At lunch, the other day, a colleague of mine made the observation that in marriages where both partners are highly ambitious, they end up divorced. It seemed like a throw-away rule of thumb, but there is a grain of truth to it. We live in a culture that encourages ambition at almost any expense. This applies to artists as much as it does to anyone. It is held up as the greatest good to single-mindedly pursue success, no matter what the losses and collateral damage inflicted along the way. The casualties, you see, are incidental, even if they happen to be the people you love the most and who love you, too.
Our culture is organised along the following lines: we are presented with the inescapable imperative to succeed or perish. This, of course, is not the only possible way that society could be organised and it isn’t even the best way. It happens to persist as “the only way” because it suits the people that benefit the most from such an arrangement – those that live opulent, privileged, idle lives of unearned, unjustified, illegitimate comfort, wealth and power.
Faced with this “do or die” ultimatum, at the beginning of one’s working life, we dream up a lifestyle we’d like to live and set about obtaining it, with the skills we think we have. That’s how ambition starts. We imagine that we ought to be deserving of something not too far south of what the most privileged elites enjoy and we think we can apply our best personal aspects to achieving that goal. We never imagine that it’s impossible, because those that already occupy those positions, in society, have no intention of diluting their advantages. We don’t count the possible costs, either – at least not realistically, at first.
If you think you have a lot of valuable skills, or people tell you that you have, it’s tempting to dream up very big ambitions, because they ought to be reachable, with that huge bag of tricks you believe you have, yet it is rarely the case. The amount of talent you possess does not correlate well to the success you will enjoy. This has been proven time and again. In reading about the historical paths of the great robber barons of the early twentieth century, the common thread was not talent or hard work, but rather a talent for unconscionable, ruthless, brazen, criminal dishonesty on a grand scale.
The fact is that when you have that sort of money, you can pay to have your past white washed and this, in fact, is what each and every one of those moneyed families did and continues to do. Meanwhile, they amplify the myth that hard work, decency and raw talent is all that it takes. Their stock in trade is to make you believe that the rules are written one way, while benefitting from playing the game another way. Those that believe the myths propagated by the most successful in society, applying it to their own ambitions, are clearly and demonstrably on a fool’s errand. That’s what history teaches, regrettably.
A worse problem, for those susceptible to ambition, is being told or believing that everything you have achieved so far is somehow not good enough, when it might really have been more than enough. Consequently, you punish yourself into reaching for ever more and higher and higher ambitions, in the hope that something you do will be perceived as good enough. Strangely, it never is. The truth is that the inability to tell when you have achieved something good is rooted in insecurities and sometimes in abuse. Recognising your achievements is something we must all take pause to do. Otherwise, your ambition can become an out of control doomsday machine, with no limit.
Another powerful driver of ambition is being assessed as being unequal to the task of attaining success. When somebody dismisses your skills and abilities, there is a tendency to want to show them all and then they’ll all be sorry. Once again, it’s based on something imaginary. How could a person assessing you as worthless possibly know whether or not you had it in you to succeed on your own terms? More likely, their assessment was useful to them, at the time, to bolster their own agenda, which may have included their own ambition to succeed, by eliminating you as competition.
The trouble is that we think control is possible, when all we can ever do is influence events. There are a great many things we have no control over whatsoever, but we fool ourselves into thinking we have. The idea that we can master our own destiny and create the conditions we require, by sheer force of will and the application of our powers of control is a hallucination. It is a myth retold by people seeking to self-justify their ultimate success, in retrospect, but it’s rarely the truth. There is only so much control you can exert.
It’s undeniable that much ambition peters out, in older life. Perhaps wisdom arrives, or else their powers and energy fail. Whatever the reason, ambitious people are less frequently encountered in older cohorts. Perhaps the ambitious ones are already dead.
We justify and have ambitions, in younger life, in order to live a better life, in a better house, in a nicer neighbourhood, with better views. We want to obtain the wherewithal to have better opportunities to experience the things in life that make us happiest. That’s what we want. The problem is that getting those things requires a marathon run in the rat race, against all the other grasping, ambitious people attempting to achieve the same thing, while the world is so designed to make the achievement of those things inordinately rare, relative to effort and diligence. For every clear winner, there are millions of losers that remain in obscurity.
Fully distracted in the mêlée and confusion of the breach, you can easily lose sight of the reasons you had your ambition in the first place. You can be “competed to death” and become so absorbed and lost in trying to succeed, in the face of the inevitable setbacks we all experience, that everything else in your life slips out of your sight and reach. At this point, you’re just going through the motions. Success loses its meaning and its sweet taste. Instead, you’re in a bitter, protracted conflict, for reasons you can no longer fathom.
The bitter truth about ambition is that it can cost much more than it can deliver.
In compromising ourselves, in order to keep sight of our ambitions, we can end up building other people’s dreams, not our own. The extraordinary, outstanding work you do can go almost wholly unrewarded. Our culture has turned so weird that wild-eyed entrepreneurs now assume it as their right that everybody around them has to sacrifice literally everything (relationships, hobbies, recreation, time, sleep, health, money), in totality, to realise what is, in fact, just their entrepreneurial ambition.
It comes as a horrible shock and an affront to them when anybody suggests they ought to be included in the rewards of the success of their ambition, or wants to limit how much they are prepared to give up, to make the entrepreneur rich beyond their wildest dreams. They think you’re being out of line and rude for suggesting that, in helping to achieve their ambition, you might want some of the spoils of the victory. It’s really twisted.
At some juncture, you can wake up from the dream state of your imagined career path and realise you’re little more than an indentured slave, in reality. This is not a pleasant realisation and one that many people resist, in order to sidestep the psychological disruption that accepting it would entail. Denial doesn’t change the reality, though. Your ambition may have led you to a situation where you have ceded all control, you have no realistic prospects of being rewarded and yet your effort and application must remain undiminished, or you starve.
The risks and costs of burnout are very real, for the ambitious. You can literally run yourself into the ground and suffer the consequences, long before you realise it. We like to believe we can withstand anything and will be able to recover to full, unblemished, rude health, if we need to, but time is often not on our side and we can suffer damage that we can never fully recover from. To pursue your ambition with diligence, you make sacrifices you believe are temporary, but which turn out to be permanent.
In the end, you can wind up achieving your ambition, but losing all the things that you had assumed would still be there, when you did. You can look around for all the people you wanted to share your success with and realise that they’re no longer there. They slipped away, unremarked and unnoticed. Your success no longer gives you the life happiness you were really aiming for. What was all the sacrifice for? Very often, we miss opportunities that are literally handed to us, because we are single-mindedly and doggedly pursuing our ambitions. Missed opportunities lead to regrets.
It’s an age-old story and almost a cliché, but people still think they, uniquely, will not be the one caught in the trap, while pursuing their ambitions. There is no objective basis for this belief. It’s a hallucination.
In the end, ambition is exhausting and there comes a time in your life when you just can’t be bothered with it, anymore, I suspect. The other thing that makes the attraction of ambition fade, in later life, is the fact that the fruits of your success are no use to you now, given that your best years are behind you. What will you do with that great big house by the sea, now that your children have grown and left? How will you enjoy driving that Ferrari, when you can’t react as fast as you once could and can barely see well enough to drive, these days? Great; you finally bought yourself that super fast motor bike, but you’re fat and forty and a danger to yourself and others, on the public roads, with that overpowered beast.
It’s the people you wanted to share your success with that ultimately matter and you can share yourself with them, whether or not you succeed in your ambition. It comes down to how much attention you pay. Ambition can easily rob you of all your attention.
In the end, those repellent, desperate, grasping individuals that are busy destroying everything in their wake to achieve the dream they hallucinated, in their own heads, about the life they think they ought to be entitled to living, become quite tiresome and one is wise to try to avoid them and their ambitious plans, as much as possible.
Ambition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.