Getting ahead, moving up the corporate ladder, building a career, etc. — these are all legitimate, valid, and even admirable desires, if pursued for the right reasons. But where does that corporate ladder lead to? I still recall being warned by one professor, in the context of research some eleven years ago, to be careful of which totem pole to climb. Thinking on that warning some more, don't we find that all totem poles lead nowhere except to some arbitrarily higher elevation of some arbitrary spot in the ground?
And as for getting ahead: ahead of whom? And to what end? It's cliché to say that life is not a race, but if life were a race, then the end of the race would be called old age, and the prize would be death. So why would anyone want to hurtle down the race track towards that?
These questions doesn't imply that people should lead stagnant lives without goals, or without improving themselves. In fact, a person can become better by simply trying to become better all the time. What seems to become problematic is when we look for destinations, careers, and other people's lives, to not just aspire to, but to plan to achieve as a goal. I mean it seems problematic to crystallize a part of someone else's life, a life that that someone is still living, and then make it a goal to attain it.
To see what I mean by crystallization, here's two people who have careers that I'd love to have:
1) I look at someone like Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, and I think, "wow, I wish I could be like that. I want to be Director of Research! That must be such an awesome job — even he says it's 'the best job in the world at the best company in the world'!" Look at his resume — Division Chief at NASA, Sr. Scientist at Sun Microsystems, researcher at UC Berkeley, and was a Prof. at U of Southern California. I wonder how anyone, and especially how I, could build such a career!
2) Take a look at Chris Bishop, Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft and a Professor at the University of Edinburgh. "Wouldn't I want to be that 'when I grow up'!" He used to do research in theoretical physics too! Plus look at all the honours he's got, like being elected VP of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. How can I be successful like him?
Notice that out of these two people's lives, I've taken a very select aspect of it to crystallize into a portrait — in particular the titles, honours, and a minuscule portion of what they might be doing daily. Then I wonder how I can become that portrait.
The portraits are seductive — prestige and money! — but practically unattainable. They're like the "photoshopped" images of super models that are practically impossible for anyone to be in real life.
You could probably come up with several examples that apply more forcefully to your own life too. Any particular sports figure with fame and fortune you wish you could attain? Fancy the career of Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, and wish for a career that leads you to where he's at now? Want to travel the globe and be a famous travel writer like Paul Theroux? Want to be a rock star?