The Curse of Ambition

man standing on rocks overlooking ocean
I vividly remember a conversation I had with one of my teachers near the end of high school. I had multiple leadership roles that year, so I had all sorts of trainings to complete, meetings to run and banquets to plan.

Maybe it was just “senioritis” kicking in, but I remember feeling weary. I think my teacher noticed, and our conversation went something like this:

“I think I’m going to take it easy in college. I’ve had so many things take up my time here, and I’m looking forward to backing off a bit. I want to focus on my studies and be a ‘normal student’ next year.”

“No you don’t,” my teacher said.

“No, I really think I do. I like all this leadership and extracurricular stuff, but I’m just tired and I think — ”

“It’s who you are, Matt,” she said. “People like you are always busy. It’s in your blood. You’ll probably be just the same in college and later in your career.”

She was right.

Busy body

My college years were very similar, and I’ve kept juggling several side projects since graduation. I don’t sit still very long, and my mind tends to wander to my to-do list in the middle of movies and football games. A desire to accomplish and move forward is in my blood. I always want to make things better, and I tend to thrive when I’m striving toward big goals.

While I believe that extra sense of ambition is a good thing, it also (obviously) has a dark side. I struggle to rest, and I’ve noticed it also tempts me to never be satisfied (is anyone else singing the “Hamilton” soundtrack now?). When I see how things can always be improved, it’s hard to truly be content with what I have, who I am and where I am.

I constantly wrestle between ambition and contentment. Anytime I have a dream for a new project, it’s hard for me to discern if it is a longing from God or a selfish desire simply to accomplish more. Is this a divine assignment, or is it a drive to earn extra cash? Do I write this blog because God blessed me with a skill to write, or do I just want another byline? Should I keep chipping away on a passion project on the weekends, or do I need to take a break and relax?

Is this me, or is this God?

Both and

Here’s the hard and annoying reality: I think both are true.

History moves forward as a result of ambition. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and, yes, Alexander Hamilton (“What’s Your Name, Man?”) believed in something so deeply they had to keep working and speaking and moving. The same is true of the heroes of the Bible: David kept fighting. Noah kept building. Moses kept leading.

Paul certainly seemed to share this ambition: In Galatians, he tells us never to grow weary of doing good (Galatians 6:9). In Colossians, he calls us to work enthusiastically “with all your heart” in “whatever you do” (Colossians 3:23). In 1 Corinthians 15:58, he encourages us to “give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,” because that work is never in vain.

Jesus himself reminded us that God is also always at work (John 5:17).

However, we also know the other side of that coin leads to exhaustion, depression and an unrealistic self-reliance that isn’t good for anyone. Certainly the Bible calls us to rest (Genesis 2:2–3), take time for stillness (Psalm 46:10) and trust in God’s sovereign control (Proverb 3:5–6). So if you find yourself in the messy middle where I often live, here are a few thoughts to consider:

Do you want this goal, project or dream to succeed—even if you don’t get credit?

If you’re hesitant to answer, that’s probably not a good sign. If your goal is virtuous and worthwhile, you should yearn for success regardless of who gets the applause. That can be hard to swallow, and some recognition is certainly acceptable. But if that is your primary motivation, spend some time reconsidering your motives.

How’s the rest of your life?

If you’re blessed with the curse of ambition, make sure you’re not alienating those closest to you. You may be sacrificing your relationships for dreams that really weren’t that healthy to begin with. Ask your friends or family how balanced they think your life is. Their perspective just might be what you need to see. For me, I have a deal with my wife that I’ll never work at home on Wednesday evenings. No matter what, Wednesdays are our time to do nothing and veg on the couch together.

Push yourself the other direction.

Most of the time the healthiest way to live is in “the middle.” If you find yourself with zero motivation to tackle new projects, you may need to start pushing yourself a bit more. But if you’re like me and struggle to rest, force yourself to set some boundaries. You probably know yourself well enough to know your natural leaning. Wherever you land on the spectrum of ambition, to keep yourself in a healthy balance, continue pushing against what comes naturally.

The Bible is also clear that Jesus came to give us freedom. So if you face these struggles, give yourself some grace. Take some time to evaluate your motives and get advice from those close to you, then do your best to move forward with the ambition God has given you.

Never grow weary of doing good, but take note if you’re always growing weary. God is always at work, but that doesn’t mean you have to be.

Copyright 2018 Matt Ehresman. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Matt Ehresman
Matt Ehresman

Matt Ehresman works as the creative media director at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan. He loves using video, images, words and sounds to help people think about things that matter. He is a graduate of Sterling College and Regent University and an expert on all things Mountain Dew and superheroes. He is the proud husband of Tillie and occasionally frustrated owner of Jarvis (their mini Aussie).