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

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.

  • Interesting, I’ve never thought of ambition that way. Thank you for giving me something new to meditate on today, as well as a recommendation for new stuff to listen to on soundcloud :D

  • Ivo

    Very inspiring post; thanks for sharing. Just subscribed to Thich Nhat Hanh on SoundCloud. I’ve been playing around with some tools to track my habitual goals and ended up with There’s also a great list of tools provided by Zapier:

  • :))) This might probably not become your most popular post! Awesome. I’m with you.

  • Sid

    its irony that western people are moving away from materialism and the east is moving towards materialism…i guess its a part of the cycle…interesting read. thanks for sharing

    • Wow, such a great point @sidmania:disqus. So true! I noticed that the same thing is happening in the Caribbean (where I was originally born). It saddens me to see this happening around the world. I wonder if perhaps this is because technology makes access to internet/TV so affordable and people want to emulate what they see on Western TV. My older relatives who live in the Caribbean have mentioned this from time to time.

      • Sid

        Thanks Thea. I guess it is the “me too” phenomenon. Similar to what teenagers do in college by imitating friends

    • It could be due an increasing availability of goods and emerging middle class in developing countries. People want to have what others in developed countries already have. Wealthier parts of the world have already been exposed to the contemporary materialism for a long time and are starting to see the related problems.

      • Sid

        very true Jussi.

  • I think I am in the same position as you are. Really interesting post, thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts about this topic!

  • In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes about the importance of surrendering credit. Can too much ambition prevent one from doing that?

  • I don’t see ambition like that. Maybe if you ambition wrongly and obsessively. It’s also breaking me because by now I’m full of ambition. But it’s a good way to see things from another angle.

  • Reading this from someone as young as you gives me hope. Fortunate people from the free western world we’ve known can get caught up and blinded by ambition. Believe it or not this is a deeper call and it can happen at any stage in life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    I’m currently coming to terms with the idea that what I already have is success and I should rejoice but society keeps putting labels on everything and defining success for us. I’m off to check out your personal posts at leostartsup….

  • It’s funny because I always felt like I was on the other side of this battle. I’m not a naturally ambitious person and I’ve always thought this was one of my biggest flaws until recently. Growing up in France, ambition was always a very positive thing and lack of ambition a really bad thing. That’s how I’ve learned to see it.

    Now I see things a bit differently. I just never really felt like I need more than what I have to be happy and I guess that’s why I’ve never considered myself a very ambitious person. I don’t want power, I don’t feel like running a company would make me happy. What I say to people who ask me about it is that all I need is a job I like and enough money to not worry about money. I’m not striving for much more.

    Same, I don’t want to change the world. If I can even make the life of 1 person better, I am happy.

    It’s just nice to read that it’s ok to not be ambitious (even more than ok here). Thanks for sharing Leo.

  • I went and listened to this talk. Very soothing and invigorating. Thanks for sharing!

  • Dana Sanford

    I think “ambition” is “What can I gain in status, in power, or materially over others?”. Happiness comes from giving what you can to others without concern for reward. There is no shame in receiving, as long as you also give. It’s like inhaling and exhaling.

  • Christine Gebhard

    Wonderful meditation – thanks for sharing the link!

    Regarding ambition, I feel it’s similar to the whole ego “issue”: in some teachings it sounds like one should try to get rid of the ego, while others say it’s better to
    consciously understand and embrace it, not to see it as the enemy, and then to softly detach from one’s dependence on it. I think just like the ego in itself isn’t all bad, it just depends on how strongly attached we are to it, it’s the same with ambition.

  • yesimahuman

    Awesome post Leo. I can 100% relate, as an incessantly ambitious person (the “achiever” type). I feel like I’m becoming increasingly aware of the nebulous ROI of ambition, at least from a personal standpoint.

    Anyways, you would love this post by DHH if you haven’t read it, on how Ambition can be poisionous:

  • You are right, I try to think more about how what I’m doing make a better world. And for what I see, your helping lot of people.

  • Elizabeth Noell

    Ambition always felt like something outside myself. Like I was pushing someone else’s agenda. I’m no stranger to ambition, as it lived at the heart of all that I was about for 25 years. It was not only part of my vernacular, it was also part of my operating system. Many years ago I decided to shed everything that felt like a push and started to explore the pull. Inspiration is a “pull” vs. a “push”. If I feel the tug, then I’m inspired and that’s the direction I move in. When I hear the words ambition or drive, I visualize pushing a rock up a hill. I’m a lot happier being inspired. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • automated

    Nice post. Minor edit for you: ” I get up, I put a lot of hours in and I’m very happy with [what] I’ve been getting back.”

  • I think selfish ambition is what we should seek to steer clear of and that is counter productive. Using your drive and ambition in the pursuit of your gifts, adding value and striving for excellence are all things that make life sweet and beautiful for you and others. Distinguishing between the two is important. Ambition, like fire, serves us and others well when properly directed.

  • Jonathan Sigmon Ward

    I feel that ambition becomes problematic when it’s coupled with greed and/or obsession. In and of itself, I don’t see ambition as a bad thing. I feel it’s a form of self-improvement and evaluation – asking yourself whether you’re using your gifts, talents, or resources to the fullest and best extent possible and if not what’s the next step you could take to move towards that.

  • Freya Lustie

    Is it easier to steer away from ambition when you had such success? For those who are still trying to find a measure of “success” (according to their own definition), does giving up ambition come at a higher cost?

    Much as Sid mentioned I’ve noticed the east/west swing. I agree with many point of your article. I do however wonder if it’s easier to discount ambition once ambition has helped you reach your goals.

  • This really speaks to me as I’ve often considered the dark side of ambition. I think it blinds us from the pursuit of happiness, making us think that our ambition will get us there when in fact it could be hindering us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

  • Evgeny Shadchnev

    Spot on, I’ve been thinking the same recently. I guess the devil’s in the definition of ambition. If you are attached to the outcome, e.g. you believe that you need to achieve something to be happy, successful, loved, or whatever, this may really drive you crazy, since you may not get it and even if you do, you’ll just raise the bar. However, I see nothing wrong with setting the goals and working hard towards them, while being not attached to the end result. It may, or may not work out but you’ll give it your best either way and you’ll accept either outcome. Then the focus moves into the present – doing what you can with what you have today – instead of longing for the future when things will supposedly turn out.

  • Chris Yeh

    You inspired me to write about ambition and clarify what it actually means:

    Thanks for making me think!

    • LeoWid

      wow, thanks for sharing Chris! And I love how you’ve broken down the definition of ambition in your post, that makes so much sense and is truly fascinating! I like the new one you’ve come up with :)

      • Chris Yeh

        My pleasure! Keep doing a great job at Buffer!

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