Ambition can be a distraction from joy if we let it rob us of our potential to appreciate the smaller moments, the tiny grains of sand that fill the hourglass of life as we live it each day. Under the influence of unchecked ambition, we set goals and ignore “the noise” to conquer larger boulders, the more gargantuan landmarks that we think will lead us to happiness as a final destination.
Even when I know better, I find myself acting as if I could arrive at or own happiness. I have felt myself waste away as I tick tasks off an endless list of things that I claim will make me happy or will make life right. But there is always one more thing.
Over coffee, I listened to a friend talk about his goals. He figured out what his dream job was and made a concrete plan to make it his reality. He was so passionate that he turned every free moment into a regimented work session for acting out these steps. I was jealous.
Don’t we wish we had that kind of passion every day? I wished I had that knowledge of purpose; I thought I could be so driven and invigorated if I felt the way he did.
But he didn’t mention these things because he wanted to brag. In fact, he felt miserable, isolated and conflicted as a result of such a laser-focused approach. He felt guilty for enjoying himself since every moment of the day was budgeted for work. He was sacrificing everything, and even though it was to pursue his dreams, he wasn’t happy.
It made me wonder: Does the end justify the means?
For both of us, the honest answer was no. Living every day in such heavy sacrifice of our daily joys and small moments is a dangerous road. Even if it’s our big-boulder goals at the other end of our to-do lists, we shouldn’t squander the present in pursuit of them.
When I think about the most recent meaningful moments in my life, they had nothing to do with how much money I’d like to have in my savings account, what I’d like to be doing as a writer or completely digitizing my collection of sheet music. What I recall is conversations like that one in the coffee shop, moments when we can connect, be silly and recalibrate, building the excited energy that motivates us to press on toward whatever end.
If we give our ambitions precedent over everything, we are bound to look back on the time we spent achieving our goals and see a period where we missed out on all the little things that make life enjoyable. In extreme cases, we run the risk of isolating the people with whom we most want to share our happiness. We rob ourselves of the present and deplete the reservoir of our futures.
My advice to my friend (and certainly to myself) was to slow down and find joy in the journey. When we chase happiness, we essentially enslave ourselves to it until we learn that it is not a thing that can be caught. But we have the keys to the chains that bind us! If we chose to redefine our outlook, it’s easy to see that we can live in happiness each day. We have the chance to savor each step toward our dreams and goals, arriving at our destinations with a sense of appreciation and peace.
The meta-goal is this: The ends are as valuable as the means. Pursue your dreams wholeheartedly, but find joy in the pursuit and the process of them. Don’t try to resist the unpredictable forces of the universe that bring new and amazing things into your purview along the way. Even the greatest of aspirations can become a daunting chore with the wrong mindset.