Your Ambition May be Keeping you from Happiness

 Today, we begin with a couple of questions. Is ambition good or bad? Will having ambition make you happy? 

Think about it. 

“Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.”

My answers:

Is ambition good or bad? It depends. 

Will ambition make you happy? It depends. 

Way to be committal here writer, let me explain my thoughts. 

I will start by saying that so much of happiness is about balance and moderation. As you read my posts over time you will often catch me making contradictions to previous posts. At times I will advocate rigorous exercise and at others rest. You may hear me advocating for a clean healthy diet of meat and veggies, and at others encouraging you to eat an entire birthday cake. You may be thinking: which choice will make me happy, damnit! I know, we all want straight up answers. But when it comes to an emotion like happiness, I don’t think there is one right answer, and I don’t think that there is one right way to ALWAYS make the correct choice. It is about balance, moderation, and understanding where you are right here, right now. 

Let’s get back to ambition, shall we. I believe that ambition can be good, but that it depends on what your ambition is, how much it means to you (ie how will you feel if you fail to achieve your ambition) what will the result be, and will the result justify the means. 

How do we tell if our ambition is good or bad? We need to be conscious of its impact on ourselves, but especially how it will affect others. Perhaps your ambition is to become a fortune 500 CEO. Seems like a reasonable albeit lofty ambition. What will happen when we become a CEO? We will have more money, so we can take better care of our family and those who count on us, that’s a good thing isn’t it. However, that money may also cause us to become obsessed with ephemeral things like our possessions and cause us to realign our values. What does it take to become the CEO? Hours and hours in the office for starters. This may cause you to miss out on valuable time with your spouse and your kids, sure you’re providing a better life, but is the time you are missing worth the extra few hundred thousand dollars in your estate or the extravagant 1-week vacation you’ll take later this year before you return back to the office for 70 hours a week. 

What about the decisions you’ll have to make as a CEO. You promised yourself if you ever got here that you would always take care of the little guy, heck you used to be a little guy yourself. Well, now that you’re CEO, you have to make tough decisions to improve your company’s bottom line, at the end of the day your only real job is to improve bottom line and increase share value. Well, you now have a tough decision to make: your company needs to dramatically reduce costs and the only option you and your team have been able to identify is to close one of your locations in an underperforming region. This will put 250 people out of work, directly affecting their own ability to provide for those who depend on them. Can you make that decision? If you don’t you may very well lose your own position, that one which you pursued with so much ambition. 

My answer would be no, none of the above was worth it. Presumably our hypothetical CEO above could have still provided very well for his family without the ambition to get to the very top, instead coming home from the office in time to see his kid’s baseball game, maybe they’ll have to drive a used American car instead of a brand-new luxury European model or take a vacation to the Florida gulf instead of Bora Bora. But hey, at least you get to spend time together and don’t have to make tough decisions that could cause ruin for hundreds of people. How often do you ever hear of someone on their deathbed saying: damn, I really wish I had worked harder or had more ambition? Never. It’s almost always: I wish I had spent more time just being happy with my friends and family. 

Let’s consider this too. What happens when you fail at your ambition. We will continue to work with the hypothetical of company CEO for now. Your ambition is to become the CEO. You spend dozens of extra hours each week working on assignments, preparing for presentations, going the extra mile. You are working yourself to death and are absolutely miserable, but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The current CEO is stepping down soon and you have been told that if you keep up your good work, you may very well likely be tapped as the next Chief. Again, you’re miserable now, you can’t remember the last time you went on a date with your wife, or saw your daughter’s soccer game, or was it softball that she played. Either way, the misery will soon be over, and once you become CEO, then you can become happy. 

2 weeks later the company announces that the position has been filled by a candidate from another company. You are absolutely dejected. You have spent the entirety of your career working to this point, putting up with so much pain and anguish, sacrificing so much, for this opportunity, yet you failed. You remain miserable because your sole ambition was to become a CEO, and you postponed so much happiness for the day when that would happen. 

Sounds awful doesn’t it? Yes, this is a hypothetical, but it is exactly what can happen if our ambition becomes unchecked. When we have too much ambition, we may be willing to do things that contradict our values in order to serve that ambition, such as the current CEO in our first example, who had to fire 250 people to maintain his ambition. We also delay our gratification in life and associate too much of our self-worth with whatever the realization of that ambition may be. What an awful way to live, like our second example. Should they feel like a failure in life because they didn’t become CEO, through no fault of their own? Of course not, but that’s what they feel like because they let that ambition define themselves and define their sense of happiness.  

To circle back to the original question, I would say ambition can be good if it is ambition for the right thing and the right reasons, is your ambition to be a better person, or to help others? Or at least can you pursue your ambition and still be present for your family, and gracious to others or at the very least neutral? Is your ambition selfish, is it necessary? Additionally, what does your ambition mean to you. Is it something you want but can be content and happy without, or does it define the very nature of your existence? 

It turns out that a number of philosophers had opinions on ambition as well. I will leave you with a separate quote by each of the great thinkers we have looked at to date in this blog, the Stoics: Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius; as well as the Dalai Lama and Anthony De Mello

“Curb your desire, don’t focus your heart on so many things, and then you will get what you want.” ~ Epictetus.  

“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” ~ Seneca. 

“Alexander and Caesar and Pompey. Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own. The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

“Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.” ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

“Do not suppress desire, because then you would become lifeless.” Anthony de Mello. 

Julius Caesar reportedly wept when comparing himself to Alexander, imagine the despair of his ambition and constant comparison to others.

The stoics seem to be telling us that ambition makes us a slave to desire, and insecure if we are lacking in our success at pursuing our ambition. The best way to fix this would be to curve your ambition for what you don’t have and instead to be grateful for what you do. The Dalai Lama tells us that it is ok to have success and ambition, but be mindful of the cost, what do we lose in the pursuit: our precious time with on earth, quality time with loved ones, our values. Finally, I left de Mello for last because his stands in most stark contrast to the others. He tells us not to suppress desire or risk becoming lifeless. I do believe that ambition and desire can be good, but I would urge you to consider the value of your ambition and to remind yourself that though you may have goals and aspirations, you do not need to achieve those to be happy. You can and you should be happy right now. 

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