From an early age, we are taught ambition is a great motivator for success. Left unchecked, however, ambition may backfire and put us in a dangerous place. This occurs when we reach a destination where we find defining “success” was never on our terms but rather about how others define “success” for us. 

It’s a life lesson that often comes after our 20's and into our 30's. Fabian Pfortmüller has learned this lesson firsthand and shares how he has responded to it.

Fabian Pfortmüller on Rethinking Career Ambition as You Grow Older

“In the long term, for me, personally, it’s about creating more with doing less, than just like doing more, and more, and more, and more, because that doesn’t lead anywhere, and, I think, for me, to keep doing that for the rest of my life, I just have to find a healthy balance in doing so, and that is something that has changed over time, and it becomes more clear to me.” 

A self-described ambitious person, Fabian is a serial entrepreneur who has surrounded himself with very ambitious people in and out of work. As a co-founder of HOLSTEE, he champions mindful living to inspire others to reach their potential.  In his work building the Sandbox Network, Fabian has developed a global network of under-30 leaders of tomorrow working to make the world a better place.   

Now in his 30's, Fabian has found drawing boundaries between work and personal life helps him reflect on what is important to his success and filter out success metrics projected on him by others.

He notes that creating boundaries has allowed him to reclaim priorities outside of work, namely relationships and family.

In my own life and my Capture Your Flag work interviewing people like Fabian, I’ve found different approaches to successfully set boundaries and achieve a healthy balance.  More than anything, setting expectations is critical. It has two parts: the first is to use self-reflection to set our own expectations, as Fabian mentioned above. The second step is to then set expectations with others on what boundaries we need to be successful.  

The first step informs the second. For example, through self-reflection, we may find that it is important not to take work emails after 7PM. By then communicating this to others, we may then put this into a conversation to establish boundaries and live a more balanced life.  

When you think about the goals you are setting in your life, do you feel like you give yourself enough time to self-reflect and figure out what boundaries you need? If so, what have you found works for you (and what has not worked for you)?

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FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTION

Erik Michielsen: How are your aspirations changing as your experience grows?

Fabian Pfortmüller: (pauses) I think, as I grow older, and as I’ve been doing this startup thing maybe for a bit longer, I start to think about ambition in a different way. I would describe myself as being quite an ambitious person, but I think ambition can be dangerous to some extent that it might not always lead you down the right path, and what I mean by that is that I think my first initial feeling was, because I love creating things and building things that I should just spend all my energy doing that and everything into it. But as I grow older, I start to feel more that there has to be a balance.

There are other things in life, and things like family, things like relationships. And, I think, in the long term, for me, personally, it’s about creating more with doing less, than just like doing more, and more, and more, and more, because that doesn’t lead anywhere, and, I think, for me, to keep doing that for the rest of my life, I just have to find a healthy balance in doing so, and that is something that has changed over time, and it becomes more clear to me.

Erik Michielsen: How do you reconcile those changing beliefs and ambitions while operating in a very, very ambitious community?

Fabian Pfortmüller: I think it can be very challenging because like—especially if you see—if you read about all the amazing things that all the people are doing around you, you just get like—I get this like (makes hand gestures) itchy feeling that I just want to like run and do things, but then, I’m always—I just try to ask myself is that the right thing for me? Do I want to write a book right now? Because I see a lot of my, like friends of me, writing amazing books, is that the right thing for me? And I think I found that it’s more fine to think about it a little bit longer and not always the answer is yes, and, on top of that, I’m just very fortunate that I’m surrounded by co-founders who just are very aligned and who, I think, are—they’re all very ambitious and we want to go really big places, but, at the same time, we want to do it for a long term. And we know like this is a marathon, this is not a sprint, and we have to keep kind of our energy together and like we have to enjoy life also while doing it.

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Erik Michielsen is the founder and CEO of Capture Your Flag, an educational media company creating video-based programs for career learning and professional development. His mission is to bring Near Peer Learning programs to the world, as he believes a gap exists in between peer learning and expert learning that Near Peer knowledge sharing programs can fill. Since 2009, he has been producing the Capture Your Flag career documentary interview series with 75 rising leaders – including Alayne Cotterill - to build a Near Peer, Q&A knowledge repository to help aspiring individuals find Near Peer Exemplars who have been through what they are about to go through.

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