Gratitude vs ambition

What’s the opposite of gratitude?  

Ingratitude, thanklessness, or unappreciation?  

Those states are defined by what they are not: INgratitude, thankLESSness, UNappreciation. They indicate a lack: what’s missing is gratitude. Ingratitude is not the opposite of gratitude, but a state caused by the lack of it. (As thirst is not the opposite of water, but a state indicating the lack of water.)  

If ingratitude isn’t the opposite of gratitude, what is? The best I can come up with is ambition.  


Don’t dive into a dichotomy: “gratitude is good, so ambition must be bad.” (Dichotomies, at worst, are false; at best, are limiting.)  

Sometimes one state is more desirable or has a more positive effect than another. More often, both states—both sides, opposing faces of a single thing—provide different, needed effects. Both are valuable, important, and good. The key is understanding the difference. Then we can discern which state to enter (or which emotion to follow) at any given time.  

Gratitude is being aware and appreciative of life’s goodness and abundance. It’s the ability to see, or at least believe in, the gift within each experience. Gratitude is about being in the present. It’s noticing what is, in this moment. It’s understanding the unique, precious, ecstatic gift it is to be alive and in this moment, to understand that this experience will never be repeated, this confluence of interactions and emotions and sensations will never converge again in this exact same way, not for a billion, billion years, and here you are, lucky enough to be in the middle of this cosmic cross-hatching, lucky enough to be aware and receptive to it all.  

Gratitude opens you up.  

Ok, enough about that. Let’s talk about ambition, which is often equated with greed and selfishness.

First, what ambition is not: ambition is not an emotion or mood.   It’s more of a characteristic, and it has staying power:

“…ambition is a trait or disposition, and, as such, is persistent and pervasive. A person cannot alter his ambition any more than he can alter any other character trait: having achieved one goal, the truly ambitious person soon formulates another for which to keep on striving.” 

Neel Burton

As a trait, ambition shows up in the consistent drive to achieve. Ambition is not about a particular type of achievement. Having a goal or project does not make a person ambitious, either. We all strive for various achievements, with various motivations.  

The distinguishing mark of ambition is this:

“the desire for achievement or distinction combined with the willingness to strive for its achievement.”

And, I would add: once you achieve something, you quickly begin scouting for your next achievement. It’s never about the object achieved. It’s about the process and reward of achieving.  

Can ambition get sick and twisted and dark and greedy and selfish and ugly and cruel and all that other terrible stuff?  

Well, yeah. Sure. But the dark side of ambition isn’t the obvious. Ambition’s most dangerous shadow is not voracious greed or a self-justifying, cruel selfishness. Those things aren’t positive, but they’re also a) easy to spot and b) inevitably self-defeating.  

The dark side of ambition is more subtle and demoralizing. It’s a pervasive, intense, and unrelenting sense of dissatisfaction (with yourself, mostly) and failure.  

And it sucks.

“Highly ambitious people are sensitive to resistance and failure, and experience an almost constant dissatisfaction or frustration. As with Sisyphus, their task is never finished, and, as with Tantalus, the water that can slake their thirst is always in sight but always out of reach. Just as Tantalus had a rock dangling over his head for all eternity, so ambitious people live with the noose of failure hanging about their necks. Indeed, it is the fear of failure that checks the ambition of all but the most courageous, or rash, of people. Just as mania can end in depression, so ambition can end in anguish and despair.”

Successful people tend to be the most ambitious; the irony is that, as ambitious people, they do not see themselves as successful.  

Ambition’s unrelenting voice keeps pointing out the next goal, the next mountain, the next challenge, the next level.  

There’s always so much more to be achieved.  

Talking with my business coach last week, I voiced a feeling I always have when starting a new project or working with a new client: “It’s always starting from ground zero. No matter what I’ve done, or how much experience I have, I always feel like I’m starting from ground zero.”  

You can imagine how good that doesn’t feel. Starting from ground zero means starting with no resources, no tools, no skills, no experience, no helpful shortcuts, no trust in your own knowledge or expertise or authority. We can pretend; act confident; do what we need to do, despite our feelings. But the fact remains that it’s a sucky feeling, and it creates a negative emotional burden I’d rather not carry.  

Also, it is not logical. It doesn’t make sense. It does not make sense that–after years of experience and achievement in a given field–we would feel we’ve gained no ground, made no significant headway, are not successful, have to start all over again, have to prove ourselves, are lagging behind, are failures.  

This sense of failure has nothing to do with how hard we work or how much we achieve. It has everything to do with how much is left to achieve.  

It’s the shadow of ambition. It is deadly. It smothers our morale and self-worth and joy. It will weigh us down, drag us under the waves and drown us, unless we learn how to overcome it.  

(For you ambitious people, think of this as one of those foundational achievements, like getting your body fit or developing empathy or becoming a good reader or better communicator: conquer it and you’ll enjoy positive effects in your ability to achieve in other areas.)  

The way to conquer the shadow side of ambition is to develop gratitude.

“To live with ambition is to live in fear and anxiety, unless, that is, the weight of our ambition can be relieved by gratitude, which is the feeling of appreciation for past and present goods.”

Gratitude notices, accepts, and appreciates what already is (what has already been achieved). It is the counter-balance to ambition. Gratitude allows us to pause and acknowledge our own successes, which takes the desperate edge off our drive to achieve more.  

Gratitude is the choice to focus on the good in what is, right now: in your self, income, body, family, limits, skills, relationships, environment, abilities, so on. Gratitude enables satisfaction. When we extend our gratitude to include ourselves, we enable rest and self-acceptance and a much healthier (and more reasonable) perspective.  

When we no longer need to prove ourselves (because we can acknowledge and appreciate what we have already proven), we get to control our ambition. We get ambition with perspective. Rather than being slaves to an incessant drive for achievement (which never eases that gnawing sense of dissatisfaction), we take the reins. We no longer serve ambition. Ambition serves us.

“People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and strength (strength that is often born of insight) to control the blind forces of ambition, that is, to shape their ambition so that it matches their interests and ideals, and to harness it so that it fires them without also burning them or those around them.”

If ambition without gratitude feels like drowning, perhaps ambition with gratitude feels like surfing. It’s still work. There are still ups and downs, falls and failures, but there is also exhilaration and momentum and delight.  

That’s a total guess, though. I don’t surf. 🤷‍♀️  

Anyway: know what’s even more exciting? Since gratitude helps us to value our achievements and see ourselves as successful, it enables us to leverage our success and use it as we pursue the next goal. Tempering ambition with gratitude makes us better at being ambitious people.  

Level up!  

Sorry, couldn’t help it. Ambition is a tough habit to break. That’s okay. Turns out it’s not a habit I need to break, or a trait to disown or hide. It’s simply a trait I need to understand, one which can make life rich and exciting and better.

If gratitude opens me up, ambition opens the whole world up. Imagine what can be when we have the two working together.

Quotes from Is Ambition Good or Bad? by Neel Burton, M.D.

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash