Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Is it bad that I want to burst into song to the tune of Fiddler on the Roof's “Tradition?”

It’s an interesting subject, though, and one that’s been coming up quite a bit in my conversations recently. The most striking thing about ambition, at least to me, is how completely subjective its definition is. Some view it as a virtue; others, a moral flaw. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar revolves around the title character’s ruthless ambition and how it led to his justified demise. Conversely, other famous tales praise characters’ internal drive and desire to better themselves. Stories like those of Horatio Alger commend the attitudes that led to success and self-betterment.

In today’s contemporary culture, people are still arguing about what exactly “ambition” means. In a thread on an online forum I frequent, the topic came up. One 60-year-old male banker described ambition as the motivation to climb the corporate ladder in the business world, overcoming both internal and external obstacles to find fulfillment in both material and hierarchal success. A 25-year-old female engineer and outdoor enthusiast defined it as being the best self that she can be, regardless of what others think—what makes her happy (and does not negatively affect others) is all that matters.

This of course made me critically evaluate my own feelings on the subject. I’m not exactly an extremely competitive person by nature—I’m as comfortable following as leading, but if I sense on incompetence on the part of the person in charge, I waste no time before jumping in and bossing people around until the problem is fixed. I like to be recognized for my achievements, but at the same time I’m embarrassed when my name is called and my accomplishments are listed. I prefer to stay on the fringes, present, but unnoticed until I choose to make myself known. I’m a quiet person by nature—I don’t like a lot of fuss. So even when I do get a competitive urge, I strive to win only for my own sense of self-worth, not to make a name for myself or impress people. Of course, there are the petty but somewhat-justified times when I get the impulse to take some arrogant individual down a notch or two. Maybe it’s human nature, maybe it’s just my own wild competitive dominance-seeking streak, but there you have it.

But then, is ambition a “bad” thing when it seeks to take advantage of others or advance in a chain of command? If the ambitious individual acts justly, honestly, and causes no harm along the way, I see nothing wrong with a healthy competitive attitude. People are hard-wired to find self-value in different ways, and if success in the workplace is what makes them tick, then more power too them. Competition turns dangerous when the stakes are too high, though. When some succeed greatly and others fall by the wayside, things have gone too far. Really, that’s the great problem with laissez faire capitalism…"the poor get poorer and the rich get richer." But I digress.

Self-betterment and fulfillment (what some could call personal ambition) are good things, I think. They can bring greater happiness and lead to advantages not only to the individual, but to the community as well when personal values are involved. On the other hand, when third parties are negatively affected, egos get too inflated, or ambition turns into conquest for conquest’s sake (as was the case with Shakespeare’s Caesar), what was a virtuous ideal becomes a hollow victory and dangerous character flaw.

So, as Socrates would say, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Only through self analysis and introspection can we truly live “well.” To summarize my opining, everything in moderation. Ambition can certainly be a beneficial thing, but by all means keep it in check.

1 comment:

citizen of the world said...

Balance, balance, balance. Frive is not a bad thing, doing your best is also good. BUT if it is at the expense of others, I think it is a flaw, and I think there are limits to how much wealth anyone should amass.