Today I will be writing about ambition. Though not a trained psychologist, sociologist or any other type of -ogist, except for exercise physiologist, I will attempt do discuss why humans experience the drive for ambition, how it can be both a negative and positive state, and the various ways upon which it affects our happiness.
To begin with, I suppose we should define ambition such that are all aware of what exactly it is being discussed here. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ambition as: “(n) a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” Most of us probably experience ambition as our drive to reach a goal, to smash a record, to do something memorable. On some level we are probably all aware of ambition and what it is but how does it affect us?
Ambition is tricky because it can be both a positive and a negative. Positive ambition is when we have a strong desire to achieve some type of goal and our desire for that achievement is strong enough that it compels us to action. In so being compelled we theoretically become “better” in some sense. We may become a more skilled artist in our ambition to learn how to paint; we may be promoted at work- earning more money, recognition and handling more responsibility – something that allows us to affect greater changes; in our ambition to lose weight we become healthier and stronger. As we experience this ambitious drive we discover things about ourselves, either realizing hidden talents or developing new skills or powerful positive traits like discipline and determination along the way.
In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl states that having a purpose in life is the very reason for existence, having observed in his own horrific experiences that those of his fellow concentration camp prisoners who had a purpose for living, that is some form of ambition, were those who survived, quoting Nietzsche often by saying “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” What is your why for living? What is it that you strive for? American Author Robert Byrne famously stated that “the purpose of life is a life of purpose.” I can’t say that I disagree with either of them. Having experienced nothing remotely similar to Frankl, I can still attest to the discovery of purpose within my own life as a major factor in my happiness.
In the aforementioned sense ambition is good. This of course operates under the assumption that what we experience ambition for is good for us and for others. An important exercise here for those of you reading this is to consider what goals and ambitions you presently have and to consider WHY? Why is this goal worth achieving? Why is worth what will likely be days, weeks, months, or even years of struggling towards. What does the achievement of this goal look like? Are you going to be a better person because of this? What sacrifices will you be making in order to fulfill your ambition? Is your ambition for this goal worth those sacrifices? Does what you are trying to achieve harm others either directly or indirectly? And last in my list, perhaps most importantly is: how will you handle yourself if you do not achieve this goal? Naval Rakivant, one of my favorite modern thinkers of late said this on desire which I think we can reasonably use as a synonym of ambition for our purpose: “Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.”
Consider what Rakivant, somebody who has achieved a great level of success across multiple metrics and reached a plethora of personal goals along the way, is saying here. The inherent nature of desire or ambition is that it stems from a notion that what we are or we are today is insufficient and that we will not be happy until or that we will be happier once we achieve that for which we are ambitious. Does this mean that we should have no ambition at all, that we should sacrifice all desire for change or progress for happiness and contentment now, foregoing the risk of struggle and strife down the line?
That would depend on who you ask. The Taoists, to the best of my admittedly limited understanding, preach contentment and a state of being as opposed to a state of doing. At the core of Taoism is taking whatever may come our way, being pliable and non-resistant like water, and to recognize both the ephemeral nature of all things as well as the inseparable unity that all living and non-living things share. A Taoist may only have ambition for living in harmony and peace and those who truly understand the way would likely tell you that the harder one tries to reach this goal, or any goal, the less you truly grasp it – especially in matters of the Tao. Thus it could be said that the Taoist philosophy is generally opposed to most ambition. This is difficult for most people to grasp especially for those of us not raised in the traditions of East Asian societies.
My take on the matter is that ambition is a good thing provided one makes an attempt to guide and understand their ambition such as by addressing the questions posed in previous paragraphs. As i reflect on the positive effect of ambition in my own life, I can recall periods of my life where I felt as if I truly lacked any sort of meaningful goals or ambition at all. There were times where my life, the majority of my 20s, revolved primarily around hedonism and the thrills of sex, drugs, alcohol and forgetting all sense of responsibility or purpose. Eventually I realized that I was depressed and that I was using pleasure to distract myself from my profound lack of self understanding or the apparent lack of meaning to my existence. Eventually I would address these problems and while my ambitions have changed over the years, I can confidently state that having ambition in general gave my life a sense of meaning and very likely saved myself from taking an early exit from what at times felt like a meaningless existence.
If you want to utilize ambition to the best possible outcomes make sure you start with why, specifically why this goal matters. Is it selfish? What does my life look like after I realize this. Do I become better through this ambition. Then consider how. Not just how will this goal be reached – setting micro goals and milestones along the way, but how will the striving towards this ambition affect me and how will it affect others in my life or other parts of my life. What sacrifices must be made and are they worth it. You may come to realize that certain goals require sacrifices that you are unwilling to make. Work ambition comes to mind here: yes as a senior partner you would make more money and provide more for your family, and you would be able to use your judgement to make meaningful changes in the way your company affects others – thus making the world better, BUT – if it comes from being an absentee parent and spouse – it may not be worth it. There is no reason that you can’t get that promotion and continue to be an involved parent, and there is no inherent reason that your ambition will cause you to fail in other parts of your life but it can. Thus it is in your best interest to at least be aware of the potential sacrifices such that you can ensure proper time management is utilized and to be cognizant of potential pain points along the way.
One of the most important considerations in ambition is: can I live with myself, or can I still be happy even if I fail to reach this goal? Sometimes, often through no fault of our own, we can completely throw ourselves into the pursuit of our ambition only to not achieve our desired outcome. We have all probably felt this way so I need not tell you that this feeling simply sucks. How do we reconcile this with our sense of happiness? I would say we reconcile this by shifting our perspective not towards the final goal or the end-result we envisioned, but towards the process itself of achieving that goal. We need to not consider out goals as zero-sum games wherein we either wholly succeed or we fail miserably. Life is rarely a zero-sum game. If we can look back at who we were before making our attempt and compare that person to who we are now, whether we met our goals or not, I imagine we would see a better person. We are better for having dared to make an attempt in the first place. We are better because we tried and in so trying we hardened our own resolve, boosted our own capabilities, and made the world better by caring enough to even attempt to fight to make ourselves better.
Ambition can crush our spirit when we fail to meet it, or drive us insane with want and desire. But a life without any sort of ambition is a hollow existence. Without ambition there is no impetus for change and we might as well live on the couch watching whatever may happen and taking no part in the participation of life. You may make a compelling argument that free-will is an illusion and that everything that ever will happen is already laid out – and that very well may be. But why should that pre-determined since of the world not include you being the best version of yourself. Why shouldn’t you make the world better? Not because the world needs to be made better but because it CAN be better. So what if our existence is essentially meaningless and everything we do becomes forgotten in a few generations’ time? What matters is the present, this moment belongs to us, and in this moment we can choose to direct our energy and our selves towards meaningful activity and fulfill our ambition.