The Case Against Ambition

Everyday we see motivational posters and phrases to go out and make something of yourself — make an impact, do more, be more. Now, be even more. More than that. 10x your goals. Keep going, keep striving, aim higher and achieve bigger. They all promise that if you achieve everything, then finally you’ll be happy and fulfilled.

Ambition is held as an unquestioned virtue, and lack of ambition as an almost unquestioned character flaw. I’d like to argue that ambition isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Photo by paolo candelo on Unsplash

For a start, ambition doesn’t necessarily lead to the real results you think it will. In reading a lot of biographies of “successful” people, there’s a significantly number of these where their outwardly or material achievements left them feeling more empty than before. Agassi wasn’t happy with grand slams, Will Smith’s movie fame didn’t lead to the love and happiness he craved. (I wrote this piece before his incident at the Oscars!)

Taking action doesn’t necessarily lead to anything other more action.

We often conflate an outcome, for example winning the tournament, with a feeling, say satisfaction. One does not necessarily lead to the other and taking action doesn’t necessarily lead to anything other more action. This is where ambition, left unchecked, can lead you to chasing goals that don’t provide the results you’re really seeking.

There’s another important consideration when it comes to goals. They add stress and a sense of deficiency until you achieve them. You’re now lacking until you attain this next level. You can no longer be happy with what you have and where you are. When we set goals, we tend to think of the reward. What tends to be forgotten is the cost along the way. What will you have to sacrifice — time, money, friendships, happiness, opportunity — along the way to this one outcome? These questions are generally ignored because the goal is so important and all encompassing.

Goals add stress and a sense of deficiency until you achieve them.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Almost invariably when ambition is mentioned and someone overcomes the odds it is celebrated as a massive win. But it neglects the tradeoffs in the victory. There are trade offs. There always are.

Not all our goals and desires are created equally. There are deficiency needs and surplus needs. When you’re absolutely broke, money will solve a lot of your immediate problems. You can buy food and pay rent, get clothes and transport. At a certain point, your security and safety needs are met, and extra dollars won’t provide any more of that. Then money can become a marker or significance, or achievement (nothing inherently wrong with that). It’s important you understand why you’re chasing a particular goal, and it the goal you’re chasing is still in line with what you really want.

I’m always keen to stress that I’m not saying there’s no benefit to material gains and success. If you’re unfit and physically unhealthy no amount of meditation is going to overcome your breathing difficulties. If you’re starving or unable to pay rent you can’t solely rely on enriching your inner world. There comes a point where your physical survival is no longer at stake, and continuing to get fitter or richer no longer reaps the same rewards. In fact, the continued chasing of the next physical milestone becomes counter productive.

Zooming further out it is worth questioning what is the purpose of having a goal. I’d argue that you’re chasing a feeling or some fundamental need. That’s the ultimate goal. You’re chasing the satisfaction that comes with the attainment of the goal. The goal is simple a strategy to achieve that aim. Focusing on a goal is confusing the means for the ends.

When you know this, as is know what you’re really chasing, you can then free yourself up from a strategy that may or may not get your needs met.

What’s the safeguard against unchecked ambition? Investigate if what you’re pursuing is a proxy for something deeper. Is it a strategy to get a fundamental need met or is it a way of compensating for something?

We all have fundamental needs: security, approval, control, connection, well-being, significance, meaning… To get these, we employ strategies, and use ambition to drive towards them.

Is your goal simply a strategy to meet a need that can be met some other way? Will the attainment of your ambition lead to the feeling you’re seeking? At what cost/what are the trade offs? And finally, is the goal you’re chasing compensating for something?

All of these are questions that can be asked with kindness. We’re not attempting to demotivate and derail ourselves or sabotage our progress. We’re trying to reduce potentially unnecessary suffering and promote the most success possible.

What is success? Isn’t the best success peace of mind, inner happiness, being content?

Photo by Helena Lopes: https://www.pexels.com/photo/short-coated-tan-dog-2253275/

If yes, you’re better served being content with your pace and direction, than fixated on a mythical outcome where everything will come good and all you seek will suddenly explode inside you. As a friend once said, they constantly like to remind themselves that there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Now, I firmly believe a live without meaning is just as destructive as a life blind pursuing goals. We need purpose to our day. Taking actions you deem important and a sense of progress forms part of our psychological well-being. No one wants to feel like they’re useless, purposeless, or just wasting their time.

Instead of unlimited achievement, why not focus on what’s enough for you. What’s enough work time for you? What’s enough time dedicated to your priorities? What’s enough exercise, sleep, play, sacrifice and reward? If you’re struggling to define what’s enough for you, bear in mind that it doesn’t have to be a fixed point — it can be a range. And you most likely know already what’s too little and too much sleep and coffee for you. From there, you can figure out what’s enough in the other areas of your pursuits and activities.

  • Have meaningful goals.
  • Understand the true goal behind the strategy. (Is the paycheque security, or freedom, or significance..?)
  • Do not make your happiness wholly contingent on reaching this particular goal.
  • Do not sacrifice your peace of mind in the attainment of your goal.

Ambition isn’t to be admired 100%. It has its place. Moderate ambition may be admired. Unchecked ambition isn’t admirable.

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