Thursday Thoughts: Finding The Balance Between Ambition And Contentment

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Thursday Thoughts is a weekly blog series where I share my musings, ideas, and thoughts on philosophy, finance, and life.


There is a man from my hometown who has been working as a grocery store cashier for over 30 years. I know this because I used to work with him at the same store when I was in high school.

This particular man is the epitome of happiness. He is constantly in a cheerful mood and greets every customer with a smile. Simply being around him for a few minutes is enough to put most people in an uplifting mood.

This man clearly enjoys his job. He loves seeing the same people day in and day out, chatting with customers, helping people find what they’re looking for, and generally being social.

Simply put, he seems content.

And while the enthusiasm and cheerfulness this man brings to his job is admirable, I can’t help but think: with his consistently positive attitude and uncanny ability to strike up a heartfelt conversation with virtually anyone, could he be doing more with his life?

Could this man be a teacher, a coach, a motivational speaker, a therapist? Could he have more of an impact on the world if he shared his upbeat attitude with people outside of a minimum wage job?

I am in no position to judge this man and I don’t know his backstory, but I can’t help but think there must be millions of people just like him around the world – people who are seemingly not living up to their potential, but are completely content with their life. This brings up a question I think about quite a lot:

Is it better to be ambitious or content?

Is it better to have ambition and constantly strive for a higher quality of life, for more knowledge, for more growth? Or is it better to be content with where we are in life and have no deep desire to reach the next level? 

Is Immediate Contentment the Answer?

In particular, for those of us seeking early retirement I’d be willing to bet that we’re a highly ambitious group. We have a desire to live differently, to embrace an uncommon lifestyle, to accumulate enough money to walk away from a 9-5 job decades before our peers. It takes at least some degree of ambition to pursue early retirement.

But our ambition isn’t fueled by our desire to amass an impressive pile of money or receive attention for living differently. We’re ambitious because we want freedom. We want control over our time, and consequently our lives.

But doesn’t this mean we’re just striving to be content? And do we even need early retirement to be content?

Do we have it all wrong? Should we seek to be content now and not worry about early retirement? After all, if the sole reason behind early retirement is to maximize our contentment with life, surely there are ways we can change our life now to find more contentment without having enough money to retire.

The Problem With Immediate Contentment

While the temptation to pursue contentment in the short term while ignoring future implications is enticing, there are several flaws behind this line of thinking.

Circumstances Change

Just because we’re content with our lifestyle, our jobs, and our relationships we have now doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be content with them in the future. Circumstances change. Great bosses leave. New employees join. Customers come and go. Businesses close. Unemployment strikes at inopportune times. Relationships change. The future is unpredictable.

This is why choosing immediate contentment and ignoring future implications is a slippery slope. It’s entirely possible to be content with the present for several weeks, months, even years. But the moment misfortune strikes, we can be caught completely off guard if we’ve been focusing so much on present contentment that we have been completely ignoring the future.

On the flip side, if we are constantly discontent with our position in life and always striving for a better livelihood it’s challenging to be content in the present moment. 

For those of us on the road to early retirement, ambition is our best friend. It pushes us to save more, earn more, invest smarter, and pay down debt faster. All of these actions are hugely beneficial to us – they help us gain more freedom in life.

But if we’re not careful, this ambition that builds up our financial fortress can carry our minds away from the present moment. It’s easy to be so ambitious that we forget to find joy and happiness in the present.

So it seems there are benefits and drawbacks to both ambition and contentment, which begs the question:

Is there a way we can combine the benefits of both ambition and contentment – is there a way to be content now and still have ambition to strive for a better life?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, I think the entire idea of early retirement offers a wonderful way for us to be content in the present while still allowing us to be ambitious for a better future.

Finding Contentment in an Ambitious Journey

The biggest misconception about early retirement is the idea that we must be unhappy in life for a short period of time (pre-retirement) in order to be happy for a long period of time (post-retirement). It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to sacrifice present happiness for future happiness.

When we choose early retirement, we are making a choice to pursue a long-term goal that will offer us an incredible amount of freedom. Freedom to live however we want each day. Freedom to maximize our happiness in whatever way we see fit.

The long-term nature of an early retirement goal is the reason why it’s possible to be both ambitious and content on our journey towards it. When we know ahead of time that this journey will take several years, we give ourselves time to experiment with different ways of living. Like laboratory scientists, we tinker with different techniques to cut our expenses, raise our income, and improve our financial situation.

But even more so than becoming financially astute, we experience increased mindfulness.

We learn what we can live with and without. We learn that we need far less than we think. We discover what truly makes us happy. We find joy and happiness in meaningful work, in the people around us, in nature – we find that the best things in life really are free. 

Through this ambition to reach early retirement, we accidentally stumble upon happiness along the journey. 

By choosing early retirement, we’re not sacrificing present happiness at all. In fact, we’re actively choosing to live in a way that lets us discover what does and doesn’t make us happy, long before we even attain early retirement.

The journey to early retirement is really just a multi-year exercise in finding what makes us happy in life.

This is why early retirement is a hilarious and beautiful contradiction. We pursue it in hopes of gaining the freedom we need to find happiness, but more often than not we find happiness in the journey itself. 

Conclusion

So is it better to be ambitious or content?

Neither. We can choose both.

We can choose to pursue a path that will take us to early retirement while simultaneously experiencing contentment in the present moment. We can be highly ambitious for a better future while finding happiness in the present.

Feature photo credit: oranges

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9 Replies to “Thursday Thoughts: Finding The Balance Between Ambition And Contentment”

  1. This is a fantastic point. I think too much contentment is a recipe for feeling stagnated or bored, which leads to a lack of fulfillment. Too much ambition, of course, is also no good, since you can never rest and enjoy your successes. I think lately I’ve been too ambitious and not focusing on being content. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Well, you never know… this guy could have a lot of money and very well could retire, but he might just enjoy his job. There is also a concept called being a ‘scanner’, where you have so many interests, that you are better off in a low stress job environment, so that in your free time, you can have the energy to pursue and learn about the things you love.

    Also, I find that even being financially free, I still find it hard to find contentment. I feel that I need to do something profound in my life. I’m working on something right now, but for me, it isn’t the money that is a problem.

    1. Excellent point. Financial independence simply isn’t the end goal, it’s just one stepping stone in the grand scheme of life. If you’re ambitious enough to reach financial independence / early retirement you’re likely the type of person who won’t be content with just sitting around all day anyway. Finding meaningful work is hugely important.

  3. Zach, I’m enjoying your Thursday Thoughts. Ironic that I just commented on “Contenment” on your last post, I think about the topic a lot. I love the story of your grocery friend, who is content in spite of an unambitious career.

    There is a balance, but I would argue and unambitious person who is content has a more enjoyable life than a person who is ambitious, but not content. Interesting to think about…

    Choosing contentment is a major sign of maturity, and something we all must decide for ourselves on our journey, regardless of our ambition. Great thinking points, good post.

    1. Fritz, I really appreciate your feedback. I think they key is finding the right balance between ambition and contentment, which is far easier said than done. Contentment means something different to each individual and I agree, it ultimately is something we must all decide for ourselves.

  4. Great post! We are apparently in the same thought mode right now as I recently explored a similar topic myself but focused on how the pursuit of FIRE at the core is a drive for fulfillment. Personally, I think it requires ambition to find your way to the FIRIE community. While we all look forward to removing the drudgery of certain aspects of gainful employment, that is just the first step. The underlying driver is passion. Having much larger blocks of unstructured time to pursue a variety of interests. While I agree with OP that some people do enjoy their jobs, I think for most people it’s just a default path where they don’t have to make decisions. Without question, many people are highly ambitious in their careers. I think most in the FIRE community are equally passionate just in a different way. We see our jobs as a temporary, yet necessary means to facilitate pursing our personal interests. It’s in the satisfaction of those interests where we find contentment. So ambition and contentment are not mutually exclusive. They are two sides of the same coin.

    You raise a great point about learning to stop and smell the roses during the journey to FIRE. I find myself guilty all the time of wanting time to pass. Which is insane! Life should be enjoyed to the best you can at every stage. I have been getting better at not using my job as an excuse to not pursuing interests I plan to do more in FIRE. For me, that’s been writing, reading and making more of an effort to reach out to friends where contact has slowed over the years.

    Separately, wanted to extend a huge thank you for the Howard Marks referral. I have been consuming his writing for the better part of the last few days. Awesome stuff!!! Can’t believe I never found that before. Much, much appreciated.

    1. HBFI, just read your post about fulfillment being at the core of FIRE – it seems we share a very similar line of thinking. I too struggle with wanting to reach my goals so badly that I find myself wishing time would pass quicker, and I agree this is absolutely ridiculous! This is the only life we get. Wishing that it would go by faster is so foolish. I am practicing taking a step back from what I’m doing constantly throughout the day just to be grateful for all that I have been blessed with already in life – family, a great job, my health.

      Also, really glad you found value in Howard Marks’ writings! He is potentially my favorite investor. His style of thinking is so intriguing to me and there’s so much to be learned from him, especially when it comes to the behavioral aspect of investing.

  5. I suppose ambition and contentment can coexist. We feel content because we made progress yesterday. For example, we learned more about smarter investment. Our wealth accrues when time passes. In our deep heart, we still have a long-term goal that is we can maximize our freedom in the future. What we have learned, did is preparing for our freedom in the future because we still need to invest smartly when we are reach FIRE.

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