Against Ambition

So, first of all, I’m aware of the irony. The very act of writing this implies a certain amount of ambition. Like the great majority of writers, I write because it’s fun, but also because I want to be read. I’m large! I contain multitudes!

But we use ambition in two senses. One is the ambition to achieve something or get better at something. I, for example, am finding a strange ambition to get good enough at guitar to play some fingerpickin’ blues. (I haven’t picked up a guitar in probably ten years) I also have an ambition to write a long piece in iambic pentameter. These are ambitions I have to stretch myself, to do something difficult, and I think that kind of ambition is fine.

But then there’s the ambition to make a name for yourself. To do something that matters. To become a person who matters. And it’s this ambition I think is ultimately destructive.

Lots of people have written about why it’s a bad idea to seek validation from the world—the world is fickle, and their validation turns to neglect or contempt impossibly quickly; seeking the approval of people you don’t know often comes at the expense of being present for people you do know; and of course the world’s validation never quite fills the hole in your soul like you thought it would.

But ambition isn’t just destructive to you; it’s harmful to others as well. Let’s come back to becoming someone who matters. “I achieved a thing, and therefore I am a person of consequence,” we tell ourselves.

So what does that say about people who haven’t achieved that thing? If you think that you have to earn your value on this planet, what do you think of people who haven’t achieved what you’ve achieved? That they’re irrelevant. That they don’t matter. That, absent achievement, they are barely human at all.

That’s an ugly thought, and you can probably convince yourself that it doesn’t apply to you. You should be aware, though, that nobody else buys your rationalization. Are you uncomfortable around people with less prestigious jobs than you? Is this because you think they know you look down on them? Well, you’re right. They do.

Because you really don’t think that you alone have to earn your spot on earth. You believe that’s what people should do, and people who don’t are ultimately worthless.

And this, of course, is the root of pretty much all the world’s problems. When you deny other people’s humanity, then you can justify doing almost anything to them. I’m not talking just about genocide (though, yes, also that, definitely that) but also about neglect. Well, of course you don’t get decent health care in prison. If you wanted to be treated like a human, you shouldn’t have done a nonviolent drug crime! Of course you’ll face discrimination because you can’t afford cosmetic dentistry after your tooth was knocked out in an accident—you should have a better job with better insurance!

I could spend the entire day spinning out examples. The United States is especially cruel to people that policymakers believe haven’t been ambitious enough to earn their humanity.

Well, the hell with that. You matter by virtue of being born. And so does everyone else. It’s long past time we stop thinking of ambition as a positive quality and start recognizing it as a pathology that is making our world sick.