Ambition = NOT Happiness?

A relative of mine came up from humble beginnings. Unlike me, he grew up in a village, sailed through scholarships, attended REC and IIT, and finished his PhD. He is a decade plus older than me and he effortlessly juggles between management and technical tasks in his office. Of course, like any self made man his ego is unmatchable and he reeks with the “I” factor. I guess both are understandable and perfectly acceptable to a certain degree.

Professionally he is very successful, no two words about it.  I was having a small talk with him the other day, among other things it included my career growth as well. Needless to say, he loves to give advices. During our conversation he mentioned to me that he was absolutely unhappy with his job. I knew that he had recently changed his job because he was unhappy with his previous job. Yes, he admitted that he is never happy in any job. His point was that the very fact that he is so ambitious makes him unhappy all the time. He so wished that he was like some other colleagues who were perfectly fine doing what they do at work. And, a handful of them are more educationally more qualified than my relative.

He not only cursed himself for being ambitious, but also cautioned me. He said he knew how ambitious I am in life and asked me to keep a check on that. Of course, we were strictly talking about professional life. This equation does not hold good for personal life at all.

Honestly, I love my job. But, I constantly dream of and strive to go up the ladder. Among many things, I have seriously considered ditching engineering altogether and doing an MBA (but the 16 hour investment banking job sends a chill down my spine!!!). Inspite of all this, I am happy with what I am doing currently.

My relative strongly believes that being ambitious is the source of unhappiness. Of course the degree of ambition certainly plays it’s role. But, I am not any less ambitious than he is. I am certainly very happy with what I do. I wonder if age has anything to do with the different outlook. He is certainly much more experienced than I am and has seen so much more World than I have.

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16 Comments on “Ambition = NOT Happiness?”

  1. Aram Says:

    Funny that I should come across this curious topic on which you have written so well.

    You are ambitious but happy doing what you are doing whereas your relative is equally ambitious but unhappy wherever he is or has been.

    I have always believed that lack of ambition is a crime against oneself, though I am the biggest criminal.

    I have also believed that “progress” is achieved or change occurs mostly when one is not satisfied with what one is or has.

    It just occurred to me, after a little thinking, that the source of your happiness is not just liking what you do at your job but also your indulgence in other pursuits like creative writing, blogging, etc. In other words, you devote enough time and effort in things other than your career. You have not mentioned anything on this point about your relative.

    I thought investment banking was not the only option available for an MBA, though I appreciate your point about the travails of working for 16-hour a day. My own relative working in DSP Merrill Lynch had to be operated upon for ulcers at 26.

  2. Veena Says:

    Well, I see quite a bit of “I” in your way of conveying too. I wonder what made you to say to the whole world that you are happy for what ever it is…!?! Not sure whether you wanted to compit in the rat race and keep urself as distingushed among the rest.

    Nothing much I need to tell you here.. Life and the way we live itself is the “ambition” we carry implicitly…. but yes, we can quantify it by saying…
    Build a 2000sq ft house at the age of 30-35..
    Get an MBA degree, earn so much money till date invest here there etc.,

    As long as we differentiate between the greed and ambition, thats enough and the same way it works for being happy or ‘dissatisfied’. Being unhappy for such things will carry you no where but yes, one can be aspiring for better options in future.

    Being contented with what ever you have in the corporate world will also leave you nowhere… one needs to know how to explore the opportunity and grab when it knocks. Being proud about oneself is okay to certain extent 🙂

    ps – I don’t know the story of your relative fully, so the comment is based on what is just written here! and I think ‘Attitute has no age bars’ defined.

  3. some body Says:


    satisfaction = happiness
    ambition or dissatisfaction = unhappiness

    let me explain…

    my background is civil engineering. i had a telugu (this is pertinent) friend – he got a gpa of 4.0 (that is perfect for those who are not aware of the u.s. system) during his masters and landed a job that paid him … let’s say $x. i graduated right behind him (with a slightly more advanced degree :-), and landed a job that paid me … let’s say $1.2x :-). this was around the mid 1990s.

    he was satisfied, i was satisfied. neither of us had indian co-workers, and i was not even interacting a lot with indians other than those in my field. then one day he called me (or i called him, don’t remember which), and we were talking.

    he says “dude, i don’t get to sleep properly at night”.

    i say “why?”

    he says “well, i am talking to these other telugu (software) friends of mine and they are making $2x and they also have a similar degree like me (different field).”

    so he went back to univ and enrolled for another degree …

    [there is a lot more to this story … but this is sufficient to get to respond to your question]

    see, at the beginning, both he and i were satisfied with what we had. we did not have to beg or borrow to live a decent life, but … when he heard that someone else was making so much more than he was, he was agitated. yes yes i understand that everyone will say that we should not compare ourselves with others etc., but somewhere you have to draw the line, right?

    anyway, so he lost his happiness, and – after a while – with more interactions with indians who were not from my field, i also saw the gulf growing… and growing. then i started getting agitated too. in my defence, i slept very well, thank you very much 🙂 [maybe too well, otherwise i would have gotten a degree in software too].

    so, as long as there was no ambition/dissatisfaction, i was happy, and then i was not. same thing is true currently. as long as i am satisfied with my current situation and not look across at others, i am happy. but if i compare myself with others who are my classmates etc., there will definitely be a high level of unhappiness! no question about it.

    i end it with a quote from a local pujari!

    he had come to my friend’s house for grihapravesha; when the ceremony was over, my friend gave him some dakshina and asked him “are you satisfied?” pujari replied: “man is never satisfied.”

    is this is the universal truth? maybe.

    – s.b. [wow, even from me, this is my longest comment!]

  4. @ Aram:
    Yes, I do agree that ambition is an important part of the development cycle. You are rigth when you say that lack of ambition is a crime against oneself.

    As for my other ‘indulgences’, I do agree that they keep me more happy than my job does. But, my relative is not bad either. He ahs an amazing website, which was one of a kind at one point. Unfortunatley, I cannot give out the details sicne everyone will find out who he is and I am not sure he will be too happy to see me write about his ambitions 🙂

    I have started to believe that it’s probably the degree of ambition which really matters.

    @ Veena:
    What’s wrong with me saying that I am happy? I cannot, for a second, understand how that constitutes competition. And, I certainly have no reason to portray myself as ‘distinguished’. My posts are very straightforward and people who like my posts can think I am ‘distinguished’ and people who don’t like my posts have the freedom to believe that I am an idiot.

    You have put it very well. I agree that ambition should never become greed. That’s when the problem arises. I guess the transformation of ambition into greed is something which happens without our knowledge.

    I also agree that being contended with whatever you are doing in the corporate World will take you nowhere. You have to be aggressive, to a certain extent. Very good points!!!

    @ SB:
    I have a problem with you equating ambition and dissatisfaction. I don’t think they are one and the same. Infact, they are not all that related at all. Good story there. I can visualize the whole thing because I have several ‘Telugu’ friends who have the same syndrome.

    But, you tackled only one angle. Your point is valid in one direction. But, in my relative’s case, that is not really the direction. He probably earns more and has a better job than most of his friends, honestly. Yes, his friends have ‘other’ better things than he does, but in the end it all balances out.

    I guess I agree with Veena’s point that it is certainly a problem when ambition becomes greed. But, my relative is not greedy, he is just ambitious (plus, he keeps cautioning me!). Now, that is tricky to explain. Maybe there is no good answer to explain that thing.

    Is this the right time to announce that I am a 4.0 as well? 😉 LOL…now you know how many idiots are here, huh? So, I see that you have a ‘slighlty more advanced’ degree, maybe we should talk.

    As for pUjAri’s quote…priceless…..and I guess I am honored…the length of your post…priceless 🙂

  5. some body Says:

    dissatisfaction and ambition might not be the same, but they are related like the chicken and the egg. and when someone is dissatisfied, money ain’t the only thing. just came out of a condo [yeah i am in one :-(] meeting with high handed board members. they earn nothing (that we can see) but have the power. your relative is probably 100% satisfied with his earning, but not so with his power. mba is power, for sure! as fpr me, i’m happy bossing over some electrons.

    – s.b.

  6. mouna Says:

    @ s.b. : ambition = unhappiness.
    i don’t think that’s entirely true. it depends about the genre that we are talking about. i’ve seen people who have probably achieved their ambitions and more, leading a happy life. but that’s simply it, greed et al makes man unhappy.

    ds, as aram said, maybe i derive equal amounts of joy from the other little task that i do. though i’m not the best in class, i know i can paint, write to some extent. i didn’t realise whether i really wanted to get a diploma in arts, when i did join art classes. but i did. without my knowledge and i’m glad about it.

    as u say it’s the degree of ambition that matters. each one of us is different. i’m sure that i cannot earn the same amount of money as engineers. but i think that shouldn’t matter as such.(probably i am naive about this. as it’ll take some more time for me to recieve a pay check. i think i’ll crib about it then) 😉

  7. Veena Says:

    DS, Just was questioning ashTe. Its your blog and of course you can announce anything and everything you like… 🙂 !
    One more thing, sometimes being dissatisfied is good, atleast you have something more to achive. otherwise you come to and end and say what next ? (I have everything stage)

    s.b, great comments ! bossing over electrons… super line sir 🙂 🙂 I think you should really read recently released Yashwanth sinha’s biography.
    M A Political science–> IAS–> voluntary retirement–>Active politics–> Finance Minister.. isnt it that (money + power) multiplied by N…?

  8. bachodi Says:

    Even i am in very similar dilemma , I too am happy with job i am doing .
    But some time i feel am i not realizing i am being “alpa santhoshi” which i might realize later.

  9. @ Bachodi:
    Isn’t there some kind of conflcit right there in that statement?

  10. rads Says:

    That was a thought-provoking post. came here via da linker – sb 🙂

    I am not completely convinced on the ambition – happiness equation and various versions of it. For me ambition is the drive not the cause. What is ultimately achieved through ambition leaves you feeling happy or not based on what you set out to do in the 1st place.
    It’s like enjoying the ride more than the destination for some as opposed to being in a rush to reach the destination and then either liking it or not.

    You see what I mean?

  11. @ rads:
    If you didn’t know I have hired SB as my marketing guy and he has done a damn good job. But he still calls me an electron 😉

    I certainly agree that ambition is the drive. But, it can turn into a cuase without one’s knowledge and that is scary. What is ultimately achieved *should* make you happy, but I am not sure that it always is true. If it goes further, that’s when the problem starts. The deal is, you will never know when the journey ended (assuming you are not too interested in the destination, I am using the ‘end of journey’ as an equivalent here).

    It is quite fuzzy. But, I guess it is safe to keep a check on ambition, all the time. At the same time, it is boring to not have any dreams (= ambition).

    Thank you for a very good comment.

  12. some body Says:


    did you see rads’ to-do list for august? that is what i call ambitious!! but she is happy too – maybe, she is the exception that proves the very title of your post.

    – s.b.

  13. rads Says:

    sb – lol 🙂
    yep yep, I thrive on my drive.

    oooo, a rhyme! 😀

  14. some body Says:


    talking of unhappiness, is this too close to home for you? 🙂

    – s.b.

  15. @ SB:
    LOL…yep, saw the list. Would a guy EVER have such a big list? Hmmm…

    As for the single digit millionaire thing, I was laughing uncontrollably when I read that piece on the newspaper. The story is quite close to home, but not quite the characters 😉

    But, I have always wondered what it would be to live in a place like, say, Texas. I guess I could live in a home which is 5 times bigger than my present home and has one third my current mortgage payment. Hey, but who really wants to live in a city whose most famous tag lines include “Houston, we have a problem” and “Debby does Dallas”. Add the weather woes there. I am happy where I am, one million at a time 😉

    @ Rads:
    You could create a label and sing with just those lines, you know….who knows, you can top the charts….

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