The Curse of Ambition

Updated to Life on December 27, 2022.

A person shrinks or expands into the degree and nature of his ambitions. Neel Burton, Heaven and Hell


Ambition is good. Right?

After all, I always thought I was supposed to want more stuff, bigger goals, and better results. Didn’t you?

Ambition is the revered American virtue of coaches’ locker room talk and motivational posters. As far back as Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, “A man’s worth,” was equated to his/her goals, “is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.”

Like air, the push to be ambitious is everywhere. It’s woven into advertising “You deserve the best,” self-help books “Think and Grow Rich” and speeches from any motivational expert worth their clip-on microphone.

But, sometimes I just want to turn it off.

Like this morning…

As I sat down with my tea-stained mug to face another day pulling out self-seeding To-Do’s, I found myself envying people who seem stupidly happy with their lot in life. You know who I’m talking about – they have nothing better to do than watch Survivor, or Batchelor, find the best deal on Costco patio lights and document their every breathing moment on Instagram.

Those people.

For them life is good. Just good.

They have a job, a pension (reason enough to not like them) and a TV remote so they can listen to Bart Simpson “If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.” relentlessly dumping abuse on anything smelling of ambition.

I blame it on the Boomers.

Blame it on the Boomers

Ambition is the blood fuel of the boomer generation (when in doubt, blame it on the Boomers) who grew up wanting more clothes, cars, income and square footage. They/we idolized people with long driveways lazing around their perfect pool at their perfect home with their latest perfect partner.

We certainly didn’t want to be them—gosh no.

We just wanted what they had.

And when you wear that ambitious badge it’s hard to erase.

Look at any wildly successful self-made person and you’ll find a burning desire to do it better. It’s why Martin Scorsese is still directing at 75, Bill Clinton is writing another book (a political thriller with James Patterson) at 71, at the same age James Dyson opened his own university and Margaret Atwood is still authoring best sellers at 78.

My guess is they’d all say that taking on new projects when you are, by any measure, already successful (Dyson, for example, is worth $5.5B) is perfectly normal and sensible – sort of like oatmeal for breakfast and brushing your teeth.

That’s why I think…

ambition is a curse.

The Curse of Ambition

Sure, ambition gets you more in life. In fact, more ambition can actually make you happier. The challenge is ambition comes at a cost.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to be ambitious and not have to sacrifice. Whatever you want – more education, money, freedom, travel, cars, hair – you have to sacrifice. It might mean more time learning your craft, advancing your knowledge or just getting up earlier than everyone else. When it’s in your DNA, working hard for what you want is just what you do.

Being ambitious also means you’ll never get there – sorry to break the news – by definition if you always want more you can never have enough. That’s the dangling-carrot contract you sign with ambition: go for whatever you want – just know it will never be enough.

But before you think I’m going to pull out of my hat 5 amazing ways to put salve on your burning ambitious drive. I’m not.

In fact, I might be the last person you want to get advice from on how to be happy with what you’ve already got.

After all, I’m the guy that gets up (happily, thank you) at 5 AM to write this blog. I love big goals and when one is done, almost immediately I feel something is missing and I start to seek out the next one to get my teeth into.

For me, that’s not a bad thing.

Wanting to build a school in Nepal or see how far I can go with a fledgling start-up fuels me. Making the goal scares me, but having the goal motivates me.

The alternative is not what I want – the status quo, getting by, making a living, or hanging out. The way I look at it…

if ambition is a curse, no ambition is a killer.


Tell me in the comments what’s your ambition (even if it’s a little scary)?


If this article didn’t annoy you enough, here are some more that might:

Kill Your To-Do List – surprising secrets I use to get more done
How to (finally) get your To Do list out of your head, organized, and done
Why Your Grass is Always Greener Thinking Won’t Make you Smarter, Richer, or Thinner