How to Balance Ambition & Happiness

I think a lot about happiness. Most people do. Happiness is often viewed as a milestone - "I'll be happy when [insert goal]". I don't believe that. I agree with Naval Ravikant:

"Maybe happiness is not something you inherit, or even choose, but a highly personal skill that can be learned, like fitness or nutrition."

I believe happiness is a skill, and the key to attaining it is figuring out how you define it. Getting better at a sport requires knowing the rules - the same applies to your own happiness.

The Definition of Happiness

The best definition of happiness I’ve found to date is the following:

Happiness = Reality - Expectations

It comes from an essay by Tim Urban, who runs the fantastic Wait but Why blog. The essay itself is worth reading.

His final three pieces of advice for the “Generation Y Yuppie” he’s addressing are:

  1. stay wildly ambitious,

  2. stop thinking you’re special, and

  3. ignore everyone else.

Good advice.

But if happiness requires reality > expectations, how do you reconcile that with ambition?

Isn't the easiest way to make this true to lower your expectations?

The clearest example of this formula, for me, comes in my day-to-day work. The days where I am most happy are those where I exceed my expectations.

The best days happen when I finish the one most important task I have, and then work through “bonus” tasks (let's say 5).

This feels much better than a day where I only finish 6 of 8 planned tasks (despite accomplishing the same total).

To be happy day-to-day, focus on accomplishing the one most important task you have.

Everything else is a bonus.

Balancing Ambition and Expectations

Ruthlessly focusing your daily productivity goals will help your day-to-day happiness.

But it doesn't answer the question about how to do this and yet stay "wildly ambitious".

The answer comes from the concept of compound interest, written about here by Shane Parrish.

Essentially, the concept works the same as compound interest in finance:

Small improvements over a long period of time turn into huge gains.

As humans, we tend to underestimate long-term changes, and overestimate short-term changes. One common example is the difficulty humans have losing weight or improving fitness.

The concept of compound interest isn’t limited to investments. Improve your productivity by 1% each day, and you’ll be a productivity machine in short order.

Improve your fitness by 1% each day, and be surprised how quickly you're an Olympian (if it was possible to keep it up).  As a concrete example, at 1% improvement per day, it would take an average sprinter just 39 days to beat the world 100m record.

The point in the context of happiness is this: hold on to your wildly ambitious goals, but realize you aren’t special, and that it will take time.

In the meantime:

  • focus on the habits that will incrementally push you towards those goals, and

  • start setting those day-to-day habits in such a way that you can achieve a balance between expectations and reality.

I’d suggest you focus on completing one - and only one - important task per day.

Of course, you’ll likely get more than that done, but those will be bonuses.

If you manage to consistently complete one important task per day, you’ll be surprised how far it takes you.

In summary, to be happy and ambitious:

  • Choose goals that are wildly ambitious.

  • Focus on developing the habits & completing the tasks that will lead to those goals.

  • Complete your single most important task each day.

  • Believe in compound interest, and wait.

What makes you happy?