Ironically, the happiest form of ambition is none

What do the words ‘well done’ mean to you?  Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

I wish someone had told me something when I was little. A truth which would have saved me a lot of unnecessary worry and energy. Something that would have changed my career path, and made life so much easier.

I wish someone had told me not to bother having any ambition. I wish my teachers had said: Eddie, don’t bother trying to get ahead of others; don’t bother climbing any ladders, just be yourself and see where it leads.


Our society is full of messages which we are asked to take on board without question, but which are really quite poisonous in their effect. One of those messages is that there is a ‘top’, and there is a ‘bottom’. It floods our conversation. Phrases like ‘getting on in life’; ‘being successful’; ‘being a winner’; ‘number one’… these form a pernicious layer in our brains, without telling us exactly what getting on, success, or winning actually mean.

I think we all know in our hearts that life is not a competition; but from childhood our world is flooded with the implication that it is. There must be winners and losers; there must be passes and failures; there must be authorisations and disqualifications. Before we know it, we have accepted participation in a rather brutal world which accepts and eliminates people on the basis of arbitrary rules of achievement.


I have changed the way I use the words ‘well done’. About twenty years into meditation, I found that I couldn’t sincerely discriminate between most actions. I suddenly found it difficult even to say ‘congratulations’ without asking myself what I actually meant by it. Did I mean that the object of my congratulation was doing something that was better than they usually do? Did this mean that others, who were merely kind all day, did not deserve congratulations for that?

‘Well done’ became empty. I found myself just smiling instead. I no longer felt the urge to promote one form of ladder against another… the married ladder against the single life; the childbirth ladder against the childless life…

Eventually, I worked out what I thought. I did return to being able to say congratulations. But my intentions in saying it completely changed. It has become a kind of ‘I wish you well’ statement. I don’t really have a view any more on what we all try to achieve. But I’m happy to smile and wish you well.


Here are 10 of the implicit ladders we apply:

  1. Earning more sends you up a ladder called wealthy
  2. Controlling more other people sends you up a ladder called powerful
  3. Being liked sends you up a ladder called popular
  4. Being physically attractive sends you up a ladder called beautiful
  5. Being needed by others sends you up a ladder called useful
  6. Being wanted by others sends you up a ladder called in demand
  7. Knowing more information sends you up a ladder called expert
  8. Having fewer frustrations sends you up a ladder called sorted
  9. Having more qualifications sends you up a ladder called professional
  10. Winning arguments sends you up a ladder called in the right


I wish someone had told me, very early on, that none of those ladders were worth the breath that breathes them.

I have learned, through watching people I respect, and who are kind, that perhaps the real ladders are those we hold for others. In fact, they’re more like bridges than ladders.

  1. Sharing more is how you build a bridge called helpful
  2. Giving reasonable control to others is how you build a bridge called respectful
  3. Finding a way to like others, whoever they are, builds a bridge called non-judgemental
  4. Admiring the beauty in everyone builds a bridge called uncritical
  5. Helping others to be independent builds a bridge called supportive
  6. Doing without being wanted builds a bridge called free
  7. Looking for wisdom not knowledge builds a bridge called wise
  8. Accepting frustrations builds a bridge called accepting
  9. Focusing on acting well builds a bridge called good
  10. Seeing different perspectives builds a bridge called empathic


The thing is, you don’t need ambition to be helpful, respectful, non-judgemental, uncritical, supportive, free, wise, accepting, good and empathic. In fact, some of the most unambitious people I know have these qualities in spades.

The ladders we try to build for ourselves are worthless. They bring temporary gratification, but then fall apart when we get old, retire or die.

The bridges we build are something. They often don’t look like something, because we don’t have a good system of badges that celebrates them.

But earning more, controlling, being liked, being attractive, being needed, being wanted, knowing more, escaping frustrations, accumulating qualifications, winning arguments, feel a bit like yesterday’s things.

Sharing, giving reasonable control, finding a way to like others, admiring the beauty in everyone, helping others to be independent, doing without being wanted, looking for wisdom, accepting frustrations, trying to act well, and seeing different perspectives… they feel like today’s.


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Our society cleverly persuades us to try to climb up ladders of status that don’t really exist. We get unhappy in the end. But losing personal ambition is a lovely thing. You might be poor, but you will be free.