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The Psychology of Ambition

The price of ambition

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Source: Public Domain

Whenever I visit Walden Pond, I think of the beautiful eulogy that Ralph Waldo Emerson gave upon the passing of Henry David Thoreau. After much praise, Emerson allowed space for some criticism, so uncommon when speaking of the recently deceased; he faulted Thoreau for not trying to do more with his potential: "Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party. Pounding beans is good to the end of empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans?"

Emerson's eulogy is echoed in his aphorism that you must aim above, if you will hit the mark. This healthy ambition, we might say, is needed in young and able persons; more of us achieve less because we fail to try than fail to achieve because we try too hard.

Let's call this Emerson's thesis.

There is another approach to ambition, one I cull from the thoughts of a little-known psychiatrist Elvin Semrad, who once said: "You can achieve whatever you want, as long as you are willing to pay the price." Do you want to be president of the United States? Pay the price: If you put the effort of every living moment into reaching that goal, your chances may not be negligible. (See Clinton, W. J.) Do you want to be a famous writer? Spend every second learning how to write, working on writing, meeting other writers and publishers and agents. Do that for decades on end, and, it is not unlikely that you will become quite the writer. Now let us suppose you also want to take a few vacations, or get married, or have children, or bowl on Sundays....There is the price. What will you need to give up to reach your dream?

I have always had dreams and ambitions; I suppose most blog writers for Psychology Today do also, otherwise they would not make the effort to please and entertain and inform as they do. Most of us, probably, would not mind becoming best-selling authors or some such, taking the fame and the funds that follow. But what price are we willing to pay? In my twenties, I never comprehended the attachments to family that I saw in my father and in so many others whose achievements, though often notable, had never reached the mark of their original ambition. I fancied myself different: I would reach for the gold, not settle for bronze.

Now with children, I see things differently. Recently my five year old son fell hard off a bike and opened up his chin; thankfully he was not hurt more, but it could have been otherwise. It got me thinking: Suppose Mephistopheles made me an offer - all the fame and fortune I could want, in return for my left arm, or my right arm, or my leg, or a child.... A decade ago, since it was all abstract, I'd think about it; now, I would turn him down, and count my blessings as I settled at night, beer in hand, to watch famous people on television.

At some point, all ambition has its price. When the price paid exceeds the merits of the prize, then ambition becomes hubris, and the seeker becomes lost. That is when, as Williams James said, ambition becomes nothing but sacrifice to the bitch-goddess Success. Perhaps that is also when Thoreau's example might stand up well, when the simple blessings of living are most deserving of gratitude, and when the youth becomes transformed into a man.

More from Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H.
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