Greetings from a small cafe in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I'm sitting here sipping an iced green tea and having a little bit of focused quiet time as part of my weeklong vacation. I'm listening to a wonderful live recording from Birdland of Lee Konitz playing the standard "I Fall In Love Too Easily," which is perfectly appropriate for this doe-eyed Italian boy. 🥰
By the way, I’d love to read your comments, thoughts, reactions, and questions about what I write. If you’re interested in responding, please make a comment below!
This week, I've been thinking about the subject of Ambition. This has been at the front of my mind for some time now, but I'm only just finding the space and time to flesh out my thoughts about it. I hope, as always, it's helpful to you in some way.
Ambition is a potent force that can be generated by love or fear. We need it, but it can also consume us.
I often share the wisdom shared with me years ago by a former board chairperson of Choral Chameleon, Cathy Solomon - who was a pivotal person in the organization’s history. She once told me that we only ever have two choices in life: love and fear.
We can give or take either one.
We can act from either one.
We can be motivated by either one.
We can be consumed by either one.
Ambition from Fear
An ambition generated by fear causes people to do strategic, irrational, and sometimes extreme things to get ahead in life or a career. This ambition places "the one" before "the many." It is about personal honor and defending that honor. It is about keeping up appearances. It is about conformity as a ruse to distract the competition. Competition drives this kind of ambition. It takes the focus off "the many" and places all of it on "the one." It breeds the belief that "the one" cannot advance if "the many" are in the way or taking up any of "the one's" desired space. Let me break these down a little bit more:
Placing "the one" before "the many " happens when over-zealous self-awareness usurps our opportunity to live in the awareness of our surroundings. This is not limited to people but also can include environment and experiences. Being mindful of our surroundings, we react differently and make decisions that benefit our ambitions better than the exclusive personal directives we give ourselves.
Personal Honor and Defending that honor - I'm not saying we should let everyone walk all over us all the time. I'm saying that when we place our images, reputations, and honor before anything else, we communicate something to others that simply doesn't serve our ambitions. It actually counteracts them. The most profound honor is showing the world that we honor ourselves through our actions. Living this principle makes us more likely to be honored and respected by others. I'm reminded of the adage: "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? It's tough to swallow, but it's true most of the time.
Conformity as Distraction - This is the idea that by living our lives in a way that other people seem to expect, we blend in. We feel safe because we are less likely to be noticed when we are different than others. We think others won't notice as quickly when we feel the urge to do or show something that goes against the grain. It's easier to conform and "go with the flow" than to stand out and lose our honor in the eyes of others.
One of the most valuable lessons I've learned from starting a non-profit arts organization in New York City is that the urge toward conformity is a ruse. We are led to believe by peer pressure that conforming will help us go far. In fact, it's the opposite.
Yes, some people might be put off or even incensed by the things we do that go against the grain. But suppose these things are objectively valuable and virtuous to others. In that case, there will be more people who appreciate them than those who don't. When we go against the current, others are more likely to notice us. Still, since we're so afraid of disapproval from others, we stop ourselves from going there. It's not a fault or a weakness. It's a circumstance - and we always have at least some control over our circumstances.
A lot of this is driven by our beliefs. John Mayer put it best in his lyrics:
Belief is a beautiful armor.
It makes for the heaviest sword.
Like punching underwater, you never can hit who you're trying for.
Some need the exhibition.
Some have to know they've tried.
It's the chemical weapon for the war that's raging on inside..."
We're never gonna win the world.
We're never gonna stop the war.
We're never gonna beat this if belief is what we're fighting for.
I don't have a crush on John Mayer (although I'd be most justified if I did!) I see him as a prominent person from my generation of 80s babies "stuck in the middle" of the fight between our boomer parents and the Millenials.
Ambition from Love
An ambition that is generated by Love is outward-looking. It seeks to fill needs where it observes them. It wants to help as many people as it can. It sees the best in people and tries earnestly to bring people's best out of them. This ambition places "the many" before "the one." It seeks visibility and trust insofar as this enables it to gather more people and help them in whatever way is needed. It does not conform to societal ideas of what is required. It observes and reacts. It does not seek to push others out of the way to advance itself. Instead, it fascinates itself with the strengths and talents of others. It wants to lift them into the light for the betterment of all in its orbit.
Actually, it is hard and even frustrating for other manifestations of ambition to compete with this love-driven ambition. Sometimes it gets misunderstood or lost in translation. It's hard to maintain a mindset of love-driven ambition because there is so much of the other kind around all the time. It's easy to lose courage and second-guess one's choices.
Ambition from Love is also sometimes the victim of "benevolence punishing." Think: "no good deed goes unpunished." People who feel threatened by the kind of influence wielded by love-driven ambition might reframe ambitious acts in a way more familiar to them - as acts of fear-driven ambition. They might feel the urge to mock, chastise, or hinder these love-driven acts because this reaction feels normal and warranted to them.
I've also learned that when love-driven ambition is the north star guiding the decision-making process, the organization is more likely to last through the tests of time. You can wake up one day, and instead of having crossed the passing days, weeks, months, and years on your calendar, you are surprised at how much time has passed without your noticing. Usually, the most immediate reaction after this surprise realization pops up now and again is one of overwhelming gratitude - a gratitude that is also outward-facing. Instead of thinking about everything you did to make it this far, you think about all the other people who have been there helping it along all the way. This is a good sign that at least most of the ambition that drives what you do is love-driven.
I know that what I propose is easier said than done. Maintaining a mindset of love-driven ambition is especially hard when surrounded daily by so much of the other kind. Having said this, I can still say that it's always worth trying earnestly to do so, to forgive yourself when you notice you've slipped, and continue to move forward with practical optimism.
In my life, the periods of slipping have been both long and short. In fact, I'm just exiting one right now after several years. That, my friends, is a story for another day.
Have a great week!
And remember to leave a comment if you feel so inclined!
This piece is a camera-shot into a beautiful and compassionate life which touches so many. Keep on making space for the quiet time. It is the space for untold grace and loving perceptions.