Ambition is a noble tradition

Is ambition a noble tradition or a contemptible trait? How can the natural yearning to excel be anything but noble? That would explain why Thomas Dunn English (1469 ~ 1527) wrote, “Ambition is the germ (seed) from which all growth of nobleness proceeds.”

Yet, ambition is neither noble nor contemptuous, neither negative nor positive. Rather, it is the object of ambition that is so. For example, the ambition to take advantage of others for personal gain is contemptuous, but the ambition to empower others is noble. So, it is the motivation behind our actions that determine whether they are positive or negative.

To avoid confusion between the positive and negative meaning of ambition, some prefer to call the positive aspect ASPIRATION. That is what Joseph Conrad (1857 ~ 1924) did when he wrote, “A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.” However, unless stated otherwise, any reference I make to ambition will be to its positive meaning.

Ambition is about stretching our wings and seeking to surpass ourselves. Without it, life is a bird without wings. We have an innate desire to soar. Like Horace (65 ~ 8 BC), we wish to say, “I shall strike the stars with my uplifted head.” Ambition provides the motivation, energy and willingness to pursue goals. Without it, nothing will be accomplished.

But it is not about competition (other than competing with our past best performance). Rather, it is about self-growth, self-development, self-expression, and self-improvement. It is about shining, not about outshining. We all desire a better life, but far greater it is to desire a better world. How do we change a world engaged in conflict to a world engulfed in peace? We begin by understanding that love, compassion and kindness have no existence on their own. They are found not ‘out there,’ but ‘in here,’ in our hearts and minds. We then bring them into existence by our actions. Isn’t that the noblest path for ambition to take? We can achieve this aim by working on ourselves. So, our first ambition should be self-mastery.

When measured against our vast powers, it would be tragic to go through life with little or no ambition. Yet, some seemingly do. Why is that? It is not because of moral decay, but because of ignorance or ineptitude. It is not because of a lack of ambition as much as it is a lack of self-confidence or a lack of direction. Other factors include the fear of failure or the false belief that the sacrifice required to achieve our dream is greater than we can bear. The good news is all of these weaknesses can be overcome. The disgust we have for failing to live up to our potential can inspire us to change.

Don’t be like the young man who went to a guru and said, “Oh Noble One, I lack ambition and am poor as a result. I am sick of my poverty, what shall I do?”

“Don’t worry,” said the guru, “everything will change in seven years.”

“You mean I will be rich then?” asked the disciple.

“No, you will get used to your poverty!” answered the guru.

Don’t get used to your poverty or weaknesses. Instead, use your dissatisfaction as motivation to succeed. Now success doesn’t necessarily mean fame and fortune. Rather, it means the achievement of YOUR personal goals. Better to be a poor poet and happy than a rich businessman and frustrated. Here are some more points to keep in mind regarding ambition and success.

1. Lock in on your dream as a missile locks in on a target.
Remain focused on it. Always keep it in mind. Take Abe Lincoln, for instance. While still unknown, his friends would hear him frequently say, “Some day I shall be President.” Despite the enormous obstacles he faced and numerous failures he experienced, he remained steadfast. When you can see, taste, feel, smell, and hear your dream in your mind, you will inevitably bring it to pass.

2. Mark Twain (1835 ~ 1910) offers sage advice, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.
Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” In their vain attempt to be great, those who belittle you grow small, so ignore what they have to say.

3. Don’t depend on others. Stand on your own two feet. Don’t be like those who complain, “No one is showing me the way. No one is guiding me. No one is helping me.” Life is not about waiting for answers, but about discovering them on your own. Your true nature is that of an adventurer, so live like one.

4. Good negotiators always ask for more than they wish to receive. This way they can negotiate ‘down’ to what they really want. Take a similar stance when you set your goals. That is, try to achieve far more than you hope for. So, if you fail to obtain it, you will at least achieve your original goal.

5. Acknowledge that sacrifices and effort are necessary to reach your goal, and be willing to do whatever it takes. Or, as Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda said, “When you go in search of honey you must expect to be stung by bees.” True, the path to success is not without pain, but it is without suffering; it is not without effort, but it is with the joy of accomplishment. So, face your fears and don’t be afraid of taking risks.

6. Have a dream, but don’t be a daydreamer. Be a visionary, but don’t dwell in fantasy. Don’t ignore many possible small successes while dreaming of an impossible achievement. Stretch yourself, but not to the extent that your limbs fall off and are made useless.

7. If you’re out of work and can’t find a job you’re qualified for, what do you do? Some people refuse to take low paying jobs and prefer to wait for ‘better’ opportunities. This type of thinking is not a sign of ambition but of a lack of understanding that opportunity is found everywhere. After all, success is not to be found in a job, but in you. It is an attitude. It is a willingness to make the best of what you have. A friend of mine is an example. He fled his war torn country with his wife and children. Arriving with just a few suitcases and enough money to survive for a short period of time, he took the only job he could find, a low paying one. Today, several years later, he is still earning far less than he would in his native country. Yet, he now lives in his own condo, has a new car and computer, and both children graduated the university and have good jobs. My friend is successful, not in the sense that he has a ‘good’ job, but in the sense that he is happy. Instinctively he had followed the simple philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 ~ 1882) who wrote, “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing.”