Nate Green

The Burden of Ambition (And The Importance of Looking Behind You)

We love to set big goals and get shit done. But is our ambition making us feel unsatisfied?

As ambitious Type-A people, we feel that if we’re not finding new ways to grow, learn, or challenge ourselves then we must be moving backward. (And there’s nothing an ambitious person hates more than failing to make progress.)

Ambition has its perks, of course. It allows us to learn new skills and create new things. But I believe it can also be a burden. Left unchecked, our ambition can cause us to put too much focus on where we’re going and not enough focus on where we are now or where we’ve been.

And you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk or new-agey mindfulness expert to know that always looking toward a future, far-off goal—and failing to live in the present—is a recipe for unhappiness.

Focusing on the future is like chasing the horizon.

We step outside our doors and take a look faaaarrr in front of us, our eyes following the earth until it turns to sky. From our vantage point, the horizon seems like a fixed point, some place we can physically get to if only we start walking.

Credit: Andrew Loewen

So we start walking.

But instead of getting closer, the horizon keeps moving farther and farther away. We walk and we walk, but we never seem to reach it. After a day of walking (or a month, or a lifetime) we realize we haven’t gotten any closer.

That’s because the horizon moves as we move.

This is when ambitious people start to feel demoralized. We didn’t capture the horizon. We didn’t reach our Big Goal. And from the looks of it, we may never reach it.

What a miserable failure, we think. Why do I suck so much at life?

But if we were to take a moment to look around and maybe enjoy where we’re at, we’d likely see that from where we’re standing, things actually look pretty good. And if we were to turn around and look back behind us, well, we’d see how far we’ve actually come.

“Holy shit, I started way back there. And now I’m here.”

By all means we should continue to chase our goals. We should thank our weird biological wiring and embrace our ambition and the positive consequences that come with it. But we should also realize that our Big Goal, whatever it is, is never a fixed point. Just like the horizon, it moves as we move. We’ll never truly get there.

That’s why it’s important to pause every now and then to look around, take in the sights, see what’s happening right here, right now.

And maybe even look behind us, to see the real progress we’ve made.


(Thanks to Phil Caravaggio for introducing me to the concept of “chasing the horizon.” And thanks to you for reading.)