6 min read

Pragmatic Ambition

We're burning ourselves out...
Pragmatic Ambition
Photo by Mars Williams / Unsplash

You know that moment when you hear an idea, and it resonates so deeply that you can't stop hearing or reading about it, so you dive deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole until that newly sparked desire is satiated?

Yeah, that's what happened this week. I was listening to Cal Newport's awesome podcast Deep Questions, and he brought up this idea about Pragmatic Ambition.

I'm excited to share it with you. In this issue you'll learn:

  • What Pragmatic Ambition is
  • Why it matters to you and your business
  • How to apply it and get all of the benefits

Let's dive in...

"If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”)."
~Cal Newport, So Good They Can't Ignore You

Pragmatic Ambition Defined

From a recent podcast episode, Cal compared regular, all out, winner take all, hustle-culture "grand ambition" with Pragmatic Ambition, described like this:

"Something that within a year or less you'll either have accomplished it, or have a pretty clear signal that it's something to move on from... if accomplished, it should provide a clear and compelling ongoing benefit"

It's not about "conquering" or "dominating" or "winning at all costs". It's about having one big goal per area of your life that's pragmatic, meaning sensible or realistic, that has these two qualities.

1. A clear timeline - 1 year

What's something you could accomplish this year that would bring you the second attribute:

2. A clear and compelling ongoing benefit

In a year you would assess your progress and decide, pragmatically, if you've succeeded enough or made enough progress to keep going, or if it's time to cut that ambition loose and focus your time and effort on something else.

Pragmatic Ambition lies in the sweet spot between "grand ambition" on one end of the spectrum, and "no ambition" on the other end.

Why It Matters

Too many creators try to do it all. They think they have to have a massive email list, a huge social media following, four different content channels, be the most experienced, most skilled, most naturally talented, and the luckiest in order to succeed.

"Either I get picked by a publisher or nothing."

"I need this video to go viral"

"I have to have a blockbuster, six-figure launch in order to consider this product a success"

None of those things are true.

There are plenty of creators who have very successful businesses built on one audience, one offer, and one channel. Cal Newport himself famously does not have any social media presence - unless you consider YouTube and Podcasting as social media. I tend to put them in a different bucket than Twitter/LinkedIn/Facebook/Instagram/TikTok.

It means that you can be successful much sooner than you think.

You can self-publish your own book.

You can create a video a week and steadily grow your reach.

You can do an evergreen launch that isn't dependent on 100,000 people visiting your sales page in three days.

We look at "successful" people like Ali Abdaal, who recently did $200k in 10 minutes (and $400k in the first day) for his Part-Time YouTuber Academy live course, but ignore that he's been (seemingly) unhappy with the business he's built. He's restructuring his business to be more of a lifestyle business, rather than trying to be the biggest or the best or have a business he doesn't enjoy running every day.

That's a pragmatic ambition. We should learn from how he's optimizing, not try to emulate his (insanely awesome) massive launch, which is only possible because he's in the top 0.01% of YouTube channels with nearly 4 million subscribers.

This mindset shift is the important takeaway, and why this idea is so important. When we set pragmatic ambitions for the year ahead, we can make steady progress and realize success as we go, rather than wait until some unrealistic, "grand ambition" milestone.

How To Apply Pragmatic Ambition

To get started, take a minute to look at all of your goals for this year. Do any of them fall into the "grand ambition" definition? If you're unsure, use the 20% rule to see if you've got a pragmatic or grand ambition.

With focused effort, you can grow around 20% per month.

If you extrapolate that out over a year, it turns out to be 10x over one year.

Say you have 1,000 email subscribers at the beginning of the year. If you grow it by 20% over 12 months, it looks like this:

1,000 > 1,200 > 1,440 > 1,728 > 2,073 > 2,488 > 2,985 > 3,583 > 4,299 > 5,159 > 6,191 > 7,430 > 8,916

So, in a year, with 20% monthly growth, you'd be at around 9,000 subscribers. That's HUGE, it's nearly 10X growth in one year.

But too many try to go from 100 to 10,000, or from 1,000 to 50,000, because they look around and see that all the "successful" people have big numbers.

To apply this, stop thinking about being in the .01%, and start thinking about a goal that looks like 20% growth month over month for the next year.

A few other examples:

Fitness - lose .5 to 1 pound per week, or gain 1 pound of muscle per quarter

Finances - increase your profit percentage by 1% every quarter

Health - Add one new habit like flossing your teeth, drinking more water, or walking more. Start with 2,000 steps per day, and increase by 500 steps every week.

Creativity - Start with 30 minutes of deep work per day, and work up to 3 hours per day by the end of the year

Set one pragmatic ambition in a few areas of your life that matter most to you. Most of us have just a few - family, career, spirituality, health, and finances, for example.

You'll make much more progress with pragmatic ambition, and you'll feel the success along the way, compared to going after grand ambitions.

Yes, you'll do fewer things, but you'll do them well, and you'll end the year having accomplished 3-5 meaningful things, rather than giving up on your goals after a few months of seemingly no progress toward your grand ambitions.

PS - When you're ready, there are a few ways I can help you on your creative journey...

  1. Grab a copy of my book, Craftsman Creative - How Five-Figure Creators Can Build Six-Figure Businesses
  2. Join us in the Society of Independent Creators and build your bespoke creative business with dozens of other creative entrepreneurs.
  3. Work with me directly. I've got a few ways - both done-with-you and done-for-you - to help you grow your creative business this year. Start with this free scorecard.


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This week is about your product ecosystem, how to align it with your audience, and how to experiment with ways to get that product dialed in.


Currently reading: Handmade: Creative Focus In The Age Of Distraction by Gary Rogowski. I'm supporting my month-long "digital detox" from social media with books like this one. It's a nice change of pace, allowing me to slow down and think of the craft of being a creator.


I am thoroughly enjoying the Deep Tracks podcast by Doug McCulloch. He's chronicling the history of rock & roll from its roots, and it's not only fascinating, but entertaining to boot. Check out the website and subscribe to the episodes here or on Spotify. You might hear a familiar voice or business over there ;)


The film I produced last summer is coming to a few festivals, notably the Zion Indie Film Festival on March 17 in Orem, Utah. I'll be there with the director, Garrett Batty (it is the next city over from Provo, after all), and tickets just went on sale. I can't wait to watch this movie with an audience full of friends and family. If any of you come, please come find me and say hi!