The Problem With Ambition

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I wonder at what point in the etymology of the word did ambition become not only acceptable but even laudable. For a word that also contains a fair amount of negativity about it, why having an ambition deemed necessary if one were to progress and prosper?

In most dictionaries, ambition simply means a strong desire for success, achievement, power and wealth. The way modern societies have given a special value to success, achievement, power and wealth – and especially power and wealth – it is no wonder that being ambitious blesses a child with parental approval. “I want to be the President of the United States,” is a child’s ambition that pleases the adults around him.

I have noticed a subtle shift in the usage of the word, an almost imperceptible stepping back in its use. Perhaps, the current models of great ambition are either politicians or business moguls, more on power and wealth and less on success and achievement. It seems people would rather chase dreams or visions and not ambitions. There has been a growing negativity about the term ambition.

And why should it not be more negative than not? From the original Latin term ambitio was born around the Middle Ages an Old French term, ambire, or to go around (canvassing for votes).  Centuries ago, then, ambition was already linked to votes. Later, basically in the American context, having ambitions was encouraged and rewarded by society. How many parents proudly say, “My son wants to be the President of the United States!”

Now, however, ambition is understood closer again to the Old French meaning of going around to canvass for votes. And that is why many prefer not to use the word ambition outside of the realm of politics, or business personalities with pronounced greed. Who can blame them? The problem with ambition is because it is a trap, subtle in the beginning but can turn to be a quicksand at the end.

Ambition will be better defined in future dictionaries as an inordinate desire for power and wealth, not much different from the term  “greedy.” And like greed, it cannot be moderated unless the person has the character to transcend greed. It seems that the in-between from the strong desire to succeed, to achieve, to gain power and money and the quicksand that can swallow the ambitious is a human virtue called temperance. Unfortunately, that virtue is severely challenged when confronted with greed and the lust for power.

How is ambition a trap? First and foremost, it is its own poison pill. In the journey to satisfy the strong desire for success, achievement, power and wealth, as one makes it through the different stages, ambition turns to addiction. With success and achievement come recognition and fame that leads to power and wealth. Each stage is intoxicating and becomes more so. We have heard of endless stories about the horror stories about how success and fame have destroyed relationships and families. That is why many players become forced to step back and reassess the value of the pursuit, if it was worth everything else.

Those winners who then decide to stay the course, having resolved issues of family or personal relationships, or junking these in favor of what they believe to be higher causes, they will stand out for their passion and determination. They reach greater heights, of course, become the most known personalities in their societies. Those who can sustain their elevated status can be said to be the rare destined few. They will make the history books with a fair amount of positive legacy.

Most winners, though, who gravitate in the world of great power and wealth, do not end up as lucky. By this time, the ambition has eaten the soul and exposed for what it is – merely ambition. And the noble reasons that were used to mask the ambition cannot anymore hide the truth. Even the greatest achievers of them all had to go through their great fall, from the conquerors of nations like Caesar, Napoleon or Hitler, to modern-day examples like Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Khadafy of Libya.

Ambition starts as a powerful driving force for most of us. The road to glory, though, is none of great drama. Most of us realize at one point that we have to let go of ambition before ambition will refuse to let go of us. Ambition must remain a tool for a higher purpose, or ambition will make of tools of us.

The sustenance of success with great power and wealth needs the inner discipline of temperance and having a transcendent cause. That is why I believe that only a few enjoy that destiny, and most of then went through great struggle to attain their glory. They are chosen ones who are used by life to become bright lights to guide humanity. History will not only write about them but will do so with affection and admiration. Many tyrants are in that same history, too, but history books write about them with bitterness.

Politics is now an all-weather arena. The old pattern of aggressive politics only during campaign and election season is gone and we now have politics as the dominant force that drives societal life. In the political world, then, we will find the personalities who will teach us about ambition that has less covers than the ones we, too, carry more quietly in our lives. These personalities will play out in a public scene what we have to play out with more privacy. Let them rise and fall for us to see. Let them serve as public experiments, the many who will allow ambition to eat them up, and the few who can rise above ambition for visions more noble.

Life teaches us that in the midst of the worst storm is an eye. We must be that eye, calm and watchful, as the winds around us swirl.

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