Sarah Cooke

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The Ambitious Among Us

The person behind the job.

Their ambition, their strategy.


Meet the amazing business and technology minds of the Vancouver-metropolitan area and beyond.

PERSONALITY, CHARACTER, MOTIVATION AND ASPIRATIONS


A fascinating discussion with the Marketing & Communications Manager for the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Sarah Cooke, made me ask myself the question.  What are the rules of ambition?

In A World So Damn Complicated

…people, by the way, think that mathematics is so damn complicated.  Mathematicians know it’s a misconception. It’s the world that is so damn complicated.

Villani, 2015

Used with permission from both Cédric Villani, and The Royal Institution under the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.


I love that quote.  It’s so humbling. Replace mathematics with whatever brand of explanation or sense-making—in my case, ambition and strategy—and the world remains complex.  

More and more these days I spend time thinking about the topics of ambition and strategy.  They don’t get any easier. The more I learn, the more I am aware of their complexity.  Consequently, it takes me longer to filter conversations through a sieve of growing knowledge and experience.  What fun it is!

That very notion of modeling the pleasant amid the challenge is the revelation made of Sarah’s ambition.


What are the rules of ambition?

Much like strategy, I believe ambition is about fit.  According to strategy researcher, Michael E. Porter, fit is the unique combination of activities and positioning (Porter, 1996).  

Let’s explore ambition and fit in terms of personal satisfaction – Sarah’s own sense of ambition.  Then, let’s see if we can agree on the rules of ambition I devised using her informational interview as an example.

What Makes You Feel Rich?

For those of you who have attended my talks on informational interviewing, you’ll know.  I’ve given away copies of Best Job Ever! generously donated by Dr. CK Bray.  

Author, Chris Bray, is a Ph.D. in Organizational & Adult Development.  He’s the best career support resource out there. I’ve said that for years as one of his early podcast listeners which is why I’m proud to hand out his book.  (Thanks, Chris!)

In the book, Bray writes,

By being aware of your values and motivation, you can make choices that are in line with things that really matter to you. 

Bray, 2016

I interpret that our choices are the results of our ambition – the desire to manifest what “really matters.”

And to Sarah, in her own words, what really matters is a sense of “flow.”

“Flow”

Bray’s monthly newsletter published just the week before I interviewed Sarah coincidentally spoke about “flow”.  Bray relayed:

…I wrote 8 pages about [Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man who coined the term “flow”] in my doctoral dissertation. I am fascinated by his research into the human state of flow, or what you might know as “being in the zone.” He describes it as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus and complete involvement in the process of the activity.

Bray, 2019

Businesses in the Vancouver, Washington community are Sarah’s business, her focus, and reason for “complete involvement in [assuring their success].”  Of her work, Sarah said there’s a phrase the Chamber uses:

“Your business is our business.”  

Combining explanations, others’ business is what really matters to Sarah and her colleagues.  

Sarah’s Sense of “Flow”

To keep what really matters in focus, she chooses to pursue a state of “flow”.  She might as well have gotten advice from Csikszentmihalyi himself:

A successful interaction involves finding some compatibility between our goals and those of the other person or persons, and becoming willing to invest attention in the other person’s goals. When these conditions are met, it is possible to experience the flow that comes from optimal interaction.

Csikszentmihalyi, 1997

Fittingly, Sarah loves her job.  She’s challenged, rushed to meet deadlines, and responsible for the better fortunes of her customers – who, for scale, make up the entire business community in Vancouver, Washington.  Her goal is to be the best that she can be for those very people and businesses she serves. Sarah’s goal, in her own words, is to reach a state of “flow.”

Sarah’s Ambition Toward “Flow”

Sarah is a self-proclaimed “curious person and critical thinker” who is “both a consumer and a creator.”

She seeks information by listening and concerning herself with others’ motivation, or what Csikszentmihalyi said was “investing attention in the other person’s goals.”  Sarah’s scope is the investment with which the Chamber can provide its public service.

While I’m flattered that she jumped at the chance to be interviewed, I know she had the Chamber’s interests at heart.  Her fitness to be ambitious–what Bray said was “being aware of your values and motivation”–enables her ambition. Naturally, her personal ambition supports the ambitions of others.  And that ambition supports the Chamber’s mission.

Seeing the interests of both sides serves her stakeholders well.  Sarah’s past 10 years of performing voice-overs lent her a rare, valuable experience that perhaps only those in that arena may obtain.  How does this character feel, or how might this dialogue impact the given situation? These questions must be answered in order to convey one’s voice appropriately.  In a word, that’s empathy.

Sarah recognized of herself a solid foundation of empathy.  It makes sense. I believe it is how Sarah simultaneously consumes and creates value.

The Rules of Ambition: Readiness vs. Resistance

Let’s take stock of what we’ve covered so far (because we’ve covered a lot) with regard to Sarah’s ambition.  We’ll wrap up exploring Sarah’s ambition through how her readiness to be ambitious overcomes resistance to her ambition.  Doing so will ultimately exhibit what I figure to be the rules of ambition, and fully explain Sarah’s values and motivations.

So Far

Topic to Explain AmbitionWhat We Learned
Complexity.No matter how we explain it, the world remains complex.
Sense-making.Requires modeling.
Ambition itself.“Awareness of one’s values and motivations to choose what really matters to us.”
Strategy.In Sarah’s case, the pleasant (positioning) amid the challenge (activities).
Personal satisfaction (Sarah’s goal).“Flow.”

Fitness For & Restraints On Ambition

I observed of Sarah’s ambition a self-evaluation of her fitness for ambition in contrast with what I’ve determined to be restraints on that ambition.  Perhaps you, the reader, may figure for yourself what may be the makeup of your own fitness and restraints.

To read the graphic above, think of it in terms of yourself.  How fit are you to be ambitious in contrast with what may hold you back from that very ambition?  The following breaks down each part as I observed in conversation with Sarah.

Fitness (+)

Fitness in the way I’m using it has no relation to cardiovascular health.  Fitness is by biological standards essentially the capability or potential to exist in the [complex working] world (Wikipedia contributors, 2019).  Think self-awareness, education, experience, resilience, talent, desire, etc.

Keep in mind, the focus on ‘Interviews of the Ambitious’ is the person behind the job. We do not say the Marketing & Communications Manager is ambitious; we say Sarah is ambitious. Thereby, fitness is unique and personal.

Serendipity or Randomness(+)

Randomness plays a role in fitness, too.  As was explored in my article on Scott Culbertson, serendipity happens with exposure to opportunities, seeking out newness, diversity, and ideas; it has no time limit, and is enhanced by sagacious readiness.  In Sarah’s case, there were business-related factors that pushed her career forward – and they had nothing to do with her. That is neither a knock on nor an endorsement of Sarah’s career.  It’s objective. (And keep reading to learn how I actually feel about her talent! Spoiler: she’s terrific.)

For starters, she was hired.  No matter how great we think we are as employment candidates, it’s a decision made by others.  How many of us give ourselves raises? Point made.

Second, the Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce merged with (into) the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce just last month.  That meant larger oversight and responsibility for others.

Finally, Sarah’s manager left.  Sarah had had enough time to prove herself worthy of promotion.  Again, it was a decision made by others.

Similar to Culbertson’s story, Sarah had the fitness to be chosen.  Serendipity, then, can be a strategy for greater fitness.

What is above the gray horizontal line is one’s readiness for ambition; what is below that same line (and colored red) are acting against, or resisting, one’s ability to be ambitious.

Restraints (-)

These restraints, as I’ve deemed them, require what I’ll call ambition currency, or a spend of energies and mental capacity that may otherwise be readiness factors to benefit fitness.

Serendipity or Randomness (-)

Yes, serendipity can be a problem, too.  Things that are out of one’s control such as natural disasters, disruptive innovation, competition’s varied fitness and so on can derail what may otherwise be a positive.

Conversion from the Past (-)

What inspired this variable was Sarah’s conversion of her education in psychology to her profession in marketing.  Not merely a transition, new language, new goals, and different thinking among other factors are involved in converting one skill set and experience set into another.  Ambition currency must be spent on converting past skills and experience.

Acclimation to One’s Environment (-)

In the Chamber offices, she is a young professional in contrast with more experienced colleagues.  The Chamber has a long tradition; whereas, Sarah’s ideas are fresh and forward-moving; furthermore, her immersion in technology may be intimidating to others without such experience or exposure.  Ambition currency must be spent on transitioning to a new environment.

Graduation from the Past (-)

I’ll cite another past article to describe my thoughts on this variable.  About John Wilson, “…[the] environment challenged John’s consciousness of options, freedoms and the future. He was unable to envision a destiny beyond what he already knew.”  Sarah is relatively new on her job. Plainly, it can sometimes be a large spend of ambition currency on newness in which one cannot familiarize oneself quickly enough.  Given all the massive change she’s endured (new job, merger, loss of a manager, promotion, etc.) in such a short period of time, I saw this as a factor for sure.

External Approval (-)

Sarah’s ambition has, in part, required external approval.  It’s human. She had mentioned the gauge of her success depended upon others’ validation that she was doing a good job.  That’s an evaluation of rules Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges. “[Work] provides feedback either in the form of knowing that one has finished a job well done, in terms of measurable sales or through an evaluation by one’s supervisor” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).  External approval is part of the game, and a spend of ambition currency.

Ambition-Ready

While I will not attempt to quantify Sarah’s ambition, I will go so far to say that according to my research, and the conclusions I’ve made, Sarah is ‘Ambition-Ready’ (as opposed to ‘Ambition-Unready’ or just plain ‘Content’ with her fitness).

Sarah’s fitness for ambition far outstrips her restraints.  She focuses on the pleasant amid the challenge, knows her “values and motivations to choose what matters to her,” and knows the extent of her future at this point in her career.  I was highly impressed by her confidence bounded by what she could not view but for accurately predicting the future. The fact that she has serendipitously been granted opportunity is less a factor than how ready she is to make the best of those opportunities.  Her fitness for ambition has made her successful. I suspect it will only continue to do so.

What may contrast, such as the challenges associated with serendipitous opportunity, have not affected her.  She has successfully converted her academic background to professional function, acclimated to an office that clearly values her and her work, and she has thus far comfortably navigated rather drastic changes in her work environment.  Her resilience is noteworthy. So too is her ambition!

About Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce

The Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce exists to promote business interests in Vancouver, Washington and the outlying areas.  They have numerous channels through which events, articles and other publicity campaigns serve the local economy and community at large.  Find out more about the Chamber and becoming a member here.

About Kate Singh Photography

The headshot used for this article was taken by a Vancouver, WA-based photographer, Kate Singh Photography.

Kate Singh Photography is known for beautiful portraits, personal and professional. The tag line “I see you for you” was once translated as “You make me feel as beautiful as you say you see me”. As an artist Kate appreciates the uniqueness of the amazing variety of people she meets. Her eyes were wide open to humanity in her 30 years of nursing, 20 of which were dedicated in service to the US Army. Kate finds satisfaction by building others up as she follows her passion for being a creative.


Villani, Cédric. “Q&A – Birth Of A Theorem – With Cédric Villani”. Youtube, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akwBX50k504&feature=youtu.be&t=565. Accessed 14 Feb 2019.

Porter, Michael E. “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review 74.6 (1996): 61-79. Cengage Learning, Inc. Web. 30 Dec. 2016.

“7 / Redefine Rich.” Best Job Ever!: Rethink Your Career, Redefine Rich, Revolutionize Your Life, by C. K. Bray, Wiley, 2016, pp. 58–58

Bray, C. K. “Getting Into a Good Life Flow.” Getting Into a Good Life Flow, 5 Feb. 2019.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihali. “Finding Flow”. Psychology Today, 1997, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199707/finding-flow. Accessed 15 Feb 2019.

Wikipedia contributors. “Fitness (biology).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Jan. 2019. Web. 16 Feb. 2019.

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ABOUT DANNY

Some have called me an expert at informational interviewing. What does that mean, exactly? I am concerned with understanding the whole person, the people behind the job, and the whole business from within.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I support the ambitions of others to meet promise and potential.

My MBA is concentrated in Strategy. I have 20 years of work experience, most of which is in the field of organization development. Conducting informational interviews, I have engaged local professionals and written research-backed articles about their ambition.

Writing is fun, and so is sharing what I learn. I’ve given talks throughout the Portland-metropolitan region about informational interviewing, and more recently about scaling-up ones activities – recognizing one’s current resources and opportunities, and then pairing them with potentially new resources and opportunities through creativity, new possibilities and strategic fit.

I am heavily involved in the community, and I love coffee and fountain pens!