Ambition is a powerful force. It fuels activity and builds momentum, making further actions easier. The problem with ambition and drive is that, left untamed, they can burn you to a crisp.

Learning how to handle ambition is one of the key skills in entrepreneurship. Under-stoke the fire and everything is far harder than it needs to be. With less ambition, you have less energy and drive. Energy and drive are essential to creating momentum. And momentum makes things far easier.

But stoke the fires of ambition too much and we become those burnt-out hollow people that are grasping, relentless, opportunistic and striving. In other words, no fun to be them and no fun to hang around them. Nobody wants that.

Life is stuffed with paradoxes. Ambition is one such paradox.

The paradox of ambition

Being ambitious doesn’t mean we lust after a specific amount of money. We may be ambitious to honour our downtime and value our families over our careers.

Ambition is simply having desire, which fuels our drive. But there’s a problem with desire – the very same problem that the Buddha identified and which mystics and religious ascetics have been grappling with for millennia – desire breeds dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Living with insecurity

Once you decide to leave your comfort zone, you’re far more vulnerable to the insecurities of possible failures. You fling yourself into the unknown. You set yourself sales targets that appear to be fiction. You pitch yourself to people you don’t know and wonder how deeply they despise you. You have new things to worry and fret over.

When you’re scared, uncertain and anxious about how this ambition will play out, the lure of simple certainty is hugely appealing. The business and marketing ‘guru’ with the surefire seven-step process.

We entertain the idea, “If only I just write-an-ebook-run-an-online-program-start-affiliate-marketing-guest-blog-for-heavy-fitters, then I’ll certainly make a seven figure income.”

The risk of your first real foray into ambition as a business owner is that it swallows you whole. You emerge shortly thereafter, burnt out and convinced that comfort zones are where it’s at or, worse, quitting entirely. Licking your wounds, you may even become ‘philosophical’ about it – which is code for “I failed but I won’t allow myself to feel rage, pain and other nasty emotions.”

Beware the slump!

Slumps happen when you lose your drive and bad habits creep in. You don’t pitch or hustle because you tried it once and it didn’t work. You stop challenging yourself and lose touch with developments in your industry because you’ve told yourself you want to work less, not more.

You’re not just tired, you’re bone tired. With nothing much left in the tank, you start a holding pattern of doing just enough to get by, but no more. You become comfortable again.

And the problem is, you do ‘you’ so well that most people won’t notice there’s anything wrong. Except you.

You’ve lost that fire in your belly, that excitement which powers great bursts of courage and creativity, and the passion that fuelled you to begin this crazy adventure in the first place. You have no momentum. Everything feels like a tonne of effort. You spend your emotional energy convincing yourself that you’re happy where you are. Except you’re not.

Powering drive and desire

The single most important factor in success is your hunger for it. Your drive is what powers you to take risks, hire people, fire people, raise your prices, collaborate with colleagues, pitch for big jobs and exciting clients and hustle, hustle, hustle.

Drive ushers in its cousin momentum, which makes you far much more productive than you thought possible. It doesn’t matter how few hours you have to work – you’ll get the right stuff done.

Learning to drive our ambition

Ambition and drive are the naked hunger of not enough. Hunger breeds competitiveness, greed, and dissatisfaction. These are powerful and will damage you if you don’t learn to drive them. The paradox we must negotiate in self-employment is how to learn to drive our ambition, so it doesn’t drive over us.

I don’t want to be the business maven who’s always glued to their phone, feeding her social media followers. I don’t want to be the mother who misses her child’s first day at school because she’s working. I don’t want to be distracted company with my friends. I don’t want to be that grasping, striving shell of a person.

So we learn how to negotiate the paradoxes: how to stay relevant and innovative without becoming obsessed with our competitors; work a full, focused day and fall into a deep sleep at night; know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em; negotiate difficult situations and personalities without letting it preoccupy us.

Emotional fitness and resilience

All self-employed people need emotional fitness. Scrap that – all people need this.

We need more resilience – to weather the highs and lows – internalise our successes, learn from our failures, and keep moving forward. We need a state of readiness at all times, and the ability to switch off from work, quickly and effectively.

Emotional fitness allows you to stoke the flames of ambition without getting burnt. It keeps you strong, yet soft, driven yet accepting, wanting more while grateful for what you have, do and are.