Want To Get Better At Something? Step Into The Ambition Zone



Sarah Thomas

3 years ago | 8 min read

There's a lot of good advice about the value of schedules and routines, systems and even deliberate practice to master your skill.

But even deliberate practice on its own can feel quite insular.

I think of the, not one, but two cyclists on different occasions, head down, lycra-clad, cycling at full speed on a straight road and running into the back of a parked car outside my place.

Maybe they felt for a moment that they were on a leg of the Tour de France instead of a busy suburban road?

It was a bad day for both; a previously expensive but now smashed up bike, blood, teeth left on the pavement. The first guy was taken away in an ambulance; the second got himself up and into a taxi.

Whether you're a lone cyclist or a freelancer; are there limitations to deliberate practice?

Could we fare better by taking a bigger picture view of what we're trying to achieve?


In Linda Hill’s Ted Talk on How To Manage For Collective Creativity, the author and Harvard Business School professor highlights the creative process that allows companies like Pixar to stay in a cycle of innovation and consistently produce brilliant films.

To make a Pixar movie it takes, on average about 250 people and five years. Imagine all that creative energy under one roof.

If you’ve ever encountered a grossly inflated artistic ego, you might laugh, run or hide under the table at the thought of working with 250 artists on one project.

But it’s precisely this influx of creative minds that allows the company to do what it does best.

When Linda studied the CEO and founder, Ed Catmull, she found that he was not there to be a visionary but to create a culture of bottom-up innovation.

At Pixar, they understand that innovation takes a village…they say leadership is about creating a world to which people want to belong.

Linda also dispels the myth of the role in individual genius.

When many of us think about innovation, though, we think about an Einstein having an ‘Aha!’ moment. But we all know that’s a myth. Innovation is not about solo genius; it’s about collective genius.

So if we’re not blessed with a leader like Ed, or we’re freelance creatives or entrepreneurs, how do we get into a village of our own to find some collective genius inspiration?


In Hill’s talk, there were two things that stood out as useful in my quest to be more ambitious creatively.

Firstly, that the creative innovation at Pixar village was based on a cycle of creative abrasion, agility and resolution. The creators weren’t there to get along and agree; they were there to unpick, bash and reshape ideas into their perfect form.

Secondly, that the company drove a culture of having an experimental vs a pilot mindset.

A pilot mindset is about being right, and when things don’t go in this direction, an organisation or individual seeks a scapegoat and worse, the learnings from the process are lost.

An experimental mindset, however, is about a continual state of learning, so the perception of failure changes; it’s a stage, not an ending point and reframing in this way encourages brave thinking.

What can we do with these insights as individuals?


The word ambition can have negative connotations; I don’t know why being ambitious is synonymous with being cutthroat or tricky; especially for women.

Perhaps unambitious people are just oversensitive.

On Pixar’s recruitment page they state, simply, that their goal is to make great films with great people. In a company that has an average project workshop floor of 250 people, I’m going to hazard a guess that being a great person encompasses a whole range of skills; listening, putting ego aside and the ability to collaborate being as essential as technical skills.

With so many people involved in the process, we can assume that the level of ambition to elevate each part of the process is also high.

I’m someone who has spent a long time in curiosity phases of life, ambition bobbing up and down like a dinghy in a North Sea storm, due to too many projects. But now I’m ready for the zone.

While in theory, it might be nice to be ambitious about all the things we try, we’d run some severe risk of diluting the energy we need for stepping up on our real dreams.

Darius Foroux, productivity guru, lays out a good rationale and how-to for focusing on one thing per area of your life for real results in his blog, You Can Achieve Anything.

Likewise, I’d suggest going for one area at a time into the ambition zone.

I’m curious about everything but to take it all into the zone would burn me out.

As you can see, from my diagram above a basic functionality in graphic design and online charts is on the bare minimum thinking list and will probably remain forever so.

But if you’re going to get the top of your dream capabilities with something you need to push into the Engaged But Fearful phase and then onto the Ambition Zone.


This is the point of knowing you really want to do something and knowing how to do it but being held back by fear or uncertainty.

The whole world is out to stop you doing what you can do, including you.

Onlookers will pat you on the head and tell you how ambitious you are being. People will make faces, others, more fearful than you will reel off some off-putting statistics.

This is your dark night of the soul moment entrepreneurs. It represents the death of your ambition if you choose to give in but on the other side lies a terrain infinitely easier to navigate.

Because here we’re not seeking creative abrasion, agility and resolution but to create something safe, that mimics what’s already in existence and what’s permissible.

Staying here is to take the path of least fuss and ado.

To give in here is to flee from your dream.

Internal resistance comes in the form of dragging your heels and making excuses, of allowing distraction upon distraction to enter your space and sometimes to talk yourself out of your goal.

What were you thinking anyway? Isn’t it better just to give in and enjoy a comfortable life?

But to give in here is a shame because in the ambition zone, meaningless voices lose their power and your ride will be smoother.

You’ve just got to step over that line.


In the ambition zone, the only reason to do anything is that it suits your greater purpose.

Here, you’re in the experimental, not the pilot mode, which means you’re encouraged to make mistakes and in a cycle of learning and improving.

In the ambition zone, I don’t care if my diagram is a bit crap or if I’m criticised for writing or for a theory that I believe in. If the criticism is valid, I’ll take it on board; otherwise, it’s lost, gone into the ether.

Because what’s important is the process of creating; not trying to mimic or hit a numerical target.

Because in the ambition zone, I’ve designed my own metrics for success. The bar has been raised, and the only reason to do something is that it suits a purpose of ambition towards a specific goal.

In the zone,

  • quality beats quantity
  • there’s no room for doubting voices
  • meaningless measurements are exiled
  • only your best work is ventured upon

The keys to the ambition zone are yours, and you don’t need permission from anybody else; not a boss, not a partner, not a shareholder.


When you’re in the zone, you want to make sure you’ve set up the right parameters.

Like finding a shadow mentor; you don’t need to announce your zone or your influences.

But make sure your inputs match your objective; which is to elevate your craft to an executive level.

Now, set the standards of the ambition zone.

  • Who are your colleagues in this ambition zone? Whose standard of work are you aiming to match and to learn from?
  • What are the quality requirements of the ambition zone? Inputs, learnings, associates and outputs.
  • Is every activity pushing you on to achieve more?
  • Have the sounds of the doubtful phase faded into the background?
  • Are you proud of your work regardless of the outcome, i.e. am I in the experiment, not the pilot phase?
  • What’s my process for continuous learning in the zone?

The section up to here has focused on getting you into the ambition zone, but when you’re there, it’s worth trying to find an ambition loop to push you on even further.


The Ambition Loop, a paper co-authored by We Mean Business, UN Global Compact and the World Resources Institute sets out the conditions and opportunities for the environment and the economy when governments and business work together to drive each to create and deliver bolder actions.

The Ambition Loop is a positive feedback loop in which bold government policies and private sector leadership reinforce each other, and together take climate action to the next level.

The point for this blog is that inside an ambition loop capabilities grow and goals that seemed impossible as a solo operator start to become achievable.

One example is India, where cooperation between government and private industry has led to massive steps towards replacing coal power with solar energy.

India, a country so populous and reliant on coal as a primary source of power has long been considered ‘climate policy’s problem child’ but, as reported in the Ambition Loop paper and an article by Foreign Policy they are leading a revolutionary shift towards green energy.

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, inspired to pursue green energy in response to the effect of pollution of the people, energy poverty and the devastating impact of climate change on his country took bold and incisive action. Since Modi’s declaration in 2015 to ambitiously pursue a green transition, his government have engaged directly with businesses offering support in tax and fee cuts.

The two segments; government and industry, have entered an ambition loop, and the results are enormous.

A pledge for the Paris Agreement to increase non-fossil fuel power generation to 40% by 2030 is already at 38%, so they’re ahead of the game, and they look set for a 45% reduction carbon emission reduction by the 2030 deadline.

The principle is that different agents operating in the same space can encourage each other to smash old barriers or lingering negative narratives about change.

Elite and competitive sportspeople operate in an ambition loop; whether it’s on a basketball court or the peloton at the Tour de France.

Mastermind groups increase the ambitiousness of the individual by bringing people together into a collective.

In the creative zone sometimes freelancers forget the power of elevation through team members and competition alike.

What was the effect of the last brilliant blog you wrote, film you saw or app that you experienced? It made you want to up your game, didn’t it?

Find your ambition loop:

  • Take note of whose work is impressing you
  • Reach out
  • Keep listening
  • See your competition as an energy source
  • Give as well as take
  • Embolden your fellow loopers
  • Earn your place in the loop by staying in the zone

Nobody else can do this for you. Someone can throw resources at you; they can lay the ground for you to thrive, and they can make it easier by removing obstacles, but the ultimate key holder to entering the ambition zone lies within you.

Go forth and create. Thanks for reading.


Created by

Sarah Thomas







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