How to pursue ambitious goals without burning out
Cal Newport on pragmatic ambition—the middle ground between grand ambition and no ambition
“It's good to have things to move towards in your professional life or outside your professional life. … But you gotta be careful about how you do it.”
If you’re not familiar with this podcast, it’s broken into three sections: Cal’s discussion about a topic and five listener questions related to the same theme. This particular episode’s topic is ambition—and how we can pursue ambitious goals without burning out.
You can catch the complete episode (1 hour, 31 minutes) on YouTube.
We usually think of ambition in two extremes: no ambition and grand ambition. Each has its pros and cons. While no ambition is more conducive to a relaxed lifestyle, it can also mean languishing in boredom. Grand ambition is the “up and at ‘em” opposite: always striving and conquering, but never satisfied.
Pragmatic ambition is the healthy in-between—and the key to avoiding burnout. Goals that fall into this category can be achieved within a year or shorter, and they have a long-term positive effect. For example, Cal set a goal to generate enough income from his podcast to pay for his office lease. This was a lot more reasonable than setting a goal like outperforming Joe Rogan’s hugely successful podcast.
Since pragmatic ambition focuses on goals within closer reach, it’s a more sustainable route to achieving your grand ambitions. You can build on these goals one at a time to reach your larger end game. This is what Cal calls “laddering.”
Remember to give yourself time to enjoy the fruits of your pragmatic ambition. Cal suggests taking at least three months to enjoy and appreciate your accomplishment before setting your sights on something else.
Set kill criteria for your ambitions. Jordan Harbinger briefly appears to discuss one listener’s question about creating a hit podcast. More broadly, he and Cal talk about when you should quit big pursuits—and how to even make that decision to quit in the first place. Jordan cites Annie Duke, the author and poker legend who advises setting “kill criteria” as a way to figure out when to quit something.
A few examples of kill criteria: “If I can’t pay for the expenses by [date], it’s time to give up.” “If I’m not enjoying [job/activity] within six months, I’ll quit.”
But if it’s something you enjoy doing, Jordan says, keep doing it. You don’t need to set kill criteria for hobbies. This guideline’s more for projects you want to monetize.
Background activities vs. projects. One listener asks Cal for advice on how to manage multiple side hustles. He advises reframing them into background activities and projects.
Here’s the difference: Background activities are integrated into your normal routine. They’re more like habits—and they accumulate into a positive advantage over time. Two examples: regular exercise and daily reading. Projects, on the other hand, require one-time effort and have a definitive conclusion.
According to Cal, you should aim for 2-3 background activities that relate to your larger ambitions—but only focus on one project at a time. Trying to juggle multiple projects at once often means making very little progress on each.
I wouldn't describe myself as having grand ambition—but I'm on that side of having more hobbies and projects than there are hours in a day. So it’s not so much getting burnt out as it is seeing little progress in each of those pursuits. Because of this, Cal’s recommendation for background activities and projects was probably my most actionable takeaway. The trouble is figuring out what project to focus on. Is Sketch Pad a project or is each individual page of sketch notes a project of its own? I’d say the latter, and with a biweekly cadence, I think it’s OK for me to take on additional projects. This is how I spiral into taking on more projects than I can handle, but! I’m really trying to narrow my focus this year. Wish me luck.
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