The Value of Ambition

Giving up is a temptation. It looks attractive and you think it will solve your problems. After all, why keep reading superfluous books on topics that you only need to learn about for an exam? What is the benefit to you or the world of a little extra knowledge that you probably won’t need in your daily work? Why deny yourself more time doing the things you really want to here and now? It is tempting to stop working so hard. Yet in the short-term it is the wrong choice.

There is a cynical mind-set amongst many professionals, medics included, which sees the world as a monster that will enslave you if you’re not cunning and other people as selfish, thoughtless swine who will take any advantage over you that they can get. For instance, your ‘choice’ of overworking in the NHS is not a free choice as the NHS is pretty much your only option if you want a medical job in the UK; if you leave it then your time at medical school will not immediately lead you into a similarly high-paying job. Likewise, you are competing with your colleagues for places in courses and for promoted posts and so they are unreliable allies in your pursuit of more prestigious jobs.

For cynics the choices in work are clear-cut: maximise your income and do the least work possible or lose your money for people and causes that do not care about your best interests. However, the scope of their ambition is limited. The cynic does not think of achieving his best potential in life and work, he merely thinks of having his desires for rest and comfort fulfilled. Such a mind-set does not lead to excellence.

The truth is that the NHS, the government and people in general are not intentionally making your life more difficult and, in fact, they too would like life to be easier. Their problems stem from the fact that they are reacting to the short-term crises that the problems of the day lay before them such as a lack of money and insufficient resources. You should aim to have control of your finances and your thoughts so that you have the resources to enjoy life and the mentality to be happy with your achievements.

I suggest that you cultivate that mentality by counting your blessings and avoiding the pitfalls of the wealthy. You have the health, intelligence, and stamina to work as a doctor; you have the time and money to study for further qualifications; you have the belief that your life can be even better; you have demonstrated that you are capable of working harder than the average person; you are not dealing with any other immediate crisis such as the death of a loved one, homelessness or war. These are winning cards if you care to play them.

And what are the potential pitfalls? Some of them are choices and others are black swans. For example, you could decide to buy a house with more rooms than you actually need just to show off your success, you could spend your hard-earned cash on flashy holidays for the solipsistic pleasure of ‘travelling the world’, you might reach a point in your career where you refuse to take on further responsibilities because it’s too much effort.

And what are the black swans? The concept was promoted by Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan. It basically means that you could be hit by something that you did not expect such as illness, caring responsibilities, pregnancy, economic depression, decreased wages. These could all scupper your ambitions for early retirement and a comfortable life if you do not have enough resources to ride out the storm they will cause.

So what should you do when you are faced with a tempting choice involving money or time? You could do much worse than recalling Odysseus’s instructions to his crew on the land of the Lotus-eaters. In that fictional example Odysseus’s ship arrives on a seemingly pleasant, comfortable habitat after sailing through a terrible storm that lasted for nine days. On the land the crew are offered the fruit of the lotus by the natives which causes them to sleep peacefully and become apathetic to the extent that they no longer cared about reaching their final destination and were unwilling to labour on the ship to get there. These sluggardly men were trapped: their comfort in the present prevented them from reaching a better existence in the future. Eventually Odysseus forced the men back onto his ship despite their unwillingness to leave their comfortable life of sleeping easiness.

Remember what your ultimate destination looks like – financial independence – and avoid the temptation of giving up before you have finished your journey. Be the leader and do not rely on others to keep you working for your own good.


Hello. I am a teacher living in Scotland with interests in self-improvement and financial planning. My knowledge of doctors and their lives comes from conversations with friends, who are medics of various stripes, and acquaintances who work in the profession. I have found it surprising that doctors branch off into their own specialties and rarely talk about life to their colleagues from different specialties. This is a shame and something that I think could be changed. I’d like to view myself as a messenger between medics who can add in helpful information from the outside world. I was brought onto the ‘ukdoctoronfire’ team by Rory, one of those medical friends, to give a generalist’s perspective on the life issues affecting doctors in the UK. These issues fall nicely into the motivation and finance categories. In my own life I’ve put a lot of effort into self-improvement and developing my financial situation with a view to retiring early. It is my pleasure to spread the word to others.