The drive to achieve: Key steps to fuel your ambition

By Mehreen Yousaf Arsiwalla, executive director, Global Policy Strategy & Capabilities

October 25, 2021

About the author: Mehreen Yousaf Arsiwalla, executive director, Global Policy Strategy & Capabilities, joined the company in 2015. She has a broad range of experience in the healthcare industry across a variety of disciplines including market access, public policy, global health and business strategy. Since joining the company, she was nominated for and completed the Catalyst leadership development program and was the recipient of a global team impact award. 

Arsiwalla has also worked outside of healthcare across different sectors and has taken on roles with both large and small firms in established and entrepreneurial settings.

Arsiwalla has worked globally, lived in other countries and traveled extensively. She has a B.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University and M.B.A. from Columbia University, as well as a dual degree from London Business School.

Shortly after the birth of my second child, I had the opportunity to work on an exciting project for the leadership team that had the potential to make a substantial impact. My baby was a few months old and I had just returned from maternity leave. I remember staying up late at night to take care of her, and also to work on the project. It was hard, and at the same time, it was also very rewarding.  

I couldn’t have done it without the valuable support of my husband, who took care of most of our meals and cared for our children while managing his own demanding career, and my manager, who worked with me to set up flexible hours and working remotely. 

When I look back, I realize that my drive toward achieving, as a mom and with my assignment, was nothing new—it had been part of my makeup for as long as I can remember. From a young age, my parents had encouraged me to push my boundaries toward new goals, and I was more than happy to do just that. 

The word used to describe this desire to achieve—in all of my roles and also in whatever task is at hand—is ambition. 

That word often gets a bad rap and we’re told we can’t have it all. But wanting a meaningful and rewarding career and, equally, a strong and happy family, sense of self and to contribute to my community and society, don’t have to be at odds. Instead, I view them as interrelated and follow some key steps, which I have learned from my experiences and from others, that give me the best opportunity to succeed in each area. 

Organize and optimize

I realized early on that I needed a plan. When I was in my teens, I would take a sheet of paper, draw a number of squares that each represented a different area of my life and fill them in with a few words about what I wanted to achieve and how I would get there. Then I would study the page to get a clear idea of my roadmap. 

It was a simple, four-square chart and my buckets covered the basics of teenage life, like academics, social life, arts/athletics and community involvement. Today, my grid is far more complex with many more squares, but I still use it consistently to move closer to my goals across the various aspects of my life. 

That’s just one of the techniques I use to organize. Related to that is optimizing how I work to save time and become more efficient. I prioritize what’s on my to-do list and develop an overall timing strategy that includes setting time limits for certain tasks. I also consider value—how important will this be for the audience or the purpose—to help me figure out what’s worth spending a lot of time on. This is really helpful, especially if I’m struggling with putting together a presentation, for example. 

A very valuable tip I learned from a friend is that part of optimizing is finding your natural rhythm and then assigning tasks into your peak performance days and times. I kept a log and discovered that I typically lost steam on Thursdays, but that I was always at my peak on Saturdays, Mondays and Tuesdays. That was an “aha” moment for me. Now, to the degree possible, I take that into account and schedule more challenging tasks or meetings during my peak performance days. 

Wanting a meaningful and rewarding career and, equally, a strong and happy family, sense of self and to contribute to my community and society, don’t have to be at odds.

Balance 

I’ve long considered a key component of ambition to be balance, and this is where my grid comes in again. To this day when I think of balance, I go back to my squares and consider what it takes to juggle all the balls in each of the areas.  I study the page to get a clear idea of where I can shift attention to even things out. Naturally, there will be times when one area requires more or less attention than another, but by navigating through those ebbs and flows, I can move closer to finding the equilibrium that supports my efforts to reach a goal. Sometimes this just means taking a break and giving myself time to recharge—whether that comes from doing yoga or catching up with a friend.  

Rely on your network

As I said earlier, my husband and my manager were key to my being able to care for my new baby and still do what I love in my career. As you’re aiming for those goals you set for yourself, it’s essential that you rely on your support network—significant other, family, friends—and be fearless when it comes to asking for what you need. Maybe it’s honest advice from someone who has your best interest at heart or someone to watch your children for a while so you can take a walk to clear your mind; don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. 

Also ask for feedback and be willing to learn from others, regardless of whether their background or experience matches your own, and regardless of where you are in your journey; at the same time trust your judgement and make your own decisions. Finally, do remember to have humility and also be there for the people who have helped you.

Persevere

The reality is that achieving all that we want can be challenging, and everyone has their personal circumstances to take into account. However, this is where perseverance and working hard comes in, even in the face of difficult times or failures. If I have experienced a setback or simply lost energy, I try to pause and reflect, keep the bigger picture in mind and pivot my approach, if needed. I often use post-it notes with little words or phrases to refocus and motivate myself or to give me confidence in a weak moment. 

Pushing through, working hard and staying true to my principles allows me to achieve what I set out to do. Importantly, once I do reach a goal, I make sure to savor it and be in the moment, and not let it pass me by before moving on to the next goal.