Unlearning ambition

Calvin Dong
3 min readOct 8, 2021
my last night in HK

If you had asked me to describe myself in 3 words back in 2015, I’d probably have included the word “ambitious” in there. I couldn’t tell you why that was — but what I did know was that I had some nebulous concept of “making an impact on the world” and that part of myself was core to my sense of identity.

Fast forward to now, though, and I’ve come to realize that ambition is one of the most slyly corrosive qualities out there. The purest form of ambition is supposed to denote “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work”. What I’ve seen though, is that most ambitious people actually have a lot more latent feelings behind that desire, typically involving an urge to pad resumes with accomplishments, ingratiate themselves to the cultural elite, or otherwise gain power over others to feel important. Of course, that isn’t to say that all ambitious people are bad — it’s more to say that the ones who are doing it for the purest purposes aren’t quite as common.

This realization was a slow build. Early on, I was heavily influenced by friends who lived by the motto to “always achieve more”, but in pushing myself to do that, I felt strangely empty. With every new line that I got on my resume, I felt my personality start to reduce itself to a heap of line items that tried to, but never could, encapsulate who I was. My interests started fading away, to get replaced by the never-ending hustle of achievement. What I really wanted to do with all this, I wasn’t sure; the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted more.

My viewpoint today is that this is a shallow way to live a life, and something that being classically ambitious will slowly condition yourself towards accepting. Did I really do all this because I wanted to, or more because I wanted the status, respect, and feelings that came with success?

The turning point came when I decided to pursue a creative writing minor late in college. Even though I didn’t up finishing, that decision was something that a younger me would’ve scoffed at. A creative writing minor added virtually nothing to my resume — it didn’t have any relation to what I was going to pursue after college, nor was it relevant to anything I had done up to that point. It was something I wanted to do for the sole fact that I felt compelled to, and that was enough for me, ambition be damned. Each class I took gradually validated that decision. I was writing collaborative fiction with my peers, learning about Asian American literature, and so much more — those classes were the breath of fresh air I needed.

A few months later, I was sitting in my room and I remembered there was a deadline for a prestigious program for engineers coming up. I shot up out my seat, grabbed my computer, and checked the website — the deadline was today. I threw together some essays, uploaded my resume, and hovered my finger over the submit button.

I never submitted it. I went to Shooting Star with my friends instead. Because even if had I got in, participating meant nothing to me.

I’ll end this with some words from one of my creative writing professors:

Writers don’t write because they want to make it rich or get famous. They write because they have something to tell the world, and they’ll go crazy if they keep it inside.