Some people find it easy to be content with what they have and are able to do. Others are so hungry for something else, that they are driven to achieve and will do anything to meet their goals. Plenty of people fall out somewhere in between. Ambition can be born of many different things – a desire for excellence and to be all that you can be is a very good motivation. Experience of fear, hunger, poverty can make people aggressive in their need to avoid such experiences again. Insecurity can make us power hungry. Fear of our own insignificance can make us determined to leave a mark.
Ambition is a hunger that can never be satisfied. There is never enough money to ward off the fear of poverty. The work is never good enough for the creator to feel it is finished. Power is never absolute. Some kinds of ambition inspire us to do great things, but others can be incredibly destructive, or carve holes in the psyche of a person. How can we know peace if we cannot experience satisfaction with what we do?
I can speak to both sides of this from personal experience. I spent much of my life with a need to be useful, an urge to serve, to achieve and do something important that was born entirely of fear and a lack of self worth. Only when working did I feel any degree of safety. I did not imagine anyone would want me around unless I was being obviously useful to them. And so I worked like a crazy thing, driven by the need for approval and acceptance. I got a lot done as a consequence, but was never able to do enough to feel entirely secure. As soon as a job was done, the fear of not being useful was upon me again. Achievement did not make me happy. I was driven to behave in ways that probably looked a lot like ambition from the outside.
In recent months I’ve had to step away from a number of things. Circumstances mean I’ve not had the energy or resources to be useful to others. It’s given me chance to face that anxiety, and find out how people treat me when I’m not in a position to give back. It’s been educational. There were, it transpires, connections that were wholly dependent on what I could give. There are others that have survived, where people like me enough for myself, and are willing to support me as I get back on my feet. I’ve become a calmer person for the experience, still determined to work and give, but feeling more able to choose where I deploy my energy, less obliged to jump at the smallest sign that something needs tackling. I also find I am not as hungry for external approval and visible signs of success. I have much less to prove, and so I do not need to be ambitious in the same way.
On the other side, there is an ambition for excellence that I cannot imagine ever being without. The desire to do everything to the very best of my ability has been with me for as long as I can remember. I would not be me without it. I’ve been criticised for this, by someone who could not understand why I could never be satisfied with what I did, never able to stop and just enjoy it, always pushing on towards the next thing. Being content with what you do is, from a creative perspective, settling for inertia. However good we are, there is always scope to be better. I do enjoy things that go well – I can take pride in a story, a song well performed, a nifty arrangement on the bouzouki, whilst continually looking for ways to up my game. I want to be better. I want to be the best I possibly can be.
These two kinds of ambition are different in critical ways. The ambition born of trying to make up for a sense of inadequacy in myself is something I am glad to be letting go of, even if I do end up achieving less as a consequence. There is no joy in that kind of ambition, only self perpetuating fear. Ambition born of a desire for excellence, is inherently inspiring, brings cycles of growth and satisfaction, and is an attribute I am glad to have. It’s not being driven that needs scrutinising, it’s what is driving us.