Why the Ambitious Are the Least Likely to be Successful

by Alexander Heyne · 63 comments

Ambition is a mental illness.

It will not make you any more successful than anyone else.

And it definitely will not make you any happier.

For many years, I was that typical “ambitious” type. You know, I started stuff. I got good grades. I didn’t waste my time. I wanted to “change the world.”

I hustled my way through high school and college, got pretty good grades, and then entered the real world to realize that ambition is poison. 

And the sad truth is that being ambitious makes you no more likely to be successful than anyone else.

After college I started working on more and more projects on my own. I was going for the whole self employment thing, I was busting my ass, I was sacrificing friends and playtime like ambitious people were supposed to do right?

Except that after a year I was totally miserable, and unfortunately for my ambitious self, didn’t really achieve too much.

And that’s when I stumbled upon a couple important revelations.

The more you focus on success the harder it is to be successful

A major focus of this blog, Milk the Pigeon, is success and how to get “there.” That’s inevitable. It’s an obsession of mine and not really a choice – I couldn’t remove this quality from myself if I wanted.

The problem I’ve realized, after reading just about every success book out there, is that success is just like happiness – you can’t read books on success and expect to get closer.

Yes.. re-read that.. focusing on success will not get you ANY closer. And in fact, it’ll probably make you miserable because you’re focusing on the wrong thing.

Do the athletes that make it to the olympics focus on winning their olympic matches every time they train? Do they focus on winning? You want me to be honest? I doubt it.

Pro athletes focus on improving themselves over and over and over, on getting better and better. They focus on breaking personal goals over and over again — they focus on pushing and improving day after day. They focus on turning that 4:30 mile into a 4:27 mile.

Side effect? They get better. Side effect? Beating the opponent in a race. Side effect? Winning the olympics.

Success is a side effect.  It’s a side effect of many things invested in, over time.

The deceptive 4 qualities that will get you further than most, while making you more successful and much happier:

#1 If you like stripping, drop out of school and become a stripper (intrinsic interests) 

I don’t know how western society got this one wrong. But most of us have this idea that success or high achievement takes more work, it takes effort, it takes struggle, it takes discomfort.

But a lot of the people I talk to that are really good at their craft don’t talk about struggle, or pain, or agony. Work, yes. But not struggle. There’s not really much of an internal feeling that they want to avoid the work. It’s not easy, and it can get frustrating and tedious, but again there’s no intuitive pulling away feeling.

When I was young, I used to take Judo with a lot of my friends. One of my buddies really really loved the class. I loved it too, but part of my love was the love of “getting good at stuff.” I would train every day because I wanted to get good and I liked seeing improvement; I also liked the attention I got from the instructor who noticed how quickly I improved.

After less than a year I was better than 95% of the students in the entire gym. I thought it was pretty pathetic that guys who had been training for 6 years weren’t as good as I was, since I had been there for maybe 8 or 9 months. I  kind of frowned down on them, thinking that they were lazy or not committed since they weren’t interested in training every day.

As it turns out, at about the year, year and six month mark, I ended up losing interest. It was boring and I was onto better things. I wasn’t enjoying the process anymore and I wasn’t enjoying the daily training on my own.

And as for my buddy – despite many on/off periods, 10 years later he is still training and is a pretty damn good fighter.  His fire was never quite as strong as mine because his emphasis wasn’t on “getting good.” He just did it because he enjoyed it. If he didn’t want to train for a week, he wouldn’t.

As it turns out, I later learned that people that have fun and enjoy the process of what they’re doing outperform externally motivated people in the long-run, by far.

“Intrinsically motivated people usually achieve more than their reward-seeking counterparts. Alas, that’s not always true in the short term. An intense focus on extrinsic rewards can indeed deliver fast results. The trouble is, this approach is difficult to sustain. And it doesn’t assist in mastery — which is the source of achievement over the long haul. The most successful people, the evidence shows,often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success. They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because their internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplish something that endures.”

-Daniel Pink in Drive


#2 Play on playa playa (the emphasis on play and flow)

One of the next biggest problems with focusing on ambition and success is that most of us forget to play.

When the deadline gets closer, we lock ourselves in the dungeon and work harder. When the stress increases we isolate ourselves further. Because the solution is always work more or work harder.

The problem is that both of those are total bullshit. They’re lies we’ve been fed because we think there’s some insane kind of direct correlation like this:  more work + harder worker = more success.

Except it’s not true.

There are a couple key qualities about play that will make you way more successful (not to mention happier) than those who over-emphasize work (especially when it’s forced):

A. Play means you’re probably doing something you enjoy, and chances are you’ll stick with it if you enjoy it.

If you are enjoying it, chances are you’ll outlast people who do not enjoy it, no matter how much fame, money, or recognition is at the end of the rainbow. = Longevity

B. Play takes care of your mental health. 

I can’t even tell you how many things I have gotten into and have gotten extremely good at in a short time (comparatively speaking), but have felt anxious and stressed 24/7. Most of the hobbies or activities I take up that I get good at I quit because the overwhelming pressure I put on myself to get good outweighs the enjoyment.

When you play you ensure that sanity comes first. You’d be surprised, sanity is pretty important. It always surprises and disappoints me when I see what a high percentage of successful people are divorced, unhappy, and overweight. They obviously aren’t doing it right – they’ve just decided to work more.

Play = Long-term sanity and health

C. Play gets you into flow easier. 

Tell me how many things you have truly not enjoyed that you’ve stuck with 1,3,5 years down the line.

Tell me, are you mind-blowingly good at the job you can’t stand? Are you insanely motivated to show up every day to work and get better?

What about your hobbies and the stuff you do in your free time?

For those of you who love training in some sport, going to the gym, blogging, reading, etc. Does anyone have to twist your arm to get you to go? No, right? And that’s the essence behind play - it’s easy to do forever as long as it feels like play. The exact opposite is true when you are overly focused on “getting stuff done.”

“There is no reason to believe any longer that only irrelevant ‘play’ can be enjoyed, while the serious business of life must be borne as a burdensome cross. Once we realize that the boundaries between work and play are artificial, we can take matters in hand and begin the difficult task of making life more livable.”

- Csikszentmihalyi  

#3 Intuition (it ain’t just for women)

 The ambitious are also much less likely to follow their gut and go with their intuition. 

I think that is for a number of reasons: we’re told to force things and work hard, we’re too focused on getting shit done than on being patient , receptive, and observant, and that we’re way too concerned with efficiency and maximal use of time.

We’re too myopic in our view of reality and much too focused on success now, as soon as possible, and less likely to quiet down and see what our gut says.

The problem with this insane emphasis on efficiency and productivity is that it just doesn’t benefit you.

Really, read 53 books in a year? If they really are extremely useful books with a lot to digest, how the hell can you honestly apply even a small percentage of that book, let alone in a week? If you’re a business person the answer should be obvious: there’s no way in hell!

Really? Put your iPod on 2x speed so you can listen to twice as many podcasts?

Really? Skip the gym so you can get more work done?

Wake up people.. none of this shit benefits you in the long-term. And it doesn’t even make you any more successful!

Your gut will tell you which people to trust, which ones to work with, which businesses to pursue and commit to, what you enjoy, what you hate, where to live, and what work not to commit to.

But when you invest all your time into stuffing in massive amounts of information in your head and trying to maximize your use of every 36 seconds, you don’t have a moment to sit down and say: Hold up, which one of these projects deep down do I want to pursue?

Many ambitious people are inherently distrusting of themselves and often other people, thinking “They can do it all themselves” and that by sheer work and willpower it all can be achieved. Wake up kids.. that’s not at all how it works.

Your gut will get you further than your intellect – but you have to stop the over emphasis on more books, more work, more stuff, more experience.

When you’re tired, sleep, when you’re frustrated, stop and play, when you’re inspired, write longer than the 40 minute period you have allotted for yourself as maximally efficient.

The curse of the ambitious

I call this the chronically ambitious and chronically unhappy” syndrome.

We’ve been told before to enjoy the process, or to go with our gut, or to find something we enjoy.

I know you have heard this before.

But if there’s just one personal that listens to me, one ambitious person who is making themselves fucking miserable trying to be “successful”, listen to these last few words:

“Work more” needs to be replaced with “do something that doesn’t bore you.” Interest gets you infinitely farther than any forced work.

“Work harder” should be “go with your gut.” Shortcuts exist.

“Struggle, hustle, and persevere” need to be exchanged with “play more at work.”

Ambition is a mental illness that saps excitement and happiness from life, and leaves a person wondering where the time went.

Ambition is poison that shifts your mind from thinking about “having fun right now” to having fun “some day over the rainbow once I get shit done.”

Well guess what? Once you put yourself in the hamster wheel of “I’ll relax once I get shit done” you’re like a crackfiend  who is gonna quit once they take one more hit.

Kill ambition. You’ll live longer, be happier, and will ultimately be successful.

And one day, someone will ask, “So what’s the secret to your success?” And you’ll respond, “I didn’t know there was one.” 

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{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Praveen April 6, 2013 at 4:15 pm

That is cool a webpage with rank 1:). Although I disagree with you. Ambition has what made all the technology you are enjoying at the moment possible. Nikola Tesla, Edison, even Einstein was ambitious in his own way. Ambition (thinking big), and hard work is a powerful tool. Most people don’t need ambition to be moderately happy and pay their bills. Ambition should be used with simplicity to get things done, to extend yourselves and break through your self limiting beliefs and barriers. We all have barriers to get our desires accomplished and ambition can break through them. It will make you try things you have never done before and will make you the best in your career through sheer determination and one pointed meditative mind. It clearly shows you have a scatter mind, but still ambitious. Be one pointed and firm in your goals. And lastly Good Luck :)


Paul March 21, 2015 at 6:52 am

You’ve missed the point. Ambition fuelled by passion is different, he is talking about ambition as an attitude, i.e. “I have to be successful” and then applying yourself to anything and everything to achieve that goal – without really thinking of whether you’re enjoying what you’re doing. This attitude makes people waste their entire lives when they could have been getting good at something they truly enjoyed (and maybe become successful, maybe not, but even if not, hasn’t the time been better spent than grimly pursuing goals which deep in your heart you don’t really care about?).
Great inventions usually come from curiosity and play, which is not what’s being talked about here.


Jamie April 29, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I couldn’t disagree with this article more. This sentence sent me into a rage:

“And the sad truth is that being ambitious makes you no more likely to be successful than anyone else.”

How on earth did you come to this conclusion? You may have deluded yourself into believing that you’re ambitious. Ambition gives people passion and drive which makes all the difference versus someone who isn’t ambitious. This alone makes ambitious people more likely to succeed.


Alexander Heyne April 29, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Hi Jamie —

I came to that conclusion based on my experience with being an ambitious over-achiever my entire life, and continuing to be ambitious once I was starting a business. It didn’t help me much.

You don’t need ambition to show up everyday and do the work. You don’t need ambition to learn the skills necessary to succeed. You don’t need ambition to become a success or a millionaire or do incredible things.

I don’t think ambition gives people passion and drive. I think you’ve got it a bit backwards infact. Passion and drive give you ambition. In fact, I don’t see any way for ambition to give you drive and passion – seeing as ambition is entirely focused on ego – achievement. Passion and drive come from within. You can’t force yourself to be passionate. You can’t force yourself to be driven.

I think maybe you’re believing that ambition is going to guarantee you of your success — you might want to reconsider though, because it won’t necessarily. And there are many many other qualities much more inherent in “being successful” or an outward achiever than just being “ambitious.”

Hope that clarifies my point —


Ants January 24, 2016 at 1:00 pm

What you describe isn’t really ambition. Starting projects is not ambition – thats the easy part. Getting above average grades is not ambition. Working hard is not ambitious either, most people work reasonably hard.

Working for a year at a business and then giving up because it wasn’t successful yet – that shows a lack of drive and determination – two key ingredients in true ambition. The fact you gave up and then contrived a story about how ambition doesn’t make you successful as a reason for giving up makes you similar to the millions of others out there who need to have excuses for why they have failed to do much with their careers, and still work for others.

In many cases, it could take 10-15 years of intense, focused work to become a success. I’ve only ever worked for startups in my software career, and have first hand experience of this.

CJ March 3, 2017 at 3:59 am

I was going to say the same thing Ants. He clearly doesn’t understand what ambition is and that is proven with his comment below:

“In fact, I don’t see any way for ambition to give you drive and passion – seeing as ambition is entirely focused on ego – achievement. ”

For some reason he believes ambition is an ego thing which is absolutely isn’t. It has nothing to do with ego. Ambition cannot exist with passion. Has he even read the definition of ambition? Ambition is an intense desire to achieve something. An INTENSE DESIRE. That is passion!

I also laughed when he said he gave up after a year. He went from wanting to change the world to giving up after a year. That shows you all we need to know about his work ethic.

This guy just writes well and sells his BS to the world which he knows is easy enough to do because there are so many miserable people out there looking for a change. He is nothing more than your stereotypical businessman marketing his crap to the hopeless.

Success is different for everyone. For anyone that is reading this it’s simple. Figure out what you want to do with your life and start taking steps to get there no matter how crazy it sounds to others. Go after your dreams. Don’t let people like this guy drag you down. Hold Strong, never falter, stay ambitious and live life doing what you are passionate about.

Jason August 14, 2013 at 12:13 pm

I disagree entirely. Thus far, everyone disagrees with you. You’re even disillusioned in your rebuttal to Jamie. You wrote a notable editorial and did a good job in a certain sense, but that is all it is, an ill-intelligent opinion.

Please give us your concise definition of success.


Alexander Heyne August 18, 2013 at 10:17 am

Hi Jason,

I really believe that ambition is a mental illness. You don’t need ambition to succeed. Ambition only works great when you’re forcing yourself to do shit you hate, because you value external goals you have set for yourself.

Practice – habits – is what leads to success. Sometimes ambition is present, sometimes it’s not.

What is my definition of success?

Doing what I want, when I want to, with whomever I want. Success varies highly from one person to the next – and I think it’s important to realize that rather than just accept some packaged definition of success that society gives.

… Otherwise you may realize you worked your entire life for stuff you didn’t care about. Then you get lost. Then you end up emailing me :D

– Alex


Billy October 6, 2013 at 6:12 pm

I think a critical point is that, you can start with ambition, and end up with a healthy regular schedule of work that satisfies not only external rewards we originally, and continue, to seek, but, to also find joy in work we find internal resistance to, from time to time. I’d argue that we all, at some point, find resistance to just about anything and everything we encounter. I think Stephen Pressfield’s, Do The Work (http://amzn.to/1hv841z), illustrates this nicely. I also feel we shouldn’t discount mindset, and from what perspective we move forward in going about our daily lives. I totally see your point, if you are stuck looking for external rewards over a long period of time, month after month, year after year, it is not sustainable. It’s the same reason why I don’t stay at my high paying corporate job only because of the benefits and great salary, that’s only a starting point. If it weren’t for the intrinsic rewards of not only developing software engineering skills, but also learning how larger organizations work, and improving my learning how to learn (e.g. SQ3R, mind mapping, visualization, etc), I don’t think I would have made it as far as I have in my 12 year professional coding career. I think a lot of the commenters haven’t taken a step back to see the bigger picture here — ambition can be very bad in the long term, if that is the sole fuel moving someone forward. He never said it served no purpose, only that, hopefully, over time, that initial ambition will be replaced with other, more sustainable experiences, such as: enjoyment, passion, resolve, genuine interest, learning, sense of meaning, personal development, reflection, etc.

Thank you for this post, if nothing else, I feel it has succeeded in compelling some to reflect more on their work and their approach in life, which is the point of this kind of article anyway, right?


Alexander Heyne October 24, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Billy – you get me 100%. Exactly what I was going after. And Steven Pressfield’s book is fantastic.


T.P. November 16, 2013 at 3:12 am

I agree entirely, but your thinking runs straight against mainstream culture. Selling this idea would be like raking water uphill. It’s one of those things that if it works for you it is your advantage, but anyone who doesn’t already know it wouldn’t want to believe it. Sadly, as we’ve seen, they’ll attack you for it. That’s what happens when you openly oppose the dominant culture.


Alexander Heyne December 2, 2013 at 7:15 pm

T.P. that’s why I’m happier and live a life 10x more exciting than people in the “mainstream culture.” Doing what everyone does just gives you what everyone else has. If you want the lifestyle you see your parents living… then just do what they did. If you don’t want that, don’t follow them.


Kiki Gard December 19, 2013 at 11:18 pm

It is much more fun reading arguments, I mean comments, based in semantics than being in one. I liked the article though. I love a self fulfilling prophecy, that’s probably why I agree. Call me a bit of a nihilist if this makes sense to you, but I agree with both side & I disagree. I don’t think ambition is inherently bad (as mentioned above, it depends on your definition), but I don’t see the point in having it. I does seem like a nice fairy tale though. Good on you Alexander Heyne.


Dwayne Lindsey March 16, 2014 at 11:47 am

To an extent you’re right, but I think you’re confusing ambition for obsession.

Being ambitious doesn’t necessitate that you lock yourself in a dungeon and forsake everything you love to get ahead. That’s maniacal.

Ambition just means that you’re able to get ‘in your zone’ when it counts, effectively balancing when it’s time to work hard and when it’s time to play.

Ambition is being able to moderate your work ethic, dedicate 100%, 50% of the time. You can be just as ‘in the moment’ when you work as when you are spending time off.

It’s not really fair to younger people, who may have grand aspirations, that all ambition is bad just because you burned yourself out. They should still dream big and work hard, but never forget to set a TIME for it instead of making it ALL of their waking hours.


Ems May 17, 2014 at 8:26 am

“Ambition is a mental illness”? This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard. Sounds to me like your terrified and deeply threatened by this very word.
Of course ambition leads to success it’s a key motivator in getting the best out of what we strive for in life, be it work, family etc. If you’re not the ambitious type or may have been disappointed with your efforts or how situations have gone for you in the past, that’s fine, but writing articles on the subject does not mean your views are correct. Chill out, not everyone in life needs to be highly ambitious but those who are I guarantee you AMBITION is the driving factor behind their determination, motivation and success! So to all you negative souls out there keep in mind, your life is what you make of it! Trust me with positivity and ambition in your life, contrast to what this article claims, you will in fact live a longer and more fruitful life.


ash May 28, 2014 at 8:14 pm

I am way too ambitious and obsessed about making good music. It’s gotten so bad that I just can’t make anything anymore. I can’t make myself even start on a new project. Lately I am slowly realizing that it’s because I am not enjoying the process anymore, I want to get to this high level but the things I have to do to get there don’t really interest me. The key to getting there is to enjoy making not so perfect music, and to learn to play not so great music. It’s a struggle.. Can’t believe I have to re-learn how to have fun making music. It’s such a great feeling once I do get in the zone tho


Alexander Heyne May 29, 2014 at 10:12 am

Totally Ash – noticed myself falling into this trap too. Why not take a week (or month) to just make music without any goals?


Billy Fisher June 1, 2014 at 6:47 pm

This reminds me of what an old college instructor once told me for writer’s block, which seems as applicable to any creative endeavor, and has served me very well in software development: do your worst work.

What I’ve noticed is that, when your do your worst work, you can actually achieve a sense of flow almost immediately; then the rest just falls into place, any edits to the final piece simply become a part of flow. I’ve also noticed this seems to help eliminate unnecessary expectations that only serve to slow down the creative process.

DK July 11, 2014 at 12:14 am

Funny since I both agree and disagree with you at the same time which makes me think your partly onto something :).
I totally agree you need to find things that feel like “play”..
I pretty much hate working for anyone else and that is my nature. I work really hard even when working for other people but no amount of hard work will make me like it or be happy.

Therefor i’m driven (ambitous) to be independent and work for myself -but that is only one part of the puzzle. You also need to find something that you can do and enjoy, so your work can flow.

So anyways I think it’s ok to be ambitious – but you need balance and you need to find something that makes you flow, which is what I think your saying here.


Stefan October 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

This article describes my life perfectly. I work fulltime, have a business on the side and trying to get another one going. I’m making money but I am constantly miserable. I feel that I cannot pull away from any of it because I have a wife and kids to support, so I just keep on sacrificing my own happiness to try and keep my family happy. I always have more to do and have less and less time to spend with my family which is totally messed up since I am doing all of this for them.


David October 25, 2014 at 3:43 am

Ambition gets people to where they want to be. I believe you may be thinking of obsessive rumination. Athletes envision winning their games. I am ambitious myself and although I’m not where I want to be, I’d be in a worse place if I wasnt. Stressing about success doesn’t help, but ambitiously envisioning it is how we got the light bulb today.


SLF November 6, 2014 at 12:01 am

I totally agree with EMS.
I think Alexander Heyne couldn’t achieve success in life or in business, that is why he claims ambition didn’t work for him. A piece of advice : try harder next time or better luck next year because being ambitious my friend makes you better in every single way


Alexander Heyne November 7, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Haha, it’s an awfully easy scapegoat isn’t it? To just say I’m some obese cosmic loser in my parent’s basement. Here’s the question (since I obviously found a chink in your armor): is it true?

– Alex


Norelief November 29, 2014 at 11:08 pm

How old are you? Because I am old enough to know that you are 100% correct. From bottom 1% to top 1%, from caring so deeply about changing the world for the better to feeling deeply bitter and cynical…I can attest that you are spot on.
Ambition is a crime against yourself and your family.
You are lucky to learn this lesson before it is too late, assuming you are 20 to 30 years younger than me!
Success has its perks, don’t get me wrong. And there is nothing wrong with hard work. It is the attitude itself, the seeking after lofty goals, that will kill your life. This is true even after you achieve those goals. My advice is 1-don’t try to change the world. You can’t. You will experience only pain. 2-work for your SELF and your FAMILY not some “ambition.” Screw ambition. Ambition sucks. Get money, then kick back and enjoy it. 3-shut out the voice of that person in your head that tells you you have a duty to use your super high IQ, super talent, or whatever. Screw it. See advice number 2.
Good luck.


Alexander Heyne January 13, 2015 at 2:09 pm

Hi Norelief –

I’m 27, but unfortunately ambitious enough that I’ve noticed it’s toxic to happiness. It’s a paradox: ambition will make you successful, but it’ll make you miserable – almost 100% of the time if you let it.

Great advice on ignoring the people saying you should do XYZ- there’s that old saying that the ultimate way to unhappiness is trying to be what everyone else says you should be – even if it’s your parents.


Kirk Michael Gravatt December 25, 2014 at 6:15 pm

I stopped having fun a long time ago. Always focused on money, and now I don’t know what I want to do.

It’s hard to rewire yourself.


Alexander Heyne December 31, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Kirk – I am 100% like you. It can be very difficult to remind yourself how to have fun again, it’s a constant struggle for the ambitious to re-program that.


P. March 16, 2015 at 6:05 pm

This article spoke directly to me. I am 27 myself, and have spent the greater portion of my life sitting in university libraries researching and studying my a** off. Like many others, I was told that education was my first priority, and that if I worked hard enough I would end up on top of the world. I have even been described as “intellectually ambitious” (which offended me slightly, as I wondered why I hadn’t been described as simply “intelligent” :/ ).

I did end up on top of the world, it was just in a way that I did not expect. Truth be told, I ended up sitting in the most beautiful libraries in some of the most affluent places in the world. That, I can say, was a wonderful experience. Towards the later part of my academic career I felt a sense of fulfillment and happiness. Yes, I had forced myself to research, write, and give presentations on subjects I had no interest in all along the way, but I had mastered the art of being an academic through long term dedication. I enjoyed the opportunities it offered, but, even after years of practice, the process itself was stressful, forced, and down right miserable for me.

And then, it was time to graduate.

I remember talking to my academic advisor about going further and getting a PhD. He asked “do you REALLY want to?”, I thought for a second and responded “being a student is all I know.” That, of course, was not the right answer. I was uprooted and thrown into the “real world” and have been in it now for two years.

I am not sure, but I think the current economic situation has much to do with how the past two years have played out. Getting degrees and good grades from impressive schools will get you a job interview, but not necessarily anything else. The number of years in a particular field is what is rewarded with titles and high salaries these days, not hard work. On top of that, still believing that hard work would lead to success, many employers have taken advantage of me. I have gone far beyond my call of duty (practically running businesses, writing the meat of media publications, making complex websites, etc) while being an unpaid intern, a $7.25 hourly paid employee, and a worker salaried below a living wage. All without the consideration of pay increase, even when I asked.

I have even been fired because of my ambition for a company’s success. I was told that I “did not fit in” and that I wanted the company to grow and achieve more than what the other employees could digest.

So, what now? What do I do? What do I ENJOY doing? Hell if I know. I just know that I need to be happy right now, live in the present, stop forcing things, listen to my heart rather than my head, and relax (which is difficult, with gigantic student loan payments coming due soon).

I also have to tell myself not to hate the universe for not paying up the success I gave up everything and worked hard to “win” for so long. It isn’t real, it is a cultural misconception, an empty promise, and I am trying every day to let it go.

Forget the semantic arguments of the other comments. I completely understand the gist of what you’re saying and agree with you whole-heartedly.


Alexander Heyne March 17, 2015 at 10:43 pm

Hey P – Great point, and I appreciate the raw honesty here.

Now the million dollar question – What next? What’s the next step for you then?



Luisa October 28, 2015 at 7:04 am

I’m 24, I worked really hard throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, got excellent results and was the first to get a job among many of my classmates.

Today, a year later, I quit my job because I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I am living at my mother’s house and all my old classmates have jobs except me. It actually makes me laugh a little considering all the all-nighters, loss of friendships and lack of enjoyment that I went through particularly during my masters degree. Which, according to your perspective was caused by ambition, which is funny because I never considered myself particularly ambitious… it was more like hard working since I enjoy studying. But unlike many of the people who have posted here, I know what you are both saying.

Thankfully I seemed to have been lucky and come to the realisation of this fact much sooner. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it makes me feel like I’m on the right track, as you have confirmed my suspicions about how I was living my life.

Anyways, I agree with P. here, in the sense that the current economic situation is a major factor. Particularly as we don’t have the luxury of choice anymore. We kind of just go for the first job we get, without really considering it, since we need the money so badly and there is a whole world of expectations that we need to meet.

I also think that this piece, Alexander, has assumed we are all the same and all look for the same kind of success. In fact, when you define success, you say ‘I want to do what I want, when I want’. But not everyone is happy that way. I, for example, quite enjoy struggling through compromise in team work, and I love being challenged and proven wrong because that is how I learn and exercise my thought process (that sounds terrible but I had no other way of putting it). Being challenged in that way makes me happy, it gives me drive. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I get to do what I want, when I want.

So now I am in a strange transitional period where I am shifting from a person who tries her hardest to meet expectations to a person who accepts that she doesn’t even know what makes her happy. I’m re-tracing my steps to a time where I think I was happy and seeing how that goes, exploring different volunteering jobs and paying rent with a small salary I get from teaching english. But I’m happy, even is I am in a complete limbo. So perhaps, P. you could try this?

Also have you guys seen this talk? It really hit me when I was at a ‘peak’ (if you can call it that) of what seemed to me like an existential crisis :p. I am not an art student but I think it can apply to anyone really!

Maybe it will help! Enjoy!

K.R April 13, 2015 at 4:50 pm

I must say your article is very confused. Sometimes it says ambition is a good thing then it starts quoting people like Dan Pink who are clearly describing ambition. I want to be able to control my life and learn more about the world is an ambition! I can’t begin to point out the various areas where you contradict yourself.

The thing that you have described there- An athlete wanting to break his personal best.etc. are ambitions not side effects. The athlete gets up in the morning and says, ‘today I’m going to try and break my personal best’. He doesn’t say Im just gonna keep running every morning and do all these other exercises and weight training because I enjoy them ALL. When you were in Uni, they were certain classes you enjoyed and others that you didn’t. That goes the same way for every other activity too. If you simply stuck to enjoyment and not ambition then you would only run and forget about the other stuff. The sense of enjoyment comes from a goal or an ambiton.

Elon Musk was highly ambitious and he succeeded. He didn’t enjoy almost going bankrupt with Tesla. Lee Iacocca turned around Chrysler because he wanted to teach Ford a lesson. And this ambition lead him to succeed. The examples are endless. I can’t think of a SINGLE person who succeeded through enjoyment alone.

If you enjoy a video game you will simply play it recreationally and not take it to a competitive level. That requires ambition.

Kindly become something great yourself before calling ambitious people mentally ill. Please stop inadvertently killing people’s dreams.


Alexander Heyne April 14, 2015 at 12:40 pm

Hi K.R. – just because you can’t think of a single person who succeeded through enjoyment doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Business sites also are skewed towards highlighting “typical success stories” that people want to hear – be ambitious, work hard, risk it all, succeed. You don’t hear about all the ambitious people that run themselves into the ground, quit, or kill themselves.


K.R April 14, 2015 at 4:15 pm

Where did I say that everybody who aims for success ends up succeeding? Being ambitious does not automatically mean acting recklessly. Even if you had said that ambition and enjoyment have to act together I would have accepted a fraction of your arguments. However, you ended up putting such extreme points of view that there is no way somebody should accept that.

But do enlighten me. I guess I don’t know but can you share one example of a person who became successful through enjoyment alone and did not have ambition within them?

V.P April 26, 2015 at 7:56 am

I believe that you are not ambitious person, ambitious people don’t whine about their failures on their websites, they do everything to reach their full potential. You already think your journey is over, whereas ambitious people will be trying to do keep trying. No one cares what do you think or what is your excuse for not succeeding, there are only facts, that so far you are not a winner. So stop writing articles it won’t help you and just search for an opportunity, try and if you fail then search for another one, by the time you will have learned from your failures and have increased your chances to succeed. Have a look from this point of view, you know that there is success behind one of the 1000 doors, you opened several and after not finding it, you gave up, whereas really ambitious people don’t give up and keep opening doors until they find the success or death stops them.


Blake May 24, 2015 at 12:34 am

All the heros, men and women, of present and past, had ambition. As well as the villains. The “I don’t care” kind of people were the ones who end up in the dark. General Patton had ambition, as well as Adolf Hitler. Patton a hero, Hitler the villian.


Melissa July 24, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Ambition is far from synonymous with misery. You can be extremely ambitious and still have a good work-life balance. I work full time at a job I love, am working on my engineering degree, am in the national guard and still make time for exercise, family, friends, travel and my hobbies. AND while I’m working my ass off, I’m very happy and making good progress. It’s about priorities, aligning your values with your actions, having realistic expectations and solid time management.


Linken August 10, 2015 at 10:07 am

I believe people start out with passion and drive, happy it their jobs or sports etc…. Recognition is vital in maintaining passion. When you work hard and don’t get the backing needed to achieve goals. I am sure you agree people need goals to be motivated. When goals are not achieved people start to be become ambitious to achieve these goals over long periods. However as a consequence you work harder to achieve these goals, and if the environment is stifling then you are right ambition is detrimental and the harder you work not achieving work/life goals then your passion turns into ambition and when goals are not achieved turns into resentment. Crucial to sent realistic goals or move to an environment which will allow you reach your goals. But if your passion turns into ambition and this allows you achieve your goals this will be your passion. If not, well then …………… (I hope this makes sense)


Suki November 22, 2015 at 10:05 am

LOOOOOVE this article! So many favorite points from this. I think you could turn this article into a book. It is controversial and people will read it just to try to maintain their beliefs about ambition

Your gut will get you further than your intellect –
YES my brother, this is something that requires a fine balance. But when I often sit in deep quiet solitude and breathe, I can feel and see clearly how to handle many difficult situations.

Really, read 53 books in a year?
Yes to this! It is called Information Overload.
For some reason, we believe that more information is power. But really information is just another form of clutter. I’ve given away stacks of books, cds, art, articles etc because it only cluttered my brain. It did not offer any real solid enjoyment. Just over consumption. Just like we can over consume, food, sex, sleep and work. We can over consume information.

All in all, I love this article and I will be sharing it. I think you are on to something in the same vain as Tim Ferris. There are many people who will buck back but read about the basic income movement and it aligns with your principle. Ambition has its place but when it interferes with success, it is just as bad as being lazy!



Alexander Heyne November 22, 2015 at 12:15 pm
ATMARSH January 19, 2016 at 10:20 am

I find the people who love this article are self rationalizing their actions to “Live in the moment” I did this my last 3 years (2 high school, 1 college) All it equaled to was conforming to the hedonistic culture of our current society. One filled with mediocrity,addiction, and corporate slave wage tax farming mentality. Ambitious In the since that I want to read the great works of the world, or listen to audio books instead of Rap music, or stay in and get good sleep. While my peers are out rumbling about like some lowly apes chasing pleasure and momentary happiness. The second it’s acquired it fades along with everything else. I don’t know maybe my philosophy is wrong, but how can it be? Not sacrificing childhood friendships or family then everything is fine. Superficial college relationships(friend) are gut-wrenching, my thirst to learn is not even partially quenched by classes. TV/MOVIES/VIDEO GAMES=Escapism. “Having fun”=Blowing your liver and sleep cycles out in conjunction with unproductive following day. My philosophy is going against the tide of mediocrity. It’s as if your preaching go with the flow, which is acceptance of defeat.Plus “societal success” and happiness are nothing but a lie that saps hold on too. What is happiness? The moment before you want more happiness. Good day


Inna February 18, 2016 at 4:33 pm

I absolutely love what you wrote. I recognize myself in this article. I was very ambitious. I came to US with Engineering degree, got Accounting degree with GPA 3.9, passed CPA exam and got CPA license and lost my health in the process. Took me years to heal my body and soul and I am still working on it. I used to think that life is for suffering and proving myself. How wrong I was. I am leading a simple life now and I found happiness that I never experienced before. I have observed other people lives and the unambitious people that I used to judge and look down at. I guess you live and you learn.


Alexander Heyne February 18, 2016 at 10:46 pm

Inna, that’s a crazy, full circle story. What are you doing now day to day, and how did you heal yourself?


Sonal March 7, 2016 at 2:32 am

Hi Alexander, your post resonates with me. I just came back from a highly charged 3-day networking event and instantly googled ambition and stress, that’s how I came here.
I want to ask you, when you see 20-30 something yr old presenters (younger or same age as you) at such events, literally at the top of their game and running countries with their achievements, how do you stop that from rubbing on you?
Especially when such events focus on them advicing you to start now (presuming you might not have yet), don’t lose time, keep pitching and of course loads of ‘inspiring’ stuff of the sorts. It got my mind running and too excited to go sleepless with a high pulse rate and high blood pressure last night when I checked! And not to forget (no one says it out loud) – the slight or more inferiority complex the whole mega burst of ‘inspiration’ such events bring in you irrespective of your personal achievements.
I got a strong urge to rush things up and felt slower & loser-like despite all the work I do which I genuinely like and is reasonably appreciated in my personal circle..and am struggling to calm my mind from the see-saw thoughts of self-depreciation mixed with overwhelming ambition.
Would love to hear your thoughts about it.


arturo May 17, 2016 at 5:58 pm

1 agree with you 100% i could never understand the idea of being “successful” by forcing yourself to do or accomplish something in ways that you are not passionate about and i kind of sense that doing things driven by ambition leaves out a huge part of our intelligent attributes


Tommy May 18, 2016 at 7:08 pm

Wow, powerful article. This really spoke to me.

I can see why there was a lot of backlash to this concept, because many people subscribe to the whole “G0-getter” mentality, which is not entirely bad but too much of it can be poisonous. I don’t necessarily agree with the title but I do think too much ambition can be blinding. I think most people who are “super ambitious” aren’t controlling their ambitions, their ambitions control them. Their ambitions become the only thing that matters and neglect other areas of their life that need proper investments (social, health, etc). I know of people who are so focused on their purpose in life that are lonely (lack of social skills), unhealthy (lack of sleep, gym, etc), barely educate themselves (read, mentors, etc), lack financial wealth (make money to spend, don’t save) and eventually suffer because all of the things that matter that they didn’t invest enough time in catches up to them.

I was once this person, I neglected love and friends and a lot of other areas in my life except for health to pursue my goals at full force and what I failed to realize was all those other areas needed nurturing too. But we live in a society that is very black and white; the concept of “going hard and getting it” is pushed in movies, business books, music, blogs, etc.

Most of us are focused on chasing rather than figuring out how to attract. We don’t realize that the very things that we chase are nearly byproducts of some other cause that we need to invest in. Happiness and success is a by-product of fulfillment, and is not something you can chase. Most people don’t realize that being a better person in your career, your health, social life, etc will attract most of the things that we seek. If you’re a top performer in your career, you will be famous, you will be recognized and sought after. But most of us don’t register that concept because we’ve been engrained with the “chaser” mentality. Fame, winning, success, etc are all by-products of a core cause that we are so blind to know that we ignore.

Buddhism talks about “ambition, and uncontrolled desires” and I’m not a buddhist but a lot of what is mentioned is very relative to real life. Most of us aren’t wise enough to know the toxicity of uncontrolled ambition because we lack life experience.

I find that in my life, I’m focused on being a fulfilled person, bettering myself each day by investing in myself and in others. I realized most of the things we chase will end up chasing us if we are “awesome” in the eyes of the public.

Bruce Lee once said

“Like everyone else, you want to learn ‘The way to win.’ But never to accept ‘The way to lose.’ To accept defeat, to learn to die, is to be liberated from it. So when tomorrow comes, you must free your ambitious mind and learn ‘The Art of Dying.’


Michele May 19, 2016 at 7:51 pm

Thank you for this post.

I am 52 years old and am living the downside of exactly what you’re talking about here. I can tell you that you’re absolutely right, with one caveat: ambition on its own is neither good nor bad…it’s what’s fueling that ambition that can ruin your life. Are you ambitious to get better at your chosen work because it gives you joy? Or because you are seeking external validation? The former will lead to success because success will be defined by how you feel about yourself and if you get external validation, that’s simply a nice byproduct. If your ambition is fueled by the need for external validation – as mine is – you will never be successful because your success is defined by others, and that is an ever-moving target. I am hoping that before I die I can change, so I can be content. Wish me luck!


Rick May 25, 2016 at 11:45 am

This is an extremely poor piece. The attempted point was that people who only focus on success and not the strategic plan or process to get there will only add stress to their lives and most likely won’t succeed in their goal in being successful.

The title eludes to people who are ambitious are the least successful when that is absolutely false. The most successful people are the ambitious people who have a plan and are relentless in their application of the plan as long as it moves them closer to their goals. They learn from their mistakes, re-focus, adjust the plan and keep going.

Alexander, you really need to work on tightening up your thesis before writing. The advice and examples you give here is disjointed, unfocused and simply rambles.


Good morning June 20, 2016 at 9:40 am

I’m surprised no-one has mentioned

”Well that’s all right when you’re a kid, but you ain’t that young any more. You’re pushing thirty. It’s time you started thinking of getting some ambition.”
”I always thought I’d live a little longer without it.”

(On the Waterfront, 1954)


Alexander Heyne June 20, 2016 at 3:35 pm



Pen August 16, 2016 at 9:30 am

Gosh. I felt like you diagnosed me with another condition I’ve yet to identify, something that might someday ruin me. This seems to one of the root causes of so many of my frustrations.

I don’t enjoy piano – I had been angry and bored with the same exercise and my slow progress. I want so badly to truly love it, but I can’t for the love of me see the point of mastering pieces Spotify can play, and realizing that it’s too late to be a master after age ten isn’t any help. I’ve been told to quit, and technically I did. It was only when I told myself not to care about my the few songs I can play that I had a sort of motivation from pure enjoyment, and with that mindset I actually progressed, albeit slowly. Now I lost that mindset, along with my skill.

As a to-be not-now author I am lagging behind with the number of books I’ve read. I can’t be a True Writer that way; I’m like a kid with a summer’s worth of swimming lessons aiming for the Olympics. So I tried these these book count goals, which were pretty irritating. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy reading. Reading challenges are like deranged coaches forcing kids in playgrounds to master the monkey bars in their playtime. Sometimes I want the swing. Even in VIDEO GAMES, danggit, where I blaze bullets without fun, only concerned with completing the storyline or a milestone every hardcore gamer finds mandatory. I’m not even a hardcore gamer – I’m a casual, I’m at heart a pleb.

A lot of people vehemently disagree with you because they’re arguing about semantics and have never experienced this sort of problem. It’s kind of like an optimist telling a depressed person to suck it up and smile. Frankly, I think there are different variations of ambitions, the same way there are different levels of being a fans. Lots of people don’t like the word “ambition” to be tainted with this negative image, though, but no doubt the condition you are describing is ambition.


Steven August 23, 2016 at 5:38 am

A lot of people disagree with you because you’re right.


Alexander Heyne August 24, 2016 at 2:44 am



Dina January 23, 2017 at 12:38 pm

I came to this site and was initially angered by your comments.
I am 23 and have worked solidly for 5 years in the UK, so far. In a day and age where house, gas, water prices you name it, is going up its very difficult to see and operate otherwise.
I was raised to have a proper education, have good manners and morals but it seems in the working world it has gotten me nowhere as I ‘dont fit in’ because it appears I am trying to change the company’s ways. This is down to me being naturally ambitious and because I am all for saving time, money and generally being more efficient because to me, to behave otherwise is nonsensical.

In comparison my 31 year old friend is on the dole and lives day by day not knowing if he will even financially survive the next week as he chose to not be ambitious. He struggles and is noticeably unhappy.

So overall, without some sort of ambition I wouldnt be in a positive financial position which of course makes me happy, successful and at ease. I agree that play is very important but there are so many factors to consider when suggesting ‘ambition is bad for you.’ It is only harmful when you become TOO ambitious and the struggles of lack of control or being overwhelmed hold you back.

Touching on your above points… since you are saying you should do what you enjoy, do you suggest every female become a stripper/make up artist and male become a gamer/footballer since this is such easy money? Why not watch The Apprentice and see how ambitious people have succeeded from making everyday products and services that we actually need. Businesses around you wouldnt flourish if someone didnt have the initiative or ambition to kick start them, yet you use them?

Writing articles like this without being tactful causes the reader to assume the lazier you are the better you do. Give it 10 years and then tell me ambition is not important.


Vy January 24, 2017 at 2:03 am

I do agree with you…i was also an over-ambitious person..but i dont know why i end up feeling the same thing with what you feel..


Art February 18, 2017 at 8:52 pm

You have to be ambitious to begin to want to be an Olympic athlete. But ambition alone can’t make you an Olympic athlete.


Lily March 6, 2017 at 11:43 am

Before I go any further, I’m going to own up that I haven’t read every single comment posted underneath this article.

That said – it’s by turns entertaining and concerning reading the responses here that I have read. Some people are clearly on another planet. And that’s sad.

The common denominator to all of this discussion is EQ: Emotional Intelligence. As the child of an academic, I was an overachiever all through school and university. Strategised, planned, worked my ass off, and had the satisfaction of “beating” all those idiots and bimbos who made fun of me, my seriousness and funny clothes. I’ve gotta tell you that felt pretty good: not only beating them academically, but also developing the relationships and opportunities I wanted, on my terms.

But therein is the rub: I was insightful enough to realise that academic achievement alone didn’t equate to “success”, just as I could see that money and relationships alone weren’t the path to happiness either. Success is a feeling, and true happiness needs a mix of factors, and I somehow figured that out as a kid. What felt great wasn’t the “A” grade I earned, but the emotional wave I surfed when I developed the confidence of knowing I could achieve highly and had something of value in myself, that contributed towards creating relationships that brought me a real sense of belonging.

When it came to choosing a career trajectory, I had seen firsthand how academia did not afford its participants reasonable labor rights, financial recompense, or natural justice. In a nutshell, it’s a very easy industry to be outshone in no matter how hard you work, often for reasons other than the calibre of your work; and most importantly, it’s without the protections and rights afforded to workers in other industries. Along with the good folk, it’s also home to some of the smartest assholes and most intelligent personality-disordered individuals that you will ever meet in your career. So, it’s not self-actualisation if after ten years of study and ten years of research you create a world-changing formula for renewable energy and no-one pays you for it and your colleagues sabotage the research equipment so you can’t prove it even if you did get a grant. That, my friends, is in fact an existential crisis – and no more piquantly felt than by someone of an “A-grade” intellect.

Hence, I have sought employment in other industries and couldn’t be more satisfied. I currently go to work every day with people I like, for an organisation I am proud to serve, and see opportunities all around me to connect, and to learn, and to provide value based on the hands-on learning I’ve done previously. I have strong relationships in and out of my job, my conditions of work are vehemently defended by a union, and even if I never advance another rank in my entire life, I’ve still “made it” ten times over compared to most of the kids I grew up with. And, after opting out of further tertiary study and “underachieving” for ten years, I’m happier and more self-possessed in my work than almost anyone else I know – including my friends who did PhD’s.

I mentioned EQ: our definitions of success reflect what we think we want, and need, and what we will find fulfilling. This in itself is a reflection of what we do and don’t appreciate or know about our human selves. Those with a high EQ will realise that their emotional welfare is as important, if not more so, than their economic welfare (or whatever other marker of “success” you claim). Those without will continue to pursue goals that they don’t understand will come at the expense of a truly well-lived life: health, sanity, strong relationships. Tony Robbins and others have identified that setting goals that correlate with your intrinsic values, and not what everyone thinks is cool, is ultimately the best way to go for your sanity and long-term sustainable fulfilment.

Currently I work alongside another woman who is five years younger than me, and – as a recovering coke addict – thinks that the only way her life means something is if she achieves the rank of CEO so that she “can tell underperformers to take a hike”. (Wow – This is the dumbest definition of leadership I have ever, ever heard). Her ambition is eye-watering, and it poisons the relationships she has with everyone she works with – as, ultimately, she is selfishly only interested in what “badge” she can achieve that will “look good” on paper, not how her team benefits or the people within it grow … but she is miserable, hates and mistrusts herself, drives away employees, battles weight gain constantly, and is currently in the middle of a divorce. So I would ask: how is that attitude working for her?! Her solution to her current misery is: (drumroll)… start an MBA on top of everything else. I’ve never seen better evidence of a low EQ anywhere.

The bottom line is that when ambition forms an external validation sought at the expense of really knowing and valuing onesself, it can only ever lead to more dissatisfaction. Live in the moment, people: if you died tomorrow, would you want people to think that you loved well and achieved wisdom in your soul, or that you spent every minute on a hamster wheel trying to achieve some external goal that would save you from facing up to yourself and accepting your humanness?


Lily March 8, 2017 at 4:09 am

Re: the comment above from Lily on March 6, 2017 at 11:43 am which starts
“Before I go any further, I’m going to own up that I haven’t read every single comment posted underneath this article.”

That comment is coming up on my screen with “Your comment is awaiting moderation” but I didn’t submit that.

Can you delete the comment please. I think a housemate has used my computer when I left it on unattended, trying to be funny. The comment is under my name but doesn’t reflect my opinion :-( I would like it removed and not published if possible please

Many thanks,



ddo March 23, 2017 at 1:47 am

I disagree with this, and it looks like a lot of people here do too. Ambition is what drives you, failing to live & enjoy the process is when it gets bad. Ambition forces you to discipline yourself & take the necessary steps towards personal development, else everyone likes to sleep but the ones who are ambitious enough wake up early & work towards what they want. It doesn’t mean they don’t rest. Somethings require effort and most times we don’t “feel like it” but it has to be done. I have been mulling over your post for more than one week now before I wrote this. It’s a good piece but the ideas here are dangerously wrong & can lead people to become lazy in their pursuit.


Alexander Heyne January 27, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Working for a year at a business and then giving up because it wasn’t successful yet – that shows a lack of drive and determination – two key ingredients in true ambition. The fact you gave up and then contrived a story about how ambition doesn’t make you successful as a reason for giving up makes you similar to the millions of others out there who need to have excuses for why they have failed to do much with their careers, and still work for others.

Hi – actually, I do have a successful business, different from the one mentioned.


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