Life can’t always go up, up, up…

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Two weeks ago it was world mental health day.

A day to open up, a day to share experiences, a day to essentially normalise the fact that we all have times where we’re not okay. And the point is, that’s okay.

It’s an important time to reflect. It’s an important day of the year.

It seems strange perhaps to mention ambition in the same space as mental health, it’s possibly not a traditional struggle for most and it’s usually a word that carries plenty of positive sentiment.

That’s because ambition can be a real driving force in life.

It can be healthy to be ambitious, to have well planned goals, to have progress markers; to have an idea of where you’d like to be and where you are now.

Ambition can be the fuel you need to bounce out of bed, if you can motivate yourself without the help of others; that’s a real rarity and truly an asset in modern life.

But ambition can be hampering and like most aspects of a healthy emotional balance, it’s only good in small doses.

But ambition can be hard to control and that’s where it becomes tricky.

Ambition can be your worst enemy.

It can be relentless. If you anchor your life around ambition and success; satisfaction will always be an unreachable dream, an unquenched thirst.

If you make ambition the focus of your daily drive, you’ll soon find yourself pedalling the endless conveyer belt of modern life, floating past financial and material objects in a joyless state, only thirsty for more.

It’s why the rich get richer but often don’t get any happier. Success and ambition are so closely intertwined and therefore the majority of our ambitions are usually focused around achieving a particular status through a material purchase or gaining that promotion, or job title.

It started when we were children

Now, this could get really Freudian but actually ambition was most likely sewn into our subconscious from a very early age.

When you are a child, adults are always asking you what you want to be when you grow up. Along with “What’s your favourite subject at school?” and “Haven’t you grown!” it is pretty much the standard question at any family gathering.

And this immediately begins to imbed in us the innate need to progress. The root of all ambition is the need to progress, captured perfectly by that famous Gatsby quote that is sculpted so brilliantly by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

The Great Gatsby, originally penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“My life has got to be like this, it’s got to keep going up…”

In the West, we’re coached and taught to be constantly improving, constantly progressing; which may work some days but on others, it can be exhausting.

It can be incredibly draining to hold yourself to the same high ambitious standards, day in and day out.

The hard truth about life is that it won’t be one big, grand upward trajectory. Not in your career. Not in your relationships. Not in anything.

But that’s okay. It’s not meant to be.

Think about it. Most of us either completely suppress our ambition and never face it because we’re too scared to fail, or at the other end of the spectrum we set our ambitions too high and constantly fall short.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Life isn’t one big exponential chart (see below for a nerdy example), it’s full of natural peaks and troughs; it’s the process that’s progress because after all, you can only learn from a bad experience. Ambition can’t give you that.

False ambition can lead us to chart our life exponentially

That’s why as we learn to express how we feel, it’s time to start putting a rain-check on ambition, it’s time we addressed that it’s really at the crux of everything we stand for in the West and it might not be healthy.

It’s all around us, it’s thrown in our faces every day.

The latest iPhone or Pixel is a progression, Tesla are progressing us to Mars, Uber are progressing us to autonomous driving, Google are progressing us to artificial intelligence, Amazon are progressing us to absolutely everything you can image…

And the fact is, ambition is everywhere and it’s all rather noisy and it’s all rather pressurised.

There are many old Buddhist adages that claim we should not always be looking ahead because here, we will fail.

But instead, look at everything we have already achieved, this will give us hope and confidence to press forwards not with haste but with a realistic certainty.

If you’re struggling with your ambition:

Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.

There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.

Men, driven on by thirst, run about like a snared hare; let therefore mendicant drive out thirst, by striving after passionlessness for himself.



I usually write about coffee, tech or travel but often take meandering diversions. I co-founded a content agency: