“Ambition is all very well, my lad, but you must cloak it.”
– Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkhand
A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions – that was Marcus Aurelius’s claim. And yet, every day, people are willing to relegate the significance of ambition in their lives. This is nowhere truer than in the lives of significantly successful people. I’m not saying they lack ambition; I’m saying that they simply refuse to acknowledge its importance to them. Ambition gets cloaked in responsibility, as if that somehow makes it more acceptable. “I’m only doing this for my family.” “I’m doing this to secure the future of my kids”, is a favourite refrain of people of my acquaintance. That’s the excuse (I refuse to call it reason) people tend to use to explain away their 18-hour working days and interminable trips.
Why? Is it such a crime for people to work because they are ambitious? Because they want to get better, they want to get ahead, and their work is where they would rather spend their time?
It makes me wonder if the shame is brought in by the money factor. After all, beyond a certain level of success, monetary rewards tend to shoot through the roof. Subsequently, workload increases – the more money you make, the more you have to work for it – and consumes you. The question rattling around in my bewildered brain is this: so what is wrong in dedicating more time to that which you are obviously good at? Or at least, what is so wrong that one feels the need to pass it off as responsibility?
A spouse of my acquaintance once claimed the same, and got shot down by his wife who declared that she never wanted so much money anyway. He carried around the “hurt” like a badge of honour for years. What she wanted was time with him. What he wished to give was money; his time was reserved for more worthy pursuits, like career. My question (which did not go down well, obviously) was this – if it is about the family, why not give them what they want, instead of what he was willing to give? I’ll tell you why. Because time, a person’s most valuable commodity is reserved only for things that light their fire. And for most people – especially true of but not limited to, men – their work is it. They just refuse to declare it in public.
Ambitious men and women push the limits of possibility further and further; they, in short, change the world. And it feels slightly incredible to believe that every one of them did it in order to secure their family’s future. History has pointed out, time and again, that men (and women) advance because they wish to be ahead, to progress, and because they find their current state unbearable. So they get up and work to change it.
Where is the shame in acknowledging that a lot of what you do is because you would rather be doing that than something else? And when something is worthy enough of your time, energy and commitment, why would you shame it by giving it another name? Somebody enlighten me.
“Ambition is not a dirty word. Piss on compromise. Go for the throat.”
-Steve Erikson, Gardens of the Moon