A blue balloon being punctured by a needle and losing air

Ambition, dangerous darling

A personal and cultural history of a complex word.

Tanmoy Goswami
"My friend sent me your recent article on ambition... and I wanted to personally thank you. It was such a brilliant blend of first person and research. I look forward to reading more of your writing." - Feedback from a reader of my latest piece on the double-edged sword called ambition

Sanity is currently on a season break. I don't produce new writing during these breaks and instead point you towards my other work. Today, I am excited to share with you my deep dive into ambition for Business Insider, where I examine the idea of ambition from a personal and a broader historical lens. The piece has resonated with many readers, and if it hits home with you as well, do drop me a line. I'd love to hear from you.

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A quick preface to the piece

Ambition and I are in a complicated relationship.

For those of you new to Sanity: I am 41-year-old former journalist living with mental illness, self-harm, and suicidality. I first started publicly sharing my story eight years ago, when burnout and depression nearly killed me. #MentalHealth hadn’t yet exploded on social media. I shared simply because it helped me feel less alone.

Everything changed when I lost my job in the middle of Covid. I was raised by parents who grew up with extreme poverty and hunger, and I’ve struggled with money anxieties all my life. Watching my painstakingly constructed career of 15 years suddenly implode in the middle of a pandemic triggered my worst fears. 

In a desperate bid to put food on the table, I launched this newsletter based on my lived experience of mental illness. Three years on, Sanity has become my life's work. It has given me more than I could’ve asked for.

But increasingly, it has also forced me to reckon with a disturbing question: At what point does my pain, constantly shared as ‘content’, cease to be a tool for advocacy and become a vehicle for ambition – and at what cost? 

The conflict between my moral ambition to heal myself and help others by sharing my story, and my professional ambition to stay astride the creator economy treadmill by producing more and more, is often excruciating. It has led me to question my relationship with ambition, and recast my life in radical ways.

Along the way, I've also become interested in the cultural history of ambition: how it underwent an image makeover from a reviled vice to a high virtue, and, in the aftermath of the pandemic, back to being a dirty word.

When Grace de Graaf, editor of the Discourse section at Business Insider, invited me to write this story, I felt unsure and nervous. I regularly share my inner life on Sanity, but this was the first time I was asked to do it by a publication with a large global audience. In the end, I am thankful to BI for giving me the platform to raise a few complex questions about the hold of ambition on modern life. And I am grateful for all the love the piece is getting. Read it below, and if you like it, do share it liberally with friends.

Why I gave up on getting ahead
My drive to succeed helped lift me out of the lower-middle class. But it came at a terrible price.
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