I’m Insulted When You Call Me Ambitious

“At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” - Salvador Dalí

5 min. read

I was reading a blog post someone wrote about me (I know. Let’s move on.) and they described me as “incredibly ambitious.” This was meant to be a compliment. Cool. Nice of you. But I don’t see it that way. I get upset when people describe me or think of me as ambitious. In general, I discourage ambition.

In many ways, ambition is the opposite of who I am, want to be, and what I want for others.

Ambition can be defined as “an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment,” but it can also be thought of simple as wanting more.

We’re all encouraged to be ambitious.

To work hard and be rewarded, to rise through the ranks, climb the corporate ladder; set your goals high, and if you accomplish them they weren’t high enough — set new goals higher. Work, fight, strive, reach, claw, get, more, more, more.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life unteaching myself all of that.

I’ve tried to teach myself that enough is enough. That Need trumps Want, and that I’m happier when I want what I need. Teaching myself that awards and acknowledgments and titles are external validation that will never fill a void inside me if I don’t validate myself, and that the only hurdle I need to jump for that medal is to be the least encumbered me I can be. I’ve tried to teach myself peace, contentedness, and self love.

And I’m still unlearning. And I’m still learning. And when I’m described as ambitious, it helps clarify why.

Ambitious ≠ Hard Working

I do work. I work hard. And I do work hard. My computer is my dojo, and I train long and often. But working hard does not equal ambitious.

I work hard because I enjoy working hard. Because I can. Because I don’t need much sleep, and prefer working when I’m awake over distraction. I like flexing my mind, not numbing it. I do selfless work selfishly.

I don’t work hard because I’m trying to become something; I don’t want to be anything but myself.

I’m not working hard because I want to be awarded or recognized with some merit; I’m “Sam,” that’s the only way I want to be recognized.

I’m not working hard to prepare for an early retirement, or investing now so I can later reap the crops of the seeds I’m sowing; I’m eating them as they germinate (they are delicious).

I’m not climbing; I’m enjoying the view.

I’m doing my best. And I will forever do my best. And I encourage you to do the same. But I never want to do “better than my best” or some other stupid ‘inspirational’ message you see on Facebook propogandizing ambition.

I don’t want to want. And that’s what ambition is.

Why I Discourage Ambition

There’s this quote from Hamlet that I quote all the time. It’s perfect for so many things, and it’s perfect for this:

Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on

Ambition is a beast that can’t be fed.

Collect one medal, and it won’t seem shiny when you see someone else with two. Collect two, and you’ll see how nicely the one complements the other, and crave a third. You know, for a set. A trophy case isn’t gonna be enough. You’re going to need a trophy room. And then you’re dead. And in all this medal earning and storing you never took a moment to sit down and hold one in your hands — just one medal — and reflect on what it means to you.

And in your medal lust (awesome phrase) you never gave yourself the room or space to appreciate the quest.

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I was talking with a big game trophy hunter recently (I know. Let’s move on.) and I asked him what he treasured more, the trophies (AKA dead animals scattered around his house) or the hunt (AKA hiding then surprise-killing those animals).

He said something amazingly poignant, something he’d said plenty of times, but never realized how sad it was: “Well, when I’m on the hunt I think a lot about the trophies, and how great this thing will look [somewhere in my ghastly, dead-creature-filled house]. But when I’m at home, looking at them, I can’t help but think of the hunt. That’s why I keep going back out there.”

Then he basically patted himself on his back. And so did I, but in a slower, more concerned way, because I realized (while he didn’t) how sad that all was. He was never not-wanting. Never contented. Never happy.

Ambition is always wanting what you can’t or don’t have. Contentedness is wanting what you have. One leads to true happiness and peace, the other leads to a life too busy to realize how unhappy and unpeaceful you are.

Pick yours. I’ve picked mine.