Choosing Purpose Over Ambition: The Path to Genuine Fulfillment
We live in a world where ambition is not only praised but often seen as an essential ingredient for success. On the surface, ambition promises us glory, recognition, and material prosperity. But scrape away that shiny surface and there is often a different story underneath: one of sacrifice, exhaustion, and sometimes unfulfilled dreams. For many, the pursuit of ambition is a double-edged sword, driving them on the one hand and threatening to swallow them on the other.
This article is about a journey through the dark and light sides of ambition. About my personal experiences, reflecting on the challenges and pitfalls, and a suggestion that there may be a more fulfilling and sustainable way to shape our lives and work. A way that is less about chasing external validation, and more about aligning our daily lives with deeper, intrinsic values and motivations.
Table of Contents
The downside of ambition
Chasing ambition, along with ‘poor leadership’, is perhaps one of the main reasons for burnout or depression. At first glance, having ambitions seems beneficial for your career and finances. And to some extent, this is true. But at its core, ambition is an expression of eagerness, excessive desire, and a need for recognition. It is actually a very unhealthy way of striving, and the journey towards realizing that ambition mainly involves stress.
If you consult the etymological origins of the word “ambition”, you will find that “ambition” was used as “ambicioun” as early as the 14th century. It denoted “an eager or excessive desire for honor or advancement”.
Nurturing ambitions is not in itself a bad thing. However, it is important to realize that there are potential pitfalls and that there may be more efficient ways to find fulfillment, namely by pursuing your deepest drives and intentions.
Do you recognize that feeling of intense desire for that particular bike, car, dress, or dining table, only to quickly lose interest once owned? We give something a lot of value and once we have it, the attraction quickly fades.
This void can also occur when you get that desired job or reach a business milestone. And the sacrifices you have made for this are often great. That makes having mere ambitions as a motivator potentially harmful.
The challenge of ambitions: They are not always easy to achieve and can shift your focus away from what really matters in life.
The effort of ambitions: Constantly pursuing your ambitions can come at the expense of personal relationships, collaboration with colleagues, passions, and time for personal interests and relaxation.
The setbacks of ambitions: A tunnel vision of your ambitions can lead to deep disappointment when they turn out to be out of reach.
The emptiness behind ambitions: Fulfilling your ambitions can paradoxically bring a sense of emptiness.
Pushing your boundaries through your ambitions
Having my roots in the advertising world, I have also been active as an author since 2011. Being in the advertising industry is always quite a challenge. One tight deadline after another, with certain projects being so overwhelming that you feel like you have moved Mount Everest a bit after finishing. But even those projects pale into insignificance when I think of publishing my first book. That was a real ordeal. Had I known beforehand what it would cost me, I might never have started it.
There are people who, after making their debut as writers, are eager to become full-time writers. These individuals consciously choose to go through this nightmare several times over, only to eventually make a living from writing. Some dream even bigger and want to become the top author within their genre. Can you imagine all you have to go through and give up to achieve that?
The same applies when you have big ambitions in your career or entrepreneurship. The long hours, the setbacks, and the effort it takes are often extraordinary. You have to push yourself to keep going constantly, and when you achieve your goal, the satisfaction can soon be replaced by a feeling of emptiness.
What is even more devastating is when you discover halfway through that your goal is unattainable. Then your whole world can collapse like a house of cards, with sometimes serious consequences such as burnout or depression, for example.
Pursuing ambitions from your deepest motivation
Does this mean you should then just lie passively on the couch? Certainly not. There is a way to pursue ambitions that always gives you energy, where setbacks do not affect you, and where, after realizing your ambitions, you do not end up in a void. You achieve this by living and working from your deepest intentions and motivations.
Fortunately, I have never come close to burnout, but in the past, I have experienced moments when I seriously wondered: why am I actually doing everything I do? There were times when I questioned myself whether the things I chose and therefore sacrificed, were really worth doing.
In that period, I ran an international advertising agency with offices in Amsterdam, Budapest, and Jakarta. I also ran a telecom company, had a startup in the renewable energy sector, started writing my book, acted as an executive coach, was an occasional speaker at conferences, and headed an NGO with which I personally set up schools in countries such as Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Ghana, and Guatemala, and wrote several pieces on Meaningful Profit: a vision that seeks a balance between the profit and non-profit sector.
During the many necessary coaching sessions I underwent during that period, the doubt kept nagging; was I doing the right thing? Was it worth all the effort and sacrifice? That question kept haunting me until the day I discovered my real deepest intention, my core motivation.
I came to realize that my core belief is that when everyone has the same knowledge, there will be no more room for disagreements or conflicts between people. This deep drive to acquire knowledge and then transfer it was so intertwined with who I am that I experienced it as my life’s calling. I wrote down my feelings and insights and ended with three powerful words:
Knowledge = love.
You may wholeheartedly disagree with my views, but for me, this is the essence of why I do what I do. This constitutes my ultimate intention, my true driving force. My aim is to spread knowledge so that there is more understanding and love between people.
Is making sure everyone knows what everyone knows an unattainable ideal, a utopia? Absolutely, but a driving force may be. It’s about pursuing that ideal that makes your heart beat faster.
What does it entail when you act from your highest drive?
There are five key differences between chasing ambitions and operating from your deepest drive or highest intention.
Personal vs. Universal: Pursuing ambitions often revolves around personal gains, such as recognition, financial gain, the satisfaction of personal growth, or simply pleasure.
These are inherently focused on the ‘me’. Your true drive, on the other hand, goes further; it is about contributing to something bigger than you while remaining an integral part of it. So you can say that your highest driving force equals your sense of purpose.
Finite vs. Infinite: Ambitions have an end goal; they can be achieved. Your highest intention, on the other hand, has no endpoint. It is a continuous process, so you never feel like you are done and there can never be a void.
Energy balance: Chasing ambitions often takes more energy than it yields. Working from your deepest drive, on the other hand, feeds you. Thus, you can wake me up in the middle of the night and I will talk passionately about this topic – and many others.
Whether it’s coaching or building a school, it fills me with energy instead of exhausting me. This, of course, avoids a lot of stress and therefore virtually no chance of burnout.
Flexibility vs. rigidity: When you operate from your highest intention, your goals and methods are flexible. If writing, filming, or any other activity no longer serves me, there are plenty of other ways to contribute to knowledge gathering and sharing. Ambitions, on the other hand, are often tightly defined.
They bind you to a specific path, and deviating from it can feel like abandoning your ambition. This rigidity is often due to the heavy value we place on the end goal; not achieving it can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
A compass: When you act from your highest intention, you have a clear compass with which to determine where you do and do not give your attention. For me, advertising is still a way of transferring knowledge.
Even the telecom company I could relate – albeit with some creativity – to knowledge sharing since it is all about communication. However, the startup in the renewable energy sector did not connect with this at all.
Consequently, that was the one venture that drained my energy, so I soon quit. But when I launched the platform calltheone.com many years later with my current business partners, I was able to put 200% energy into it without any effort. This platform connects people worldwide via video calls and promotes knowledge sharing.
Many successful people have discovered to work from the highest motivation
Relative to many others, you might consider me a small entrepreneur. But let’s not forget that many iconic entrepreneurs have built their business empires also by working from their deepest drives.
Look at Richard Branson, for example. Who is not familiar with this name? Early in his career, he ventured into various projects: from his own cola brand to a train company. However, once he discovered that his ultimate goal was to make travel enjoyable and memorable, he had a clear idea of the direction he wanted his company to take. And so, as if by magic, Virgin became a reality.
Or take Steve Jobs. His trip to India was not just an outing, but a spiritual odyssey that helped him discover his true calling. After that trip, he had a crystal-clear understanding of what he wanted to achieve in the world: to seamlessly integrate technology and design to enrich people’s lives. With that intention, he returned and changed the course of Apple, making it one of the most influential companies of our time.
Ambition, in all its brilliant and insidious forms, remains a complex force in human existence. The drive to achieve something great can lead to impressive heights, but it can also pull us to dark depths. What I want to say is that we should not reject our ambitions, but become aware of their origins.
Do they reflect our true selves and our deepest drives, or are they just products of external expectations and desires for recognition? Living from our highest intentions and deepest drives offers a more fundamental and authentic path to fulfillment. A path that finds resonance in our souls and adds genuine value to the world around us.