Ambition: The Gift with an Asterisk
At 5:07 and 5:24 and still at 5:46, I’m making my way through the suburbs of our state capitol, each town strung together by a line of evening traffic. Dusk is on and so are the matching brake lights—now leaving the line, now entering it. Lefts and rights, merges, stops, fingers and horns, permissions and saints. Yet another car nods a Thank You to the faded Caprice Classic in front of me as I wonder how a slower way home could possibly exist.
I’m hungry. It’s getting dark. I underestimated the travel time. Cold drizzle and wet roads threaten with ice. And I have a strong desire to be somewhere.
No sooner do I watch the grateful driver join our slow-flow exodus from work that a question interrupts the irritation: What do all of these halting and starting people want? Home as well, I guess. They’re hungry for one shift to end and a different one to begin. Maybe thoughts of lasagna drive them. Maybe quiet or kids or the TV and recliner.
I stare at the Caprice Classic, like a thing you see but don’t see, tail lights in arms’ reach and bokehing in the rain drops that accumulate on the windshield.
This article assignment comes to mind, prompting a second question: How many view this commute as simply another tooth in the daily cogwheel: wake up, go to work, work, drive home, go to bed, wake up again? On the flip side, I muse, Who is already dreaming of going back to the office? At this time of day and under these conditions, it seems like few. But who knows how ambition affects this or that employee or the unkempt silhouette of the driver in front of me?
Ambition as Excessive Desire
The Middle English ambicioun meant “excessive desire for honor, power, or wealth.” Today we use this noun in the active sense. (Couch potatoes with excessive desire are not ambitious; they’re dreamers.) Ambition belongs to doers, men and women who, despite having talked with them only a week ago, perpetuate our asking, “How’s it going?” In this way, ambitious people call us toward. They attract attention, like the latest developments on the evening news. You may not want to mimic their schedule, but you can’t help watching them go.
Ambition is like hunger; it obeys no law but its appetite.—Josh Billings, American humorist.
Admiration aside, the problem with ambition—by most of its definitions, including Billings’—is that it’s a taskmaster. “Excessive” leans the concept toward covetousness and greed, those insatiable viruses of our will. Even with more generic, neutralizing definitions, such as “an eager or strong desire to achieve something,” which could refer to saving for retirement or running a marathon, those with ambiciuon see little difference. The “going” of “How’s it going” remains critical.
For them, the “strong desire to achieve” grows in resolve as challenges increase. More miles, more obstacles, more desire. In the worst cases, what the ambivalent lack in direction, the ambitious maintain to a fault. In the American Alpine Journal, five-time summiteer of Mt. Everest David Breashears describes the conflict between ambition and service in mountaineering:
[T]he welfare of our companions must always be paramount. But in a society that readily rewards success, yet casts a shadow on perceived failure, there will rarely be any glamour or glory for those who return unsuccessful because they chose to assist stricken companions … More darkly, driven by an overwhelming desire to reach the summit, one might simply ignore or trivialize the condition of a fatigued companion in order to justify continuing onwards.
Sir Edmund Hillary, the first ever to summit Mt. Everest, said, “The people just want to get to the top.”
Most of us have relatively domesticated ambitions—convicting but not clingy; present but not licking our faces till we have to put them on a leash. For the ones that do get out of hand, somebody usually notices. Hollywood has made millions on Dads who missed one too many kid baseball games. “Get in line, Workaholism,” we pray from the movie chair. “You’re ruining his life and his family’s, too.”
Ambition is not endurance or perseverance—nouns that appear like fungi after too much rain. Nor is ambition the same as faithfulness or constancy. Christ himself calls us to single-minded direction: “Seek first the Kingdom … ” (Matt. 6:33). Jesus’ kind of devoted orientation is not selfish. It isn’t blind. It isn’t foolish. It doesn’t cost unduly or come at the expense of others.
No, ambition is different. It tips single-mindedness toward the excessive. Consider the many stories from Scripture where ambition takes over: Disciples requesting to sit next to Jesus in heaven (Mark 10:35-41). The people saying, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves … ” (Gen. 11:4). Eve responding to the temptation that “you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). And in a classic example of being entranced by unprecedented closeness to the glitter of the purse, there is Haman showing his cards before the hand had been played (Est. 6:6-12).
These stories point to an older meaning of the word ambition. The Latin ambitiō meant “a going around (of candidates),” a “canvassing for votes.” It’s the coffeehouse singer who still dreams of making it after years and years and years of packing up alone every night and cold-calling every next day for new gigs. She wants what she wants badly enough to go door to door to get it.
Inspirational tales get muted, however—they becomes excessive—as pursuers expose their narcissism. Like the drooling disciples and the infatuated Haman, unhealthy desire for position compels us toward negative consequences. It forces us to ask for too much. Here it made the disciples’ peers indignant and caused Haman to “[rush] home, with his head covered in grief” (Est. 6:12).
Ask any entrepreneur who’s trying to build a platform, and he’ll tell you how easy it is to turn product promotion into canvassing for self. “Look at me!” goes the not-so subliminal cry. Ambition series contributor David Kinnaman admits to these negative powers. As a best-selling author and the president of a leading research organization, he knows something about ambition. Kinnaman writes:
I’ve taken on complex projects and over-promised results. I’ve often been tempted to believe I’m the smartest guy in the room. I’ve pursued success through mere human effort, and not in partnership with God’s spirit … [A]s a leader of a growing business, I’ve had to work hard to keep my drive in check.
It’s clear that ambition has issues. Like a contract with too much fine print, we’re wise to pay attention to it if we have any hope of keeping it honest. The book Sacred Fire: A Vision for Deeper Human and Christian Discipleship, by Ronald Rolheiser, may offer some help.
Ambition in the Early Years
Rolheiser describes three stages of discipleship that we experience on the way to maturity, two of which pertain to this article. Since ambition is affected by maturity, we can argue that ambition should look different as we progress through the stages. Understanding this metamorphosis is useful for grasping the fine print.
In the first stage, what Rolheiser calls essential discipleship, we seek answers to essential questions: Who am I? Am I loved? What role do I play in the world? What contribution will I make? This quest typically fills the first third of our years, when we are “struggling to get our lives together.” Essential discipleship may appear to be self-centered, though it is quite natural and provides necessary room for us to discover our place in the world as children known and loved by God.
The stage itself is not problematic. In fact, ambition often acts as a propellant through this stage, fueling our pursuit of vision and fantasies regarding a brighter future. Even if ambition has been initially adopted as a coping mechanism for youthful insecurities, reflection, and insight should lead to a healthier relationship with it over time.
Problems arise when we over-value this stage and remain in it for too long. It’s easy to imagine how the answers we find to our essential questions shape what we therefore pursue, which means that allowing something like ambition to promise more than it can reasonably provide binds us to the current course. It binds us to Neverland. Unfortunately, what propelled us early cannot sustain us forever. At least, not in the same form.
Refusing to make this acknowledgement hinders us from entering the second stage, mature discipleship.
Ambition in the Working Years
At some point—Rolheiser puts it between the ages of 30 and 50—we approach the end of essential discipleship, often recognized in thoughts like this one: Okay, I’ve got my education and mortgage and family and 401k. My life is finally together. But why do I feel so lost? Is this all there is? Steve Jobs told me “We’re here to make a dent in the universe.” Where’s my dent?
Rolheiser proposes that entering this second stage requires a fundamental shift, one that can help us re-align whatever stray or inadequate course ambition may have taken in the early years. Here we begin the important struggle “to give our lives away.”
If we continue to chase after “honor, power, and wealth” into our thirties and beyond, what hope is there for maturity? How can our lives be given away if we fear losing what little we believe we have? Kinnaman answers this question with a bit of hopeful sobriety. “Slowly, very slowly, I’ve been giving up the notion that I can do anything else but be faithful.”
His response is not arrival, only realization, not defeat, but a sign of acceptance that ambition has no messianic power. In response to the disciples whose childish desire was to be enthroned with Jesus, the Bible commentator Matthew Henry notes, “We had much better leave it to him to do for us what he sees fit, and he will do more than we can desire.”
A Lesson along the Way
At 41, I’ve been invited to embrace a mature discipleship. I’ve heard the warnings in the Bible and throughout history. I’ve admired healthy ambition in friends. But I watch Selma and remember again that my fantasies deal in excess. I care too much about being a superhero. I aspire to contribute to great causes, though only if I can be the main character—Dr. King himself, not any of the nameless martyrs on whose backs the victory so equally rests. “Look at me!” goes the cry.
It’s now 5:53, and I’m two blocks from my street. I assume the driver of the faded Caprice Classic is relieved to be clocked out and headed home. His disheveled hair makes me think he isn’t the ambitious type who would inspire many followers. Then he waves another commuter into the mix, and I’m interrupted one last time: Is ambition related to my desire to shave off 20 seconds from this drive home? No. This is just people in my way. I won’t know healthy ambition until I learn to give my life to others, and that’s exactly what that guy seems to be doing.
Here’s my turn.
Is ambition positive, neutral, destructive, or fallen but redeemable? Does ambition interfere with Christian witness? What is the difference between being called and being driven? And why does it matter? Does it matter? Western culture values a strong work ethic, and we encourage our children and their children to strive and work toward success. Have we put our focus in the right place? Join us for this High Calling series that we’ve titled simply, Ambition.