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Rethinking Ambition: Why Less of it May be a Good Thing

May 5, 2015 3 min readSelf-Improvement

A few days ago, I was in bed, getting ready to fall asleep. Often when I’m lying in bed, I listen to a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh on SoundCloud. I find his voice and insights very soothing and it helps me calm my thoughts down and go to sleep gently.

That night again, I was listening to one of his talks called “The 4 Qualities of Happiness.” It started off with a great intro and ideas around how to live a happy life by grounding yourself and how to do it.

It talked about what true freedom means, getting rid of anger and other afflictions, then he said something I wasn’t prepared to hear at all:

“Freedom here is freedom from craving, from anger, from hate, from despair…[pause]…from ambition. All these afflictions make you not free. The happiness of a person very much relies on her freedom. If you have so much worries, anxieties in your heart, you are not free.”

Within a second I was wide awake. The face I made must have been this one:

My whole life is built on ambition

I rewinded and listened to this part of the talk about 2-3 more times. I couldn’t believe it at first.

Being completely honest with myself, my whole life was and is built on ambition. I sometimes think of myself as living and loving what people call “the hustle.” I get up, I put a lot of hours in and I’m very happy with I’ve been getting back.

I often get compliments for that too, which makes me feel very good and feeds my ego further to keep things up in that way, with that level of ambition. If anything, ambition seems to be one of the most esteemed things to thrive for in the western world. Or at least in the world that I’ve grown up in.

Even when I was in high school, people would name “ambitious” as my key trait. I often wasn’t as smart as the other kids, or as talented, but I knew how to “grind it out.” And it made me very happy; I felt proud of that.

What’s funny is that I’m reflecting on the German word people would use for ambitious, which is “ehrgeizig.” It literally translates into “being stingy of honor.” It’s funny because thinking about that German version of “ambitious” makes it much easier to see why it might not be a good thing.

When ambition gets in the way

So when I listened to Thich’s words, it really hit me like a brick. And yet, I couldn’t argue with it. In fact, the instant I listened to it, I knew it was the truth and that I should spend a lot of time with these words to fully understand and then live by them.

I realized that, of course, having ambition gets in the way of, well, almost everything. When you’re driven by ambition, it’s at its core no less helpful than being driven by fear or jealousy or anger or any other emotion we can easily identify as something we don’t want to be following.


Most importantly, it gets in the way of doing the great work of our lives, of living out what we’re already naturally gravitating towards. It also blinds my awareness especially of accepting things how they truly are—instead of making them fit my ambitions. It’s like trying to straighten something out forcefully that isn’t meant to be straight, which instead wants to follow its natural course.

My next steps

I don’t think I’ve fully processed what it means to get rid of my ambition. I do think it’s a good thing to spend time on, I just don’t quite have an action plan of what to do instead. This will be a good thing to ponder more.

In another lecture I’ve recently heard by a Buddhist monk, he said “be intimate with the things that make you uncomfortable.” So I plan on doing that, being intimate with the fact that ambition gets in the way of things and yet most of my life is built on top of it.

Writing that here already makes it less uncomfortable.

How do you manage ambition in your own life? Does it drive you or hold you back? I’m keen to hear your insights on this topic in the comments.

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