This Book Unexpectedly Supercharged My Ambition

Ludo De Angelis
12 min readJul 21, 2021
A hopeful intern climbs the corporate ladder. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

”Life is surfing a wave. It carries you forward. You spend most of your time adjusting and trying to stay on the wave and riding it. It may not be the right wave or the right wave anymore, and it may be headed for the rocks. Reflection is [the practice of] thinking about these questions.”

After reading Step Back by Joseph Badarocco, I made some amazing changes in my life. After incorporating the reflection techniques outlined in the book, I found myself much more confident in my decisions, where I was heading and how I was getting there.

Of course, it took work to get there. Frameworks are only guides after all; you must do the work laid out by them in order to gain the benefits. But when you do, a more focused and calm character emerges.

The two main sections of the book I will be focused on today are based on the sections of Downshifting and Pondering Tough Issues. There’s a lot more to the book and I highly encourage you to read it.

Source: Disney. Plz don’t sue.

Do you have have ambition? Are you driven to succeed and to live the life you want? Do you want to design your life and not resign your life? Do you want to dive into a pool of gold coins from a diving board a la Scrooge McDuck?

No, I’m not here to sell you a motivational VHS tape from my car, that’s my other gig.

I’m here to tell you about Reflection and how incredibly important it is to pair it alongside your insatiable ambition.

A serious affair. Photo by Zac Cain on Unsplash

”Experience has taught me this, that we destroy outsell by our own impatience.” — Montaigne

What is Reflection anyway?

Reflection isn’t some dark, melancholic practice done by candlelight with a quill. It’s about taking the time to step back to grasp what really matters to you. It’s about understanding what you are experiencing, trying to understand or what you are doing.

And it is absolutely crucial to understand what really matters to you.

Whether you’re planning to (or are currently) leading a company, managing a team or simply navigating your life, reflection should be built-in to your life-management.

The good news is that you don’t need to have a mentally-taxing form of reflection. There are many methods to think about your work and life — from taking a walk without your iPhone to sitting down and hashing out your challenges with gritted teeth.

The aim is to implement any form of reflection that works for you with the aim of it being “good enough”. As long as you’re thinking about your life, you’re on the right path.

Life is simply too damn short to not dedicate some conscious thinking to how you’re living it. It will either whizz by in a flurry of ambition or sit stagnant from a life of comfort-seeking. And with no re-spawns, you don’t want to regret how you lived your one and only life.

Taking the time to reflect on where you are and where you’re going is similar to pulling over the car to check the map. Sure, you may be going faster than your peers but are you heading down the right road?

Plus, I’ll show you how to do it not with a quill, but with an iPad or your Mac (obviously).

Your mind. Or at least the cool version of it. Photo by gustavo Campos on Unsplash

Downshift Occasionally

Our minds often resemble finely-tuned engines, designed to operate at 200 miles per hour for maximum productivity in the workplace. (Now, we won’t be talking about the actual efficacy of this kind of mindset in our modern, post-Industrial workplace environments so let’s just leave that for another time.)

Couple this with the cacophony of modern-life and the pull of modern advertising techniques, we can find it extremely challenging to hear the small internal voice of our own intuition: to really know what we really, truly want from life.

The aim of downshifting is to give yourself the purposeful time and attention to slowly get closer to these things. To quieten all the external noise vying to change your mind and to deepen your sense of what you are currently experiencing.

Again, this doesn’t have to be a melancholy, crying-into-your-journal affair. This is simply giving yourself the time and respect to think about what you want and how you’re living.

Bet the wifi is terrible here anyway. Photo by The Travel Nook on Unsplash

On holiday

You’re probably familiar with the feeling of ‘going on holiday’ as a method of stepping out of your life. But unless you yeet your iPhone into the sea and do something fundamentally and purposefully outside your comfort zone, you’re essentially bringing all the noise with you — but now with added sunshine and cocktails.

Holidays are great but are poor forms of revitalisation. So upon return and when faced with the prospect of resuming your life, the feeling of “needing a holiday after your holiday” will continue to exist.

So, how do you go about doing it? How do you slow down purposefully to take stock of things? Here’s a few methods taken from Step Back which I once again recommend you to read.

  • Mental Meandering
  • Slowing Down
  • Turning to Nature
  • Celebrate
“Where’s my Uber Eats?” Photo by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash

1. Mental Meandering

To meander mentally is to simply let your mind wander and observe what’s coming up, in no particular way and at no particularly time. To look up from your screen and take a brief break to have a lil process of what’s happening.

It could also be known as day-dreaming. Except you don’t relapse into rapid-thumb-flicking-social-media to distract you when things get real.

As one manager said from the book, to get a sense of what was going on “between my belt buckle and my head.”

This can also take the form of thoughtfully sitting with some coffee with nothing in front of you — just to see what comes up.

Or taking a walk and just… walking. The point being to give allocated time to nothing at all in particular in order to give your internal thoughts a chance to be noticed.

On a personal note, I find that whatever comes up during these times isn’t new at all and in fact has generally been swishing around my head for a while. This can be something negligible like a house chore I’ve been ignoring or something much bigger that needs more attention. I then know that it’s time to address this thing and free up my brain for the more important matters.

Other times, I observe the general mood I am in and whether it’s even valid at all. “I am annoyed, why am I annoyed? Oh, no real reason really. Okay then there’s no point being annoyed anymore. Moving on.”

I’m definitely slow at this… Photo by Max Delsid on Unsplash

2. Slowing Down

This is an easy one. The basic principle is to notice something that you’re doing, consciously doing it more slowly and simply notice your experience.

An example from the book is when one of the manager recounts when he or his wife would see their young child do something new, they would exclaim “behold”. As corny as it was, it shifted them both into noticing (and appreciating) their child more.

The act of keeping a diary is an act of slowing down. Not necessarily to draw lessons from your experiences but simply keeping a thoughtful journal — taking the time, sitting down, writing by hand — is an act in slowness in itself.

By manually slowing down a generally-automatic behaviour, you’ll come to notice the nuances of life. By reliving moments, you get to savour them once more and potentially develop a deeper sense of wonder and gratitude about the world. (That VHS tape is coming soon, don’t worry.)

No quip here. This is just beautiful. *sigh* Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

3. Turning to Nature

Our ancient ancestors lived and evolved alongside nature which gave us an innate draw towards experiencing it. This draw goes far beyond ordering some cute plants via an app to spruce up our one-bed.

It may take scheduled time to go and experience a walk in a park or a hike in the forest, especially when you have the feeling of keeping your nose to the grindstone but being immersed in nature is very good for us. Studies have shown this is why our quality of life improves when we get a pet or how hospital patients with a window-view recover more quickly.

It can even be as small as placing the aforementioned cute plants around the field of view on your desk. A small break to take in nature will do you a world of good. This is something you already inherently feel but probably don’t make enough time for, what do you think?

This would look better in a bathroom, dontcha think? Photo by Danny Howe on Unsplash

4. Celebrate

A tough one for the individuals who always have their eyes on the horizon; for the people who constantly strive for improvement. For those who constatly strive for better, the act of celebration is an even more crucial form of slowing down.

One manager’s antidote to combat this was to make time to celebrate the wins of him and his team: to celebrate “the numbers of happy customers” or similar. On an individual level, this can be as simple as noting your daily wins at the end of your day in a diary.

Our minds are skewed to be skeptical and to focus on problems, threats and difficulties. This is how we evolved and it’s served us well but without providing ourselves with the positive news of progress, we can easily slip into feeling less-than or not good enough. (Enter imposter-syndrome.)

Marc Andreessen famously keeps an “anti to-do list” in which he logs everything that he’s done that day. Looking on this, it gives him a sense of achievement on all the things he managed to accomplish.

Reminding ourselves of the small-wins, of the big-wins and of the team-wins allows us to recognise the progress we’ve made whether big or small. It allows us to once again savour the efforts of the day in a positive and appreciating light: a light that can get snuffed out by the sometimes relentless march of ambition…

✨💻✨App Time✨📱✨

Day One Journal: Private Diary

Notes, photos, voice recording

Developer Website // App Store link

Bloom Built Inc have summarised the benefits of journalling right on their App Store listing:

Keeping a journal is an act of love. It makes you aware of your surroundings, cognizant of your actions, and open to adapting to all the changes around you.

No, you don’t need a dedicated app to journal. In reality, all you need is silence, some allotted time and a pen & paper. Even the native Notes app will do of course.

But dedicated tools and investment encourages use and in this case that use (journalling) has massive returns.

So why use Day One? Well, they’ve been around a while — I’ve had all sorts of iterations of their app since 2011 and so they know what they’re doing. It’s really flexible with multiple methods of input and great ease of use.

I use Day One when I don’t have anything in particular to write about (see Anchoring Questions later) and just need to get my thoughts out of my head.

It’s my go-to place to jot down my thoughts and review those thoughts at the end of the week or month. Check it out.

What’s this lad thinking about… Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Ponder the Tough Issues

“We are all huddled and concentrated in ourselves, and our vision is reduced to the length of our noses.” — Montaigne

To really begin pondering the really-real aspects of your life’s journey, a shift in mindset must first be established. The essence of pondering is to be less analytical and more flexible and open-ended, less outcome-oriented and more… curious. And brave.

This is the opposite to sitting down to journal, going to therapy or otherwise having a dedicated time to reflect. Pondering doesn’t replace those forms but instead pairs with them.

Sometimes an initial step to pondering involves stepping away from the challenge itself. As in, physically stepping away from whatever or wherever your brow is furrowed and going for a walk or exercising.

Another form is in inviting some play or doodling into your life. This can take the form of whatever you like: literally doodling and colouring or simply doing something to stimulate your creativity.

You see, like a piste in the snow, our thoughts and feelings run along well-worn grooves and ruts. You want to let your mind wander and range widely to find new perspectives on things which otherwise would have been left uncovered by your now possibly-outdated and dusty thought patterns.

Allowing yourself to the freedom to step away and be creative can give you that much-needed perspective on things.

A CT scan of the writers brain. Photo by David Heslop on Unsplash

Anchoring Questions

An absolutely fantastic method to direct your attention to the tough issues in your life is with anchoring questions. These are pre-defined questions you can ask yourself on a daily, weekly or even quarterly basis that direct your focus to certain aspects of your life you may be avoiding.

Having these prompts in front of you will effectively guide you into these potentially uncomfortable, but ultimately important, feelings.

These writing prompts can come in the form of preset questions you ask yourself. Questions such as;

“What’s bothering me right now?

“What am I excited about?”

“What challenges did I face today and how did I overcome them?”

“What am I anxious about right now?”

Pre-written questions like these saves you the mental RAM of having to decide what you want to reflect on. It’s already done for you so you can focus on critical tasks of answering them instead.

✨💻✨App Time✨📱✨

Grid Diary — Journal, Planner

Guided self-care & mindfulness

Developer website // App Store link

An amazing app I’ve been using for quite some time to support this method of reflection is Grid Diary.

This lovely app allows you to build multiple templates of writing prompts to reflect in order to reflect on the different aspects of your life. I have one for Professional, Personal and another dedicated to Western Meditative self-questions. (Oh yes.)

Grid Diary fits perfectly into an Anchoring Questions reflections framework as it allows you to:
- Build journals according to Professional, Personal lives etc
- Templates (pre-defined questions) to use as writing prompts
- Templates for daily, weekly, quarterly reflections
- Is a beautiful, robust experience which makes reflecting a pleasure.
- iPhone/iPad/macOS apps built to spec.

If you’ve been reading so far and thought everything is a bit much, check out Grid Diary to get you started.

Tennis your problems away. Photo by Renith R on Unsplash

Live with Your Conundrum

“One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.” — Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and badass theologian

Sometimes of course, you simply won’t be able to work through tough decisions by actively thinking about it. A good way to reflect on an issue is to actually stop reflecting on it.

This doesn’t mean you sweep it under the rug now. It will still be there staring at you, breathing against the outside window of your life with its tongue out.

What this means is carrying the questions with you for a few days, letting it simmer in your subconscious. Social psychologist Timothy Wilson coined the term “adaptive unconscious” (which stands apart from Freud’s unconscious mind, which he described as “a cauldron of primeval drives.”)

The adaptive unconscious instead is still a form of thinking but outside of our awareness; overseeing, assessing and making judgments.

“Sleep on it” is a very real and very good method to help with this form of reflection. By stepping back from actively chewing on an issue, the mind will naturally process it inline with your intuition and provide you a solution.

Like when you tightly grip sand in your fist; it escapes through the creases in your hand. But cup your hand gently and it stays calmly and politely for you to appreciate. Sometimes you do really just need to sleep on the issue.

In closing

Just like the highest-performing athletes have half-times and pit-stops, the ambitious professional should incorporate their own methods to stop and take stock of their game performance.

The flip-side to the ambition coin should be a reflective practice because without it, we may find ourselves atop a ladder we weren’t looking to climb at all. Good luck! ✌️

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Ludo De Angelis

I write about creative fulfilment, our relationship with technology and living a good life.