Somewhere along the line ambition got caught up with a win-at-any-costs will. Crossing ethical and moral boundaries by using unseemly tactics to guarantee success. Ambition is for crooked Wall Street bankers. Ambition is for shady real estate agents flipping pasted together houses. Ambition is for politicians who trick people into acting against their own best interests. Ambition is for people who seek only money and power.

But passion, on the other hand, is pure because its payoff is not monetary at all, but emotional. Passion makes you feel alive and free. It makes sense that passion is elevated above ambition in popular culture because it’s easier, faster. What’s forgotten in the caricature of ambition as a means to enrich oneself is the drudgery of ambition. The shit work. The humiliation. The sacrifice. The waiting… the forced patience. Hard work and determination separate ambition from passion.

Passion demands catharsis. The cycle of build up and expression of intense emotions is an engine that expends most of its energy as heat instead of leveraging that energy to propel forward even faster. Passion is self-indulgent and if improvements actually occur where others happen to benefit it’s a happy side effect, not the purpose.

Ambition demands attention and time and discipline and risk and imagination and hard work. There is no catharsis. There is no success, there is only the next goal. The next achievement. In other words: ambition doesn’t feel great, its feeling is somewhere on a scale between nothing and incredibly frustrating. Goals can be self-indulgent, but ambition itself is not.

So, why would anyone choose to be ambitious? I don’t think it’s a choice. How could it possibly be? Personality trait maybe, but it’s certainly not a character flaw. You don’t say, “I want to be ambitious”, you either are or you aren’t. You either set goals and work toward them or you don’t. You can say, “I’m passionate about...”, because passion doesn’t have any objective measure or require qualification. I don’t mean to pick on passion. Passion itself is fine—even useful at times—but it’s often confused for ambition and when compared as supposed equals, ambition is unfairly derided.

There is no ending call to action. No big celebration. No reward for having read through this entire essay. No catharsis. Like courage, where you advance in the face of fear, ambition requires advancing in the face of frustration. It requires resolve and strength and integrity and tremendous effort—all of that for the reward of the next and hopefully even more challenging goal.

July 31st, 2016