I lost my ambition and I don’t want it back
I started climbing the achievement ladder early. I was in private school from the age of four, I skipped the second grade, graduated from a prestigious prep school at 16, graduated from a prestigious college at 20, went on to a world-renowned graduate school. Et cetera. My career goals ranged from prosecutor for the International Criminal Court to investigative journalist to sociology professor. Whichever direction I went, I knew I would accomplish great things.
It was unquestioning — the big dreams, the thirst to achieve. I was smart, I was privileged — that meant I had to accomplish things. I only ever asked myself what I wanted to accomplish, never why I felt such a need to accomplish at all. What do you mean? I’d have asked. Do you want me to be useless?
You know the story already. I wasn’t happy, through any of it. I was going through the motions, forever confused when my experience didn’t quite match up to the satisfaction I thought I’d be unlocking with each new achievement. I was cracking. By 20, the veneer of my life was starting to peel off. I began to question the world around me more deeply. From International Development and Human Rights™, I became more interested in anarchism, socialism, critical theory, Eastern philosophy. As my knowledge expanded, I began to actively peel off the shiny promises I’d assumed of my life and look at it in a new way. I knew the accomplishments had never really satisfied. More and more, the drive to accomplish would not satisfy.
It was in this period of radical learning that I came across the concept of degrowth. Degrowth is a political ecology / ecological economics movement that calls us to shift the emphasis of our economies away from growth, to actively reduce production and consumption in the economy to within sustainable bounds for the biosphere, radically redistribute resources, and prioritize health and authentic wellbeing as our measures for a successful society.
Or to put it far more intelligibly: consume less, share more, live better.
Degrowth radically shocked my lifelong impulse to achieve. I came to understand the yearning to accomplish not as a given, but as a carefully conditioned value that had seeped into me unconsciously through decades in this economic system. The incredulous “What do you mean?” is no longer cast at the idea of living without the drive to achieve more and more, but at the idea of living for achievement. Why would I waste a life on trying to accomplish the next task?
As I’ve grown older, all desire to ascend the Ivory Tower or Corporate Ladder has utterly faded, and I’ve begun to view accomplishment very differently. I’ve stopped looking to a good life as one of achievements. Success is an obsolete idea. If my goal is a life well-lived, then it needs to be just that: well-lived. Purposeful and joyful, authentic and harmonious, courageous and loving.
My goals have shifted from achievement to subsistence and well-being, from getting ahead to harmonizing and caring. The questions that guide my actions are no longer, “Will this get me to my goal?” but rather, “Does doing this have intrinsic value? Will it increase the wellbeing of myself and those around me?” And, dare I say it, “Will it spark joy?”
There are some who might say that without the urge to get ahead and achieve, our progress would languish. There would be no invention or inspiration, no discovery or genius. This cannot be further from the truth. Necessity, not competition, is the mother of invention. Inspiration is the mother of creativity. Collaboration is the cultivator of genius. As anyone who has ever had an idea knows, inspiration comes from every possible source. It has no resolute beginning within you — it comes from anywhere and moves through you. But when we are forced to monetize our ideas in order to survive, we look at them as though they can be rigidly parceled out into Mine and Yours.
In an economic structure where we compete to survive, that encourages more and more production and consumption, it takes a mental shift to look at worth beyond productivity. Under the logic of capitalism, our goal is either to out-compete others at the top, or simply to survive at the bottom. We are shaped to be ideal workers to serve the needs of the market. We are subservient to it. We don’t think of reshaping the market to serve the needs of human beings. We don’t ask ourselves much what our authentic needs are.
When the growth-obsessed market logic dissolves, worth looks very different. Worthwhile living becomes about what feels true and beautiful, what brings happiness and peace, and what creates genuine value for you and those around you. As I’ve outgrown my fixation on success and achievement, I’ve uncovered whole new fountains of joy and meaning. Accomplishment looks different to me now. Going to therapy to finally work through a long-held trauma becomes an accomplishment. Quality time spent with loved ones or in nature becomes an accomplishment. Apologies and forgiveness become accomplishments. Being kind is an accomplishment. Smiling on a sunny day or dancing in the rain, these are accomplishments. Being wholly alive is all you have to do.
I ask you, honestly: How many things in your life do you do just to get to some goal? How many of your actions only have value to get you somewhere? Are you sure you want to be there, wherever it is you’re working so hard to go?
I’m serious, write it down: How many things do you do each day because they are worthwhile to do in and of themselves? Because they bring joy, connection, peace, inspiration, to you and to those around you? Or because they are intrinsically valuable, fun, delicious, healthy?
You don’t have to fully deconstruct that drive to accomplish, but I invite you to question it, and see if and how it reshuffles your actions.
For me — I will probably never be rich, but my life is rich like the soil. I will probably never win a Nobel Prize, but I am learning to sing and to sew and to garden. I will probably not go for that PhD, but I have spent time helping loved ones pick themselves up off the floor, learning from strangers, laughing loud and long, and getting to know myself well.
I don’t plan to be successful. I plan to be balanced and healthy, purposeful and helpful, and actually — radically — happy.
This is my idea of a worthwhile life now, and I’ll never look back.