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Blog

Gentle Ambition is Radical Ambition

Melissa Andrada

“Gentle does not mean weak. Gentle does not mean powerless.

Gentle Ambition comes from a place of immense and immeasurable power, a deep belief in and love of self that does not require proof of worthiness.

It is the gentle pursuit of a grand vision — a conscious life that is kind and loving towards our bodies, our communities and our planet.”

This journey began in Taghazout, Morocco

This journey began in Taghazout, Morocco

Gentle Ambition is Radical Ambition because we live in a society where we believe success (and therefore, happiness) requires constant sacrifice, hustling, hard work, pushing, long hours.

We’ve forgotten the purpose of work, which is to help us live a good life. We are so busy chasing the next accomplishment, completing our to-do list, raising our next round of funding, posting stories on Instagram and updating our Linkedin profiles, we don’t hold space to consider what will truly help us live a happy and fulfilling life.

How do you want to spend your days? What is your purpose?
What does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to be successful?

We get stuck in the comfort of the Matrix — the cushy salary and catered lunches, the prestigious titles and social capital, the fear of not keeping up with the Jonses, the illusion of being a part of a world-changing company. And that’s where I was.

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On paper, I had my dream life: I was the COO of a VC-backed learning & development startup in London. I was living in a beautifully designed flat in a trendy neighborhood in Hackney. I spent at least one weekend a month jet-setting to a different city in Europe. But, I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t feel like I was truly embodying my calling.

It didn’t take long for me to hear it again.

A Crisis Can Evoke Transformation

This renaissance of self began with an unwanted identity, a temporary disability that literally made it painful to do the things I love.

Over a year ago, I woke up with a restless anxious energy. I immediately ran out to Hackney Downs Park for a sprint before meeting with a colleague to plan a workshop. Whilst I was on the floor crafting a presentation to share with our leadership team, I stood up and felt a sharp pain in my knee. I ignored it.

A few days later, I went to see a physio who diagnosed it as a sprained knee and said that in a week, I would be fine. A week passed, I saw him again, and he said that I could resume my normal activity. I could go for a run, I could do yoga, I could cycle. So that’s what I did.

It was a mistake. This overactivity resulted into months of numbness and nerve pain in my right leg, which made even a leisurely walk across the park a difficult and painful journey.

This injury meant my evenings were no longer spent doing yoga. So instead of vinyasa flows, I turned to productivity. I spent my evenings crouched poorly over my computer, typing emails, creating presentations, needlessly checking Instagram.

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This led to an acute case of repetitive strain injury, an injury that affects millions yet is so subtle and often not taken seriously. A shoulder and arm injury that made it difficult to spend more than 15 minutes at a time typing on the computer or on my phone. An injury that meant I had to have colleagues, friends and family (and eventually Dragon and Siri) scribe for me, helping put together presentations and write important emails to clients.

I fell into a deep and unbearable depression because the identity I had known my whole life was shattered over the course of a few months.

Ambition isn’t a core value, but it’s an ingrained behavior that has been with me my whole life, a hangover of being a child of first-generation Filipino immigrants who moved to America via Nigeria for the explicit purpose of providing a better future for their children.

Overachievement is the only addiction that is not just socially accepted but also celebrated by society. This addiction has led to prestigious roles and projects, but what it cost me was my body and in many ways, my life.

For the past 34 years, I’ve nourished my intellect, my drive, my passion but in the process neglected one of the most foundational elements of my being. Historically, I saw my body as a means to carry around my head. I’ve learned the hard way you can’t separate body from mind.

I spent most of 2018 in chronic pain — first, physically, then emotionally. My yoga classes were now replaced by visits to the GP, physical therapist, pain specialist, massage therapist and mental health counselor. When I’m feeling optimistic, I call this year ‘temporary early retirement.’ But when I’m not, I call it ‘horrific and debilitating.’

When my incredibly wise and wonderful father came to London to look after me, he said,

“ You’ve been working so hard your whole life, what would it mean to achieve in the most gentle way possible?”

His question stayed with me.
What would it mean to achieve in a way that was gentle to my being?

Throughout my career, I’ve been complimented for my relentless grit.
But, my body can’t tolerate the grind in the same way.

I choose gentleness over grit.

I want to achieve in a way that is kind and loving to my body, my community and the world.

What would it mean to orient my life and career towards Gentle Ambition?

This pursuit started in December 2017 when I was in Morocco unable to go surfing due to my leg injury. I finally had the head space to reconnect with an old dream: moving to California. Three years ago that dream was derailed by a relationship that should have lasted for two months but instead dragged over two years. I regretted it; California was still calling my name. I realized I could no longer stay in London, my geography no longer reflected my values — sunshine and waves, a queer Asian American community, a deep commitment to social justice. I felt a spiritual pull to return back to America.

So in January, I set my intention to leave London and move to California — finally landing in Oakland.

This was one of the best decisions of my life.

California was my North Star, but I later realized it was more of a catalyst than an end destination. Leaving London was more important than moving to California, freeing me from the pressures of what people perceived to be a perfect life. I was injured and debilitated, yet also never more liberated, creative and resourceful.

Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve learned many timeless lessons that I want to share with you. Emotional truths that you may have heard before, sung in a different tune. My professor Philip Thurtle once said to me, you have to play your song to find your tribe. And this essay is the beginning of a magnum opus.

Elegant Strategic Minimalism

Gentle Ambition has taught me to focus on what matters most. When common practices of productivity literally give you pain, you have to be so conscious about what you do. Once I had accepted that I was temporarily disabled by my injuries, I had to be smarter and more strategic about the things that I did, whether it was commuting, writing emails or meeting a colleague.

We know that 80% of impact comes from 20% of all actions, but yet too often we waste time, energy and resources on things that don’t matter. I constantly ask myself:

What is my bigger vision and strategy? Will this have a profoundly deep impact on my life and the lives of others? 
What do I really need to achieve — commercially and socially? How much money do I actually need? When should I stop making more money? What is going to lead to 80% of the impact?
What and who am I afraid to say no to? How can I set up stronger boundaries?

This book will change your life.

This book will change your life.

These days I spend more of my time thinking and planning what I want to achieve with the rigor of a chess player (full disclosure: I played competitively as a kid!).

Chronic pain forced to be shamelessly bold and ruthlessly focused. It forced me to ask for what I truly need — support scribing a critically important email, accepting assistance from strangers offering to carry my luggage (as travel is one of my most important values and I didn’t want to stop!) or negotiating affordable rates on long-term physical therapy. It also forced to me to say no — turning down sexy and well-paid projects not aligned to my values, gently re-directing people asking for introductions without meaningful purpose and context, letting go of friends and colleagues too focused on traditional forms of success. Chronic pain became a catalyst to re-design my relationship to time and prioritization.

I’ve spent most of my career as strategist but these injuries have taken my craft to the next level — to trust my intuition, to elegantly prioritize everything I do.

Peaceful Growth

My former world in startups has been dominated by the mantra of move fast and break things,” but there is growing desire for a more sustainable and responsible approach to growth that is actually focused on the needs of the community over shareholder value.

Gentle Ambition is rooted in a driven yet peaceful and loving pace to growth. It is rooted in the belief that success doesn’t have to be hard. It is rooted in the belief that you are loved no matter if you fail or succeed.

“Where we think we need more self-discipline, we usually need more self-love — not just self love as an attitude, but self love manifested through the routines and rituals that we set up to enable the changes we desire to happen naturally and with ease. “ — Tara Mohr, Playing Big

Done is better than perfect but do we need to impose a life-or-death urgency on our colleagues and clients? I’ve witnessed far too many friends over the past few years working to the point of injury and illness. This is unacceptable.

If you’re freaking out about your startup, project or deadline, ask yourself:

What do I really need to achieve? What is going to lead to 80% of the impact?
Is this worth missing out on dinner with my family?
Will I care about this when I’m 90 and on my deathbed?

Even harder to ask ourselves: Should my startup even exist? Is this truly an impactful use of humanity’s talent and resources? Is my vision actually changing the world or replicating the inequality of the status quo?

When people on their deathbed were surveyed, one of the biggest regrets they had was they wish they hadn’t work so hard. Very few people say I’m so glad I gave away the best years of my life working long hours and late nights.

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I’d rather run a thoughtful lifestyle business than jump on a reckless rocket ship. I’d rather have sustainable growth over unethical scale. I’m inspired by the zero waste movement focused on fundamental needs over excessive decadence. I’m inspired by the founders of Patagonia who have intentionally chosen not to be a billion dollar company. When we think about the future, I want us to think beyond the next IPO in 10 month’s time and plan with conscious intention for the next 1,000 years.

Fiercely Courageous Vision

Whilst I wouldn’t wish these injuries on anyone, I’m so grateful for what they’ve taught me about what really matters in this world. I’m so grateful for what they taught me about the fragility and resilience of the body.

I’m inspired by the millions of individuals — particularly Marc BrewBethany HamiltonAustyn Gillette — who have experienced far more permanent and serious injuries and trauma, yet have managed to creatively endure and pursue their life’s passions in their own way.

After 14 months of physical therapy and doctor’s visits, I finally feel like I’m getting my body back. I still have to be incredibly conscious and careful as I move through life to ensure that my injuries don’t return, but now have a much deeper understanding of how to manage them. I’m finally able to do so many of the things I longed to do — bring on carry-on luggage, walk more than 45 minutes at a time, stand up on a surf board, type unaided by voice-to-text for more than 20 minutes without pain. After an intense year plus of injury recovery, I have a deeply tender and mindful appreciation for all the things I previously took for granted. Whilst I wouldn’t wish for the pain to come back, I’m grateful what it’s taught me.

I learned not just to live with, but thrive in chronic pain, taking fiercely courageous steps to embody the life I truly want.

This is La Dolce Vita: Post Surf Dance Hangs in Siargao

This is La Dolce Vita: Post Surf Dance Hangs in Siargao

A life where my year is spent across my spiritual homes, geographies that are aligned to my values and chosen family: California, Siargao and Europe.

A life where my days are spent with people I love having overly fulfilling and deeply honest and vulnerable conversations about our fears and dreams, politics and philosophy, life and death.

A life where my days are spent outside doing yoga, swimming, meditating, surfing, walking barefoot, dancing.

Finally, a life spent dedicated to living my life’s purpose, which is about bringing my whole heart to fight for social justice.

My long-term vision is to set up a global creative leadership centre in Siargao, California and Europe aimed at empowering diverse and underrepresented communities to drive fundamental social change. Drawing from my own personal experiences as a queer woman of color, I want to design coaching and learning programs for groups who are in the minority to take pride in who they are, to transform oppression into a social movement for humanity.

I’ve never felt more clear and passionate. I’m deeply committed to manifesting this vision into a reality over the next ten years.

Connecting with queer women to grow their confidence at Google in Paris

Connecting with queer women to grow their confidence at Google in Paris

In the spirit of Gentle Ambition, I’m beginning my journey through elegantly focused steps. Bringing a unique blend of strategy and spirituality, I’m beginning my practice as a Creative Executive Coach and Strategic Advisor to help creative leaders and businesses drive positive social change. During my 14-month injury recovery period, I’ve had the honor of collaborating with Ally, a specialty coffee company from Brazil to nurture a culture that empowers every person in their organization; House9, a creative agency based in Montreal run by diverse artistic leaders dedicated to make art that works for humanity; and f(i), a diversity and inclusion consultancy to create more inclusive workplaces. I’m also teaching workshops at General Assembly and coaching high-potential individuals and leaders from diverse backgrounds in Seattle, Stockholm, London and San Fransisco to grow their confidence and executive presence, find work they love and lead the change they want to see in the world while designing practices of wellbeing and Gentle Ambition.

Slowing, slowing and slowing down to speed up

I thought these injuries were holding back my life and career. But in fact, slowing down has helped me speed up by connecting with purpose and intuition, focusing on the things that really matter — to value a mindful approach to time and experiences over an insatiable desire for money and things, to value wholehearted fulfillment rooted in love and kindness over superficial success rooted in societal expectation and self doubt.

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My injuries lasted for well over one year, but in many ways, saved me at least five years, uncovering a more profound loving and courageous expression of self — physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, professionally. An expression of self that has connected me to a higher purpose and an abundance of timeless wealth outpouring from the hearts of so many wonderful family, friends and even strangers who’ve been on this journey of injury recovery and this next chapter of creative leadership for humanity.

Radical truth is an important value. This isn’t a stereotypical TED-Talkesque medium essay with a perfect ending. There are days when my injuries flare up. There are days when I still feel stressed and burn out. There are days when my decisions are driven more by societal expectation, ruthless ambition and self doubt than love, logic and intuition. There are days when I feel like I’m not my singing my song.

But, I remind myself to stay grounded, to stay gentle. I remind myself of why I’m here.

Gentle Ambition is a constant practice, an intention I would love to share with you and the world.

Thanks for reading my story.