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Dealing With Ambition Addiction

The delicate dance of striving and being satisfied.

Satisfaction. Everyone wants it, but few have it, not even Mick Jagger. We tend to let our desires for a future state of affairs crowd out our sense of satisfaction in the present. In Ambition Addiction, Benjamin Shalva speaks to those of us for whom this is no minor issue. Joining me in writing this blog post is J.R. Lombardo, who complements my philosophical approach with his expertise as an addictions counselor.

The dream of being a "superstar" can have detrimental effects

We live in a society that worships success, drive, and ambition. Consequently, many individuals build their lives around the dream of being a superstar. This pursuit of what Shalva calls “any day now” has detrimental effects. The great majority of us are not bound for superstardom. No matter how hard we work, we will not get the corner office, the movie role, the recording contract, or the Harvard acceptance letter. And the pursuit of “any day now” keeps us only partially in the present, harming relationships and affecting physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Let’s face it: If most of what we do in the present is aimed at a goal of superstardom in the future, many of life’s pleasures and priorities take a back seat. Relationships, physical health, and even spiritual practices become only a means to an end. We may fool ourselves into thinking that once we achieve our goals, we’ll have plenty of time to hit the gym, work on our marriage, or volunteer at the church, but the reality is quite different.

Developing a healthy relationship with ambition

What are we to do? Abstinence is prescribed for people addicted to drugs and alcohol. So should ambition addicts give up setting goals? No. As Shalva sees it, ambition addiction is more like addictions to food or sex. Food and sex are not bad, nor is ambition. We need to have a healthy relationship with ambition just as we need healthy relationships with food and sex.

“Sober” or “recovering” ambition addicts find a balance between planning for the future and living in the present. They give up the seductive fantasy of “any day now” to live in today. This is not easy, because ambition addicts have grown accustomed to merely tolerating everyday living as a means to get to their next ambition “fix.” By contrast, sobriety involves keeping your head where your feet are and participating fully in life.

When it comes to ambition addiction, sobriety is a delicate dance. How do we know if we are getting off the beam? We check in with our bodies and verbally remind ourselves of where we are and what we are doing. (Shalva calls this Breath, Word, and Deed). We then check to see if what we are thinking about or engaged in involves objectification.

When we objectify ourselves or others, we take multi-dimensional and multi-faceted human beings and turn them into one-dimensional objects. We treat others or ourselves as means to an end. Winning that coveted corner office means we’ll finally have financial freedom and respect. But these concepts of freedom and respect are abstract and one-dimensional. We need to ask ourselves: What do freedom and respect feel like and look like? Who will benefit, and in what way? How might this position have a positive impact on others? What acts of service might we engage in with the benefits of this position?

Instead of abstaining from setting goals, Shalva recommends that we “dream anew” with a healthier way of looking at the future. The new plan is to avoid all-or-nothing goals and to avoid objectifying ourselves or others.

We still need motivation, but our new goals should be specific yet flexible. Vague goals get vague results, but overly rigid goals objectify ourselves and leave no room for a satisfactory second place. A growth mindset allows us to approach all activities with the belief that we can improve. But it is usually harmful to aim at being the superstar, the top dog, partly because it puts us in competition with others that may objectify them, and partly because it puts us in an all-or-nothing frame in which only first place counts as success. It has the added disadvantage of externalizing our own sense of happiness or serenity. Being only satisfied with #1 is a surefire way to be in a constant state of disappointment.

Goals should challenge us without being unrealistic. A healthy goal might be to aim at the next logical step. For instance, a salesperson might aim to become a manager. And so on from there. The CEO’s corner office may or may not be in the salesperson’s future. But if it is, it will be reached one step at a time.

Whether or not you are a full-blown ambition addict, the chances are good that you make yourself less happy by living for the future goals of “any day now.” Instead of thinking that only the best will do, you might instead appreciate what is “good enough.” The Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu said, “he who knows he has enough is rich.” This wisdom applies not just to wealth, but to fame, power, accomplishments, and many other objects of desire. The pursuit of a lofty height diminishes appreciation of the present state of affairs. This is not to say we should be content with whatever we have, no matter how little it is. Rather, Lao-Tzu’s point is that “enough” is measured by your subjective mind, not an objective yardstick.

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