Most successful people have been ambitious, especially in competitive fields. Yet some of us, like this author, have been brought up to despise ambition, especially the kind chasing power, fame and wealth. Whilst the easy answer to this conundrum is that balance is key, like in most other things in life. Yet, Lucy Kellaway concludes we are better off without ambition even on balance.
She starts with an example of friend’s father who died an unhappy man not having fulfilled his ambition in politics.
“From a young man he had set his heart on being in the cabinet but never made it beyond junior minister — and never got over it. For the past three decades of his life, he had been bitter, envious, bad company to others and a liability to himself. What had killed him in the end, his son told me, was not the organ failure reported on his death certificate, but thwarted ambition.”
“Ambition is a good thing but it must be proportionate. This is true not only of Tommy but of all of us — we should aim as high as we can, but within reason. If my friend’s father had had the more reasonable (but still high) ambition of becoming an MP, he might have died a very happy man.
The second is that if you do not get the success you want, you need to let go quickly, before the wanting destroys you. My brother had the ambition of being a professional oboist. From the age of about 15, this was all he wanted in life and for a decade he did everything to make it happen. But when, in his mid 20s, he realised he was probably not going to get snapped up by the London Symphony Orchestra — or any orchestra at all — he sadly put his oboe away, cancelled his ambition and joined a stockbroker instead.
Lastly, I now see I’m wrong about myself again. Contrary to what I told Murray, I’m not ambitious any more. I’ve looked it up and it means a “strong desire for success, achievement, power or wealth”. I don’t even have a weak desire for three of those and while I do want to achieve as an A-level teacher, that is because I’ll be no use to my students if I don’t know what I’m doing, and I won’t have any fun myself.
Now mine is gone, I see more clearly the trouble with ambition. It is not that it turns you into a ruthless, driven version of Macbeth, but that the striving, by definition, makes you dissatisfied with your life at present. Worse still, all the really ambitious people I have known have never been satisfied by achieving the thing of their dreams, they merely concocted an even bigger dream. I daresay that if my friend’s father had made it to the cabinet, he would still have died embittered by dint of not having made it as prime minister.
In the end he was unusual and unlucky to die still holding on to ambition. One of the greatest joys of getting older is the corrosive side of the striving, the wanting, the envy tends to recede. Whether it is because the charms of success, power and money fade as you get older or whether it is because of the diminishing probability of achieving those things — it doesn’t matter. Murray was right: life without the monkey is a good deal nicer.”
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