Tuesday 14 July 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Ambition

Ambition is something I wish I’d had more, not less, of.  P and I often bemoan our lack of it, because - over and above a need to keep roofs over our heads - neither of us has felt driven to achieve a great deal; we’ve not been inclined to single-mindedly pursue any one goal.  In her case I suspect it’s been a matter of being spoilt for choice (P’s so talented on a lot of fronts that she just can’t decide what it is she should be doing, at any one time), but I suspect that my disinclination has had more to do with not being talented enough at any one thing, being something of a Jack of many trades, but master of none.   And maybe, just maybe a little bit lazy…

Mind, for most of my life I’ve been prone to the sort of perfectionism that means nothing ever gets started, let alone completed (I mean what is the point of doing something if the result's not going to be flawless?), but I’ve noticed that something’s shifted. Maybe it’s because I’m older – and hopefully wiser – but my relationship to how I could achieve success has been modified.

I sometimes think I must have been a very late developer, because I had never really considered that all the people whom I deemed successful had endorsed the Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, which little book T gave me a couple of years ago.

On reading this I was intrigued to discover that I had committed to the strategies it outlined half-heartedly, at best.  Was this because most of the ideas were head and not heart-centred?  Probably, but head thinking (aka common sense) has never been one of my fortés.  

I applied some of the maxims, but I still didn’t feel ambitious, although I was bugged by a sense of having failed and/or messed up, somewhere along the way.  I was dissatisfied.

And then I discovered Daniella LaPorte and The DesireMap: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul - chasing the feeling and not the goal. Once I'd desired to feel satisfied, radiant, inspired, connected and joyful, I then considered the empowered choices I needed to make in order to generate the desired outcomes – to give the desired feelings the best possible chance.

Whilst I am not a fan of what I call fluffy spirituality I do believe that releasing sincere intentions (and letting go of expectations) had a knock-on effect.  Several years down the line this has all come to pass.  I feel the way I wanted to!  I have discovered the power of soul-centered goals and not fixed goals.

So, in late middle age, I have come to appreciate the importance of desire.  I note that David Whyte, in his book Consolations, considers that ‘ambition is frozen desire.’  But I think he’s being a little harsh.  I can agree that a vocation can suffer from too much ambition (because vocations aren’t usually about targets), but a little ambition is no bad thing; it promotes clear-sighted focus.  If the energy of ambition required of us to stay on a course of action is not inordinate then why not apply a little, but not too much?  I think he must mean it’s when ambition is aligned with the unscrupulous that it becomes positively harmful.

But perhaps we are arguing semantics.  Originally from the Latin ambitionem (nominative ambitio), ambition is "a going around," especially to solicit votes; hence "a striving for favour, courting, flattery; a desire for honour, thirst for popularity."  It has become associated with an "eager or inordinate desire of honour or preferment."  If this is what Whyte means then I see exactly where he’s coming from.  We all know people who personify this sort of ambition. 

Of course, as Whyte says, “a true vocation calls us out beyond ourselves” and we should be expected to be humbled, simplified and enlightened “about the hidden core nature of the work that enticed in the first place.”  But what harm a little ambition if it serves our vocation, and not our own controlling ego? For a "true vocation always metamorphoses both ambition and failure into compassion and understanding for others.” 

There are many reasons why I missed out on my life’s calling, but I really don’t think overarching ambition was to blame. If there’d been some stepping stones along my way they would have helped, and not hindered my passage.  At the very least they would have been a start.  I didn’t have a clue where I was headed; there was no direction home. 

If in my later years I have arrived at the self-same point that vocation always intended then I do believe this has had more to do with luck than judgement; and certainly not with ambition. 

I will, at least, escape the perils of the essential falsity that Whyte elaborates on.  Indeed, if it has taken me until now to have found a road to walk on then I feel privileged – the wait will have been worth it. 

Maybe I was lacking in aspiration, or do I mean inspiration…   Words, words, words (!) 


  1. I find that it's amazing that you have managed to write so many words on the idea of 'ambition'. I had seen this word floating around on the internet recently - and when I felt the wind of it on my face, it didn't seem to resonate with me at all and I didn't hold out my hands to catch it because I knew that it would twirl around in my mind like a labyrinth and I would find only dead ends!
    Well done for capturing the essence of what this word means to you and how it makes you feel!

  2. Thank you very much. Ambition appealed to me, because I've never been an ambitious person and always wished I had - I might have had a more 'successful' life!

  3. Much to think about with your words here. They really resonate with me..I do not like that ambition gets such a negative connotation. We have to be ambitious every day! The world runs on ambition. Could ambition be the same as a passion? I think so! Ambition makes life interesting! Would I be reading your blog without your ambition?

    1. Indeed, ambition gets a very bad press. But equally all such words, if stood on their heads! You will know what I mean. Ergo passion in the wrong hands is not a good thing... But without ambition, or passion, I wouldn't be writing this (and you wouldn't be reading it); and I wouldn't have discovered my love for photography. I rest my case (!)

  4. Me thinks you have not missed out on your calling at all, my dear.