The Nature of Ambition: How Serious Should We Take Ourselves?
Last week, we concluded some thoughts on the nature of ego and the way it affects different individuals’ approach to social entrepreneurship. While we tend to speak of ego usually negatively, I pointed out that at best, it serves as a basic motivating force for us to spring to action – even if some may not like the inherent “selfish” motivation.
Today, my thoughts have been circling around this idea of motivation and its big brother – ambition. Specifically, I have been wondering about how we can reconcile the notion of ambition, which deals by definition with the future, with the notion of being at peace and content with the present. Think about all the Buddhist teachings that encourage us to reject attachment, desire and expectations, in order to diminish or avoid suffering.
I suspect that there is a good number of people in the do-good and social entrepreneurship space today that would identify with Buddhist teachings (or perhaps, not?). If so, would it be ignorant of me to think that if you are a social entrepreneur or consider yourself active in this “social” sector, you probably have a considerable amount of ambition?
And if that is the case, do you have some advice for the Good Generation on how to balance forward-looking “ambition” with present-focused Buddhism? Can you have both? Answering this question may be a non-trivial component of the quest for happiness for many folks out there in the field, fighting the good battle.
What’s further at stake seems to be this: at a time when we keep saying that we need more and more people to engage, to strive, to change the world, we are implicitly saying that we need more people to follow the call of their ambition to make their dreams a reality. Where, then, does this leave us?
Looked at initially, the question of ambition would seem to confront us with a dilemma from a Buddhist standpoint (for lack of any better term).
On the one hand, we consider ambition as a positive character trait or feeling in that it by definition forces us to have some sort of goals, which in return exist to fulfill some purpose. With goals come also naturally expectations about the future state of things – ideally, the attainment of those goals. In other words, ambition creates desires that we seek to satisfy. In doing so, could it be argued that “living in the presence” in the traditional “Buddhistic sense” sounds sort of difficult to do?
On the other hand, thus, Buddhism teaches us that having desires is usually, well, undesirable. Of course, experts would elaborate that even in Buddhism, which is sometimes falsely associated with inaction and passivity, there is such a thing as “good” and “bad” desires. The latter, not surprisingly, would include the yearning for material and worldly goods in an expectation to become happier once they are obtained. The former refers to those desires that seek to help others, anything related to spreading love and compassion, etc. I’m no expert at this and will only tread as far as I think I’m making sense here.
But the point is this: no matter how you look at desires and goals, whether they fall in the “good” or “bad” category, if you believe in the premise of Buddhism, Zen, Taoism or similar teachings, how can you do either one without having expectations? No matter if I seek a Lamborghini in life or a carbon-neutral world, I have expectations nonetheless. With ambition, I am driven to fulfill these expectations and work my hardest to attain them because I believe it will make me happier or more fulfilled than I am today. Yet expectation breeds a tendency to take ourselves quite seriously (and even more so the bigger and loftier our goals) and doesn’t that in return lead us to suffering?
Another way of looking at the world without expectations, according to some Buddhists, is that we should consider our lives and projects like playing one big game. The key is to have fun while doing it. If good things happen – great – if they don’t, that’s fine as well, as long as we do not expect too much.
So my question this week is, if you are a changemaker, a wannabe, or in the field driving an ambitious agenda of social change as an entrepreneur, what do you make of your ambition? Does it make you “suffer”? Do you feel ultimately happy doing what you’re doing, striving to reach your goals? Are you able to enjoy all the present while you strive towards changing the future? Is it possible to take our work serious but not ourselves if our goals are so ?
Or is happiness not your end goal anyway? How many of you consider your calling, the goal of your ambition, the highest end in itself, your “raison d’etre”? For example, is the attainment of justice, even if it costs you significant hardship, pain and suffering along the way, more important to you than your happiness in the moment?
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