Ambition vs. Meaningful Goals

Leo Widrich at Buffer recently wrote about how he has been reflecting on the dangers of ambition:

“[Ambition] 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.”

The key related point I’d like to make is that we need to be very clear about our implicit definition of “ambition.”  I think it’s telling that Leo never bothered to define ambition; we consider it so fundamental and common that it needs no definition.

Google’s quick definition of ambition seems to reflect the unsaid words in our heads: “desire and determination to achieve success.”

Yet this simply kicks the can down the road–what do we mean by “success”?  Again, Google does a good job of reflecting the common belief: “the attainment of popularity or profit.”

Put it all together, and I think you get an accurate definition of how people use the word ambition:

“Ambition is the desire and determination to attain popularity or profit.”

The problem with ambition is that it combines a good thing (desire and determination) with a bad thing (allowing others to define what is important).
When you focus on what others define as important–popularity and profit–you abdicate responsibility for your own life.  and even if your ambition is rewarded, and you achieve popularity and profit, it doesn’t bring any intrinsic meaning to your life.  It just means you’re good at playing someone else’s game.
Don’t settle for being ambitious.  Instead, develop the desire and determination to achieve personally meaningful goals.  That’s how you do the great work of your life.

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