary defines ambition as: “A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” In our society, ambition usually describes someone’s striving for wealth or fame. This drive often comes at the expense of another person or group.

In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins uses the analogy of the 20-mile march. His analogy comes from the 1911 race to the South Pole between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Both were successful polar explorers, with lots of experience and strong teams. Scott’s strategy was to march as far as the conditions and weather allowed. On one day, Scott’s team may cover 30 or more miles, and during storms, they might stay in camp all day.

Amundsen set out every day, regardless of weather, to march 20 miles. If the weather was terrible, he might not accomplish his goal, but some distance got covered daily. When his team would hit the 20-mile mark, even if they had the energy to go longer, they would stop. Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, while Scott’s exposition ended in tragedy.

Collins uses this analogy to demonstrate how great leaders use ambition to drive quality and outcomes. In his extensive research, he found that successful people had ambitious goals, and worked a set amount each day to achieve it. Not only did these leaders make methodical progress, but they also had Amundsen-like self-discipline to stop when they completed that day’s march. This fanatic discipline might not yield spectacular results on a specific day, but over time, can lead to the accomplishment of great things.

Ever since I read Collins’ book, I have thought long and hard about my own 20-mile march. Whether it is trying to create a new training, learning a new skill, or taking on a new project, I try to follow Collins’ formula to add discipline to my aspirations. Collins challenges us to set clear goals or performance markers. Like Amundsen’s 20 miles, I figure out what I can do each day to help me move closer to my greater goal.

I also have found Collins’ concept of self-imposed constraints very helpful. I’ve learned that on any given day, I have around 4 to 5 hours of highly creative time in me. I try to use one of these hours on a new project, or something I’m excited about before moving on to my more typical and regular work. I also stop, even if I feel that I’m doing well, or trying to avoid the tedious work projects I should shift to next. When I think of Amundsen’s success, I believe it is due to his discipline to stop, as much as his ambition to reach his overall goal.

When I say I am ambitious, my ambition has nothing to do with fame or fortune. I want to help end homelessness. I want to see every school become trauma informed. I want us to end generational poverty. I don’t want anyone to go to sleep hungry or without a roof over their head.

I am ambitious because the things that matter most to me push me to be a better version of the person and professional that I am today. Current I lack the ability, platform, and expertise to have the effect I want to have on the issues I care about. Instead of getting me down, my current shortcomings motivate me to work harder and smarter.

The things we care about and the people we care about need us to be at least our best selves and challenge us to continue to develop our skills and competencies. If I’m lucky, I’ve got about 30 years left in my career, and I’m excited to see where a several thousand 20-mile marches lead me, and my ability to impact the issues that I have dedicated my professional life to addressing. I would open the comment section of this week for you to share your own ambition, and how it drives you to get up every day and take your march.

4 responses to “Disciplined Practice as Self-care”

  1. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Motivation comes with the realization that the problems that I see are significant. They concern now only my circle and me, but my community and the expanding circles from that point. We confront a national and international problem. It is huge; and it is existential. Proverbially, standing with one’s back against a wall, action is one’self-defense is an ample and worthy ambition.

  2. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Motivation comes with the realization that the problems that I see are significant. They concern now only my circle and me, but my community and the expanding circles from that point. We confront a national and international problem. It is huge; and it is existential. Proverbially, standing with one’s back against a wall, action is one’self-defense is an ample and worthy ambition.

  3. Joy Fav says:

    Thank you Mat. I am planning on reading “Great by Choice”

  4. Joy Fav says:

    Thank you Mat. I am planning on reading “Great by Choice”

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