Ambition: To Hit the Mark, Aim a Little Higher

When is there too much or too little ambition?

Posted Sep 04, 2013

My father told me a story once, about his brother-in-law, a famous Iranian jurist, who came from my father's small hometown of Damghan. One day, this jurist, who had helped write the Iranian constitution, was sitting in his garden with his son, a young adult.  "Son," he said. "I'm worried.  You don't seem to be moving forward in your life." "But father," the young man said, earnestly. "I would be happy if I spent the rest of my life in this garden, with you and my family."  Rather than being touched by his son's love, the older man winced.  "Boy, I wanted to be prime minister, and I ended up in this garden. If your goal is to be here, I shudder where you will end up."

The jurist's son was a sweet young man, living in the present, loving his family. There is much to be said for this affection.  He was living what our New Age preachers teach.  But his father also had an insight: the young man's future was put at risk, because he was so unwilling to risk. He had no ambition. 

Ambition reflects a wish to achieve. It is a natural feeling, but it is enhanced by having a good self-esteem and by having strong desires. Ambition can be an end in itself, or it can be a means to other desires.  Some persons have little or no ambition, usually because they have low self-esteem. Sometimes, they are clinically depressed.

Most people have plenty of ambition but they don't have the persistence to achieve their ambitions. People start marathons and stop halfway through. A minority are willing to pay the price to achieve their ambitions.

The old adage is true: you can have anything you want, as long as you are willing to pay the price. But what we don’t realize is that the price is often too steep, and we don’t realize it until we’ve already paid.

Another way of looking at ambition is that it is normal and natural to have a little more than we might merit. You must shoot above if you would hit the mark, Emerson said.

But there are those who aim too far above, and have too much ambition. These are the ones who have ambition that never ends: apparent desires, once achieved, are replaced by others. Ambition itself is the end, rather than a means. Sometimes, this disease of ambition happens in manic-depression, in the “up” mood phase of mania, or in the person with mild manic symptoms as part of his/her personality (“hyperthymic temperament”). But mania is often combined with talent and creativity, so this excessive ambition can sometimes fuel an Emersonian greatness: the manic person hits the mark after audaciously attempted what others wouldn’t dare to try. He becomes Churchill and Ted Turner and General William Sherman.

It’s probably not the case that ambition is addictive in such persons, but the opposite: manic emotions drive ambition as an end in itself, with apparent goals but excuses for the continued expression of the manic drive. Certainly, if one succeeds, the world’s positive feedback can strengthen a person’s natural manic traits, but in most such persons, even if they fail, they keep going with their ambitions as long as their manic symptoms persist. Often, mania is followed by depression, and whether or not one succeeds, ambition is followed by despair. Our emotions drive our behaviors in such cases, much more than we can rationally explain.

In any case, life in a garden with one's family is wonderful. But to achieve that goal, we might need to aim for a little more.