From an early age, we are taught to be ambitious. To reach for the top, try your best at school, excel at university, aim for partner, expand your network, grow your contacts, and so on. Ambition, we are taught, is healthy, and indeed necessary to thrive in the (business) world.
Indeed, the world around us seems to strongly promote this approach: we see entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk and the fearsome ‘dragons’ of Dragons’ Den, who rose and fell many times throughout their career, but ultimately kept their eye on the prize and succeeded. Without ambition, we are taught, they would not be where they are today.
It might therefore be a surprise to learn that Rav Dessler, author of Michtav M’Eliyahu, takes a rather negative stance on ambition. In his unique and insightful way, he provides the following insights:
- Ambition is a taayva (i.e. a drive or a want) like hunger: just as hunger is a sensation that causes us to eat, ambition causes us to strive for things.
- However, whereas some taavyas serve a purpose (without hunger, man would haven no inclination to eat, and so would starve), others (such as ambition) have no such benefit at their root.
- Ambition is, in its most basic form, a desire for that which is outside of oneself (and so, interesting, bares a similarity to taking, which Rav Dessler explains is a desire to expand oneself). When something is outside of ourselves, it is new, interesting, foreign, exciting. We want that phone/car/laptop, because it is ‘new and improved’. However, soon after we get it, that newness fades, and we move on to the next thing – the next gadget, the next watch, the next car. That which was once ‘outside’ ourselves is now internalised, we now own it, and we have ‘expanded’ ourselves in the process.
- This can be clearly observed in the area of wages, especially in firms which have graduated pay scales. An individual might start at a firm on a certain salary, and think: I am comfortable with my current standard of living. When I get a pay rise, I will maintain this standard of living, and this consistentcy will stop me getting greedy. However, when that promotion comes, there is a great temptation to up your expenditure just a little bit – after all, don’t you deserve it?…
- Chazal (the sages) certainly appreciated this idea, warning against ever-growing ambition. To paraphrase their words: One who has £100 wants £200, and one who has £200 wants £400. They instead propose a solution, which removes a person from the ‘rat race’ of expanding themselves: Who is rich? One who is happy with their lot [i] – i.e. one who is satisfied with what they have, and is not constantly looking to expand themselves and obtain the next big thing.
Now, if you’re like me, your thinking: okay, I get that being wildly over ambitious and greedy for money or success isn’t a good thing, but isn’t a small dose of ambition helpful to get you out of bed in the morning?
In fact, the author of Da Es Nafshecha (Know Your Soul) seems to suggest that ambition could be a good thing. The author divides all personality types into four basic groupings, which he labels as ‘fire’, ‘water’, ‘wind’ and ‘earth’. Without considering this idea in detail (that will the subject of another post), a person whose base character is ‘fire’ has a tendency towards moving forward, reaching for the next thing, climbing on what they have already ‘built’ to get to the next level. To me, at least, that sounds a lot like ambition?
Rav Dessler, of course, presents another side of ‘good ambition’. As with every middah (character trait), ambition has positive applications. This means that, in some areas of life, ambition might be totally useless and even damaging. However, in other areas, ambition can be helpful. We will leave you to consider when this might be the case, and return with some further ideas in the next post.
As always, feel free to leave your thoughts below.
[i] Pirkei Avos, 4:1