Ambition is one of those words that can be wrapped in a subtle film of criticism, thin as Japanese mulberry paper. It’s not always so, but sometimes, if you listen carefully, there might be a certain tone of voice used when saying, ‘he’s ambitious, that one.’ At times, it comes with an implication of the obsessed fanatic; a labelling of someone so determined that, were anyone to stand in their path, they would be made into human skittles by the bowling ball of ambition. We abhor self-seeking ambition, the version that becomes an insatiable desire to achieve success, power, fame, or wealth at all cost. Yet, deriding well-placed ambition is just as bad. Stamping on the ambitions of others has been used as a tactic to keep people small, to contain and oppress them through the ages. Well-moulded ambition can threaten the status quo for the good; it can elevate, raise people from poverty, and fuel them to achieve. ‘Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.’ Those are the words of Mark Twain, words I don’t altogether hold with; for not all ambitions are automatically good, and we can’t all become great. I sit with the school of old sayings, the one that teaches: ambition is a good servant but a bad master.
Too much ambition and we are quick to notice, but too little and we cry, ‘lazy, what a waste!’ A lack of ambition can make people suspicious; it can be seen as not fulfilling potential. I think this is because it is the natural bedfellow of motivation, but surely one can be motivated without being terribly ambitious? I found a lovely quote from one of the old American fireside poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who said, ‘Most people would succeed in small things, if they were not troubled with great ambitions.’ Maybe small things don’t count as ambitions any more.
Shakespeare gave a few memorable lessons on ambition – not least the ruthless and blind variety. Take, for example, his wonderfully sinister lines from Macbeth; those unforgettable words of Lady Macbeth as she frets that her husband doesn’t have the ruthlessness required to realise his ambition. ‘Thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without, The illness should attend it.’ The ‘illness’ being a dollop of murderous foul play. I don’t know if Shakespeare meant to give ambition such a bad name, but he’s not the only one to have warned of its dangers. David Hume, son of Edinburgh and leading light in the Scottish Enlightenment, 250 years warned against vain ambition; ‘Where ambition can cover its enterprises, even to the person himself, under the appearance of principle, it is the most incurable and inflexible of passions.’ Any ideas where we might find this today?
Then there are times – it’s often a Monday morning for me – when my ambition falls flat, when I’m overwhelmed by a ‘what was I thinking?’ moment, and I fall prey to the thought of abandoning all projects. M. saw it is a positive when I told her; said that those who never falter, who don’t have an occasional crisis of confidence in their abilities and ambitions generally have over-inflated egos. She assured me that an ebbing of enthusiasm can keep blind ambition in check. Ambition is one of these things where we have to get the balance right: a little of it keeps you moving forward – towards mastering a skill, achieving a job, performing on a stage, travelling to distant lands – and too much of it renders you friendless.
We are all striving to achieve some ambition, be it big or small, immediate or long-term, and if you get to achieve your ambition, congratulations – I hope it was all worth it. If you don’t, well at least you had a go, and hopefully, outside of those dark wells of self-doubt, there were some small moments of glory along the way, perhaps only known to you.
There Is A Place Beyond Ambition, by Mary Oliver
When the flute players
couldn’t think of what to say next
they laid down their pipes,
then they lay down themselves
beside the river
and just listened.
Some of them, after a while,
and disappeared back inside the busy town.
But the rest—
so quiet, not even thoughtful—
are still there,