Why I’ve Given Up On Ambition

Stepping out of the water onto the beach at Walden Pond in Concord, MA, a man asked me if I had swum across.

“I did,” I said.

“That’s ambitious,” he said, in a tone that lacked curiosity or friendliness.

I let his words hang in the humid air. On that day, the mile-long swim had not felt ambitious. The calm weather and clear, warm water made for stress-free conditions. I had taken my time, in fact I hadn’t even been wearing a waterproof watch to check my time. I wasn’t out of breath and I didn’t feel challenged by what, for me, had become a new normal. Perhaps it had been this man’s unrealized ambition to swim across?

The first time I swam to the far side of the pond and back, years ago, had been an exhilarating and hard won triumph over decades of anxiety and fear. Even though I passed many swim tests as a child, I didn’t enjoy swimming for its own sake. At the  Jewish summer camp I went to, I dreaded entering the dark, murky lake. The water was often cold, the tanned instructors not particularly warm. In my early 30s, a friend, mentor and triathlete encouraged me to join a master’s swim program. Showing up to practice a few mornings a week helped me develop the strength, endurance and confidence to attempt longer distances outside a pool, even though I still did not swim quickly, efficiently or gracefully.

The brief exchange on the beach reminded me of poet David Whyte’s take on ambition, from his book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.


is a word that strangely, lacks any real ambition, ambition is frozen desire, the current of a vocational life immobilized and over-concretized to set, unforgiving goals. Ambition may be essential for the young but becomes the essential obstacle of any mature life. Ambition abstracts us from the underlying elemental nature of the creative conversation while providing us the cover of a target that becomes false through over description, over familiarity or too much understanding.”

The phrase “frozen desire” grabbed me the first time I read it. Indeed, how many people set lofty goals, believing that achieving those targets will give them the love, attention or sense of belonging they needed but didn’t receive as children? Worse, what if along the way to achieving that unforgiving goal they pushed themselves and didn’t enjoy the process? Whyte continues (emphasis mine):

The ease of having an ambition is that it can be explained to others; the very disease of ambition is that it can be so easily explained to others. What is worthy of a life’s dedication does not want to be known by us in ways that diminish its actual sense of presence. Everything true to itself has its own secret language and an internal intentionality with a secret surprising flow, even to the person who supposedly puts it all in motion. Ambition ultimately withers all secrets in its glare before those secrets have had time to come to life from within and then thwarts the generosity and maturity that ripens the discourse of a lifetime’s dedication to a work.”

There is an expectation in our culture that one feat or milestone should, like a biblical character, beget another and another. Why stop at swimming a mile? Why not two, five or ten? Indeed, once criss-crossing Walden Pond became relatively straightforward, I wondered if I should set my sights on ocean swimming, improving my speed or doubling my distance. On a couple of occasions I joined informal group races and found swimming in a pack more stressful than fun. The idea of training to shave a few minutes off my time didn’t move me. The closest I came to having a swimming ambition was deciding to get a wetsuit so I could enjoy a longer season outdoors.

But, rather than focus on distance, speed or technique, I’ve chosen to see how I can keep my experience fresh and alive and to find in it as much pleasure as possible. That mindset doesn’t attract the cheering crowds of a triathlon or the chance to win a prize. Indeed, although I had once made a concerted effort (was it an ambition?) to feel more at ease while swimming, today the middle of the pond has become a sanctuary from society, a place where my mind wanders, my body plays and my spirit is buoyed, free from ambition and the need or obligation to explain.

“We may direct the beam of ambition to illuminate a certain corner of the future world but ultimately it can reveal to us only those dreams with which we have already become familiar. Ambition left to itself, like a Rupert Murdoch, always becomes tedious, its only object, the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us out beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place. We find that all along, we had what we needed from the beginning and that in the end we have returned to its essence, an essence we could not understand until we had undertaken the journey.”

While David Whyte is referring mostly to professional ambition, not necessarily recreational activities, we can transfer what we learn from one realm to another. In my case, if I can make my writing life more like the way I swim now – maintaining a steady pace, not comparing myself to others or keeping up with a pack, breathing freely and fully as I dive into and explore the texture of feelings and words, and finding pleasure in regularly returning to the page – I will have have struck personal gold, no medal required. I’m glad the man on the beach reminded me of that, even if it wasn’t his intention.

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