How to Keep Your Ambitions in a Healthy Balance

Many of us grew up being told to “dream big” and “shoot for the stars.” And having goals isn’t a bad thing, especially when it comes to your career! But how do you ensure that your ambitions don’t overpower you? Kathryn Kilner, community outreach coordinator for 4word: San Francisco, returns to the blog to share what she’s learned about keeping professional ambitions in a healthy balance to make sure you live a life you enjoy.

Before you started your career, what professional dreams did you have?

I was never one of those kids who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. I couldn’t even pick one major in college and ended up double majoring in history and human biology with a minor in dance. My path toward a career in marketing began in high school with an assignment to interview two people in different professions. My mom suggested that I interview a family friend who worked in advertising and as they say, mothers know best. It was the first of many informational interviews that led me to try out different types of marketing. I had a series of marketing-related internships over the course of my time in college and leveraged what I learned to market the performances of my college ballet company. By the time I graduated, I had fallen in love with the combination of creative and analytical work that marketing provides along with the opportunity to tell engaging stories, bring out the best in a product or service, and share it with people who can find value in it. 

I also have a strong desire to make an impact by leading teams. I enjoy understanding the big picture and all of the parts that go into making it happen. I like creating community, cultivating camaraderie, creating space for a variety of voices to be heard, leveraging people’s strengths to work together to accomplish big goals, and helping people thrive. From the start of my career, my goal has been to do that as the head of marketing for a growing technology company. I’m excited by the many ways that technology can transform our world, and I want to make an impact as a leader. 

After you graduated college, did you have a bit of an “expectation vs. reality” situation diving into the workforce?

I graduated into a recession, so finding a job was no small feat. But after landing at a small webinar and video company, I threw myself into learning as much as I could about marketing and leadership as quickly as possible. I was used to studying or dancing close to every waking moment of every day, so I approached work in a similar way. I wanted to get to my goal of being head of marketing as quickly as possible and studied the careers of people who had done that, constantly comparing where I was in my career to where they were with the same number of years of experience. 

I had to learn the hard way that careers are marathons, not sprints. I thought if I worked all the time I would get to my goal sooner, and then I would be happy. But I was always tired and constantly getting sick, and I definitely was not happy. I realized in college I could get away with working as hard as I did because I was young and always had a multi-week break coming up. There are no scheduled breaks in corporate life. You get a day here and there for nationally-mandated holidays, but you have to decide when you take vacations. Not taking vacations is not a badge of honor. It is up to you to get the rest that you need in order to thrive. I had to learn to have responsibility for taking care of myself in order to be able to sustain work over many years and even decades. 

Have your ambitions changed over the years as your career advances?

My ‘north star’ hasn’t changed, but my expectations for how quickly I get there have shifted. I see each role I’m in as an opportunity to learn something new, and those collections of experiences will enable me to be a better head of marketing when the right opportunity to do that presents itself. I also have learned over time that my journey is my own, and I actively remind myself to stop comparing my career path to others. I get to be me and constantly work on improving myself, being proactive in pursuing new opportunities while also trusting that the more senior titles and expanded scopes will come when they are supposed to. 

Is it healthy to have your self-worth tied to your professional success?

I’ve found it to be dangerous to tie my self-worth to anything external to me. Tying self-worth to career, looks, a number in a bank account, or anything else outside of you opens you up to disappointment and pain when circumstances inevitably change or you change your rubric of success. Being career-driven, I spent years thinking of my value as connected to my career progression and job title. I climbed the ladder at a startup as fast as I possibly could and was running half of marketing with a director title while still in my twenties. Then I decided that I wanted experience at a large corporation and took a less senior title to do it. It was a conscious choice, but I was embarrassed by my title and never had any business cards printed because of that. The real problem, though, was that I had placed too much of my self-worth in how senior my title was and let it dictate what I thought about myself. 

I had to be reminded by my life coach that I am 100% worthy and 100% enough just for being me and just as every other person on this planet is just for being them. As a Christian, I believe that each person is made in the image of God and has unique value because of that. Connecting my self-worth to something as steadfast as God’s love has grounded me and enabled me to show up in my life with more confidence, contentment, resilience, and adaptability. This in turn enables me to build professional success, but I’m not as defeated when setbacks come my way. 

What tips would you have for someone hoping to keep their ambitions in a healthy balance with the rest of their life? 

Know your priorities. I love the visual of the jar representing a life, and stones, gravel, and sand representing the things we put into our lives, with size equating to importance. If you put the sand in first followed by the gravel, the stones won’t fit, but if you put the stones in first, the gravel in second and the sand in third, it all manages to fit. An executive I worked for talked about life being a balance of juggling five balls: career, family, health, friendships, and spirituality. If you drop one of these balls, some of them bounce and some of them break. Her message was don’t let the ones that break drop (hint: careers can bounce). Mixing metaphors, we all need to decide which balls go into our jar first and to prioritize putting them into our jars before they get filled with gravel and sand. 

As a Christian, I strive to make cultivating my relationship with God my top priority by starting and ending my day in prayer, attending church, reading the Bible regularly, and serving in my community. It is easy still to get wrapped up in the demands of life. Reflecting on my behaviors and desires regularly has illuminated when I let my priorities shift. In particular, asking myself what I long for most reveals a lot about my motives, loves, and priorities. When my priorities shift, I need to confess that and then recenter my life, seeking to align my ambitions with what I understand to be God’s desire for my life. 

Anything else you’d like to share? 

I’ve found confession to be a powerful tool for recentering myself and realigning my priorities. In particular, I’ve found the following reflections from Tim Keller’s book on prayer to be helpful in identifying when my priorities shift away from what they want them to be: 

“Am I doing what I’m doing for God’s glory and the good of others, or am I being driven by fears, need for approval, love of comfort and ease, need for control, hunger for acclaim and power, or the fear of other people? Am I looking at anyone with envy? Am I giving in to even the first motions of lust or gluttony? Am I spending my time on urgent things instead of important things because of these inordinate desires?”

Recognizing when I let my desire to build an impactful career get in the way of being the person I want to be is the first step to making changes that avoid destructive thoughts and behaviors. Confession welcomes God into the transformation process and has made it possible for me to start to relinquish my desire to control things, especially in my career, that are outside of my control. This helps me fuel a healthy ambition to have an impactful career and continue to pursue my goal of being a phenomenal head of marketing in a sustainable and life-giving way. 

Kathryn Kilner is a technology marketer with a passion for creating innovative experiences and building global brands. She currently leads strategy and operations for the Industries Marketing team at Salesforce. Previously, she led content marketing programs and marketing strategy initiatives at GE Digital and built four different marketing teams at webinar provider BrightTALK. Kathryn holds a B.A. in history and human biology from Stanford University. A devotee to the arts, Kathryn enjoys choreographing wedding dances, wandering art museums, and plotting her next travel adventures. Next up: Egypt… someday…