Are Ambition and Gratitude Mutually Exclusive?

Continuing the Discussion

When I wrote this post about achieving happiness through a lie, I wasn’t sure what type of reaction to expect.

The discussion that followed in the comments exceeded all my expectations. It made me realize the real value of this site:

Sharing ideas.

A single person’s perspective, no matter how well expressed, is necessarily incomplete. It comes from a single mind, with a single set of beliefs, and a single human experience. Perspectives are neither right nor wrong. They simply exist.

Understanding isn’t determined by what perspective you have, but by how many different perspectives you are aware of and how you relate them to each other.

When people share diverging perspectives, a broader, more colorful picture is formed that makes the individual perspectives insignificant. Looking at the larger picture pushes us to think outside ourselves and grow consciously.

Ambition v. Gratitude

On that note, the comment thread sent me on a new train of thought that I’d like to discuss.

Frank said:

Everyone exists to do something… something bigger than what we do in our day to day lives.

We have to work to get there and we need to really believe that WE WILL get there. And, honestly, the whole point is to effectively GET THERE.

Living a life thinking that we probably won’t reach our goals is probably the worst thing we can do to ourselves. Dreams are just dreams. Everyone wants to achieve something. Everyone wants to be the being they were born to be. Everyone wants to become that person for real.

Two points in particular stood out to me:

We all want “to do something bigger than what we do in our day to day lives,” and, “The whole point is to effectively GET THERE.”

This is is the definition of success: wanting something bigger and achieving it.

But don’t these two principles directly oppose gratitude? Wanting more implies being unhappy with what your have. Trying to “get there” implies that where you are isn’t good enough.

The motivation to be successful can be the cause of unhappiness, as Miguel Trujillo reminded me today in this eerily familiar passage.

I have a more than adequate salary, and I live in a more than adequate house. Nevertheless, when I compare what I have to others, particularly those more fortunate than I, I feel unhappy and frustrated. I am especially frustrated when I see no apparent differences between me and the fortunate person.

The drive to be successful, to be something bigger, to be known and admired, is a great motivator. It drives the world.

But being consumed by wanting more leaves us no appreciation for the things we have. Wanting more and being grateful just don’t go together.

In my personal experience, we alternate between wanting more and being grateful. We’re never both at the same time.

In effect we choose between two types of happiness. If we take the time to relish and enjoy the things we have now, and give up the goal of having more, we can be happy in the present moment.

On the other hand, if we decide to pursue more (be it power, fame, wealth), we can imagine an incredible future. While we work to attain more, no matter how hard the struggle, this fantasy of the future keeps us happy.

The times we’re unhappy are on the boundaries. When we aren’t grateful for what we have and don’t believe we’ll ever have more.

So how do we make ourselves happy? How do we choose between wanting more and being grateful? Do we even have a choice?

These are things I ponder. I’d love to hear your perspective.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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