Don’t worry, I’m not planning on having a rant about ambition!
I know I’ve already written a piece called Why Authenticity Is Overrated but hopefully my whiny-titled blogs are more thought-provoking than groan-inducing!
The Oxford (and my) definition of ambition is “a strong desire to do or achieve something.”
This, in and of itself, is brilliant for personal development and mental focus; however, today’s definition, which was defined brilliantly in an email newsletter I received from The Daily Stoic, appears to be slightly different – “to get ahead.”
To fulfil the challenge of “getting ahead,” you must first identify what you want to “get ahead” of. There must be a target, something you can compare yourself to, a way of keeping score.
This becomes dangerous, especially when other people become the yardstick – comparing yourself to their fame, power and fortune.
It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “getting ahead” by putting other people down!
As Gary Vee says, there are two ways of owning the biggest building in the city:
- You build the biggest building.
- You demolish all the other buildings.
Comparing the definitions of ambition
Let’s just clarify the difference between the two definitions:
- A strong desire to do or achieve something – is intrinsic. You have achieved something, you feel good and it is not necessarily due to any external factors.
- To get ahead – is extrinsic. You have to compare yourself to the thing (usually person) you are getting ahead of and how you are getting ahead of it (them) – Money, title, assets, power, dominance, etc. Getting ahead can also be very subjective, it’s often based around other peoples’ perceptions; for example, your social ranking is totally dependent on the views of others.
You don’t need to prove your ambitious!
You hear this advice from almost every successful person on the planet…
Do what you love and love what you do
So-called “success” always follows those that do what they love because they do it so well!
Sometimes you find senior managers using the word “ambition” to persuade employees to take on more work, more hours and more responsibility.
This works because it pokes at our ego. We must work harder, longer and take on more responsibility, to show our boss that we are ambitious, then we will get that promotion!
But is that what you really want or are you just robbing yourself of desires, achievements and a fulfilling life?
The German word for “ambitious” is “ehrgeizig,” which literally translates into “honour-stinginess.”
Not as flattering or complimentary in this light is it?
You do not need to prove to anyone that you’re ambitious.
Don’t rid yourself of honour – do what you love and love what you do!
There is no end of real-life examples where ambition and ego have destroyed the souls of humans.
I’ve spent many years watching Crime+Investigation with my mother and brother after a Sunday roast, and let me tell you, killing people for money and/or power must make up 99% of murder motives for that particular sample!
Now I know this probably isn’t a good population to base my statistics on, but would crime reduce if people stopped trying to “get ahead?”
Sadistic ambition makes for great entertainment too!
As some of you may know, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a strong individual who was once cherished, respected and admired by those around him, could not succumb to the evil persuasion of ambition.
Macbeth knew that if he killed King Duncan, he could become king, and Lady Macbeth queen.
When Lady Macbeth heard this, ambition also sucked her in, trying everything to convince Macbeth to execute the King, even questioning his manhood! – talk about poking at a man’s ego!
Macbeth became so obsessed with ambition that he killed the King and everyone who opposed him or who (he felt) may oppose him.
Even with this deep regret he continued to kill in order to stay ahead.
Macbeth on his shameful act of killing the King, explaining that there was not enough water in the sea to cleanse his hands…
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.
– Macbeth after killing the King
Macbeth could have arguably been a great King if he had waited for Duncan to die naturally but his morals and character had been eroded by his ambition and the ambition of those around him (Lady Macbeth).
Fast forward to a more recent entertaining story (although set thousands of years ago) – Gladiator.
In a recent Daily Stoic email, I came across a quote which fit into this article so well, I didn’t want to leave it out…
Commodus to Marcus Aurelius after he had just been informed that he would not succeed the emperor…
You wrote to me once listing the four chief virtues. Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. As I read the list I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition that can be a virtue when it drives us to excel.
So the question is… Is ambition a virtue when it drives us to excel?
You already know my thoughts on this but it’s worth noting the beautiful explanation of The Daily Stoic – Commodus’ ambition convinced him that if he just eliminated his enemies, if he put on an impressive show in the Colosseum, if he looked the part and if he just really, really, really wanted it, he would finally be as good as his father.
The problem with this is that “being as good as his father” is only a result of other peoples’ perceptions. It was entirely outside of his control.
In the process of indulging in his ambition, Commodus neglected the one thing that he needed to work on most: his character.
So what’s the point of this blog and what’s the point of ambition?
Ambition offers a path towards achievement and life changing decisions.
We purposely included learning and development in our Wheel of Wellbeing because we believe that personal goals and personal growth are major factors in living a healthy lifestyle, and undeniably help with your mental health.
If you have a goal, a target, a purpose, a reason, an ambition, you find meaning, your life becomes clearer and more focused.
You avoid drifting into depressing thoughts. Thoughts that we continuously encounter in our mental health podcasts, such as: “I am not enough,” “No one cares,” and “I can’t.”
I write this so that you can use ambition to fuel your purpose, but also so you are aware of the insidious destruction it can have on your character.
Use ambition in the right way. Don’t let it run away with you like it did with Macbeth and Commodus.
I implore you to revisit your definition of ambition to ensure that you’re achieve meaning and focus, rather than destroying others and, in the process, destroying yourself!