This article first appeared on elephantjournal.com
“A strong desire to do or achieve something.” ~ Oxford Dictionary
“An ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” ~ Merriam-Webster dictionary
“An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.” ~ Dictionary.com
Imagine a time on Earth before humans came to populate it.
Fear arrived early, on behalf of future humans, making plans to ensure their survival, as it had for other living beings. Survival is Fear’s primary job—and survival of the human race was his biggest job yet.
First, Fear created the fight-or-flight response, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, so that humans could protect themselves in times of imminent danger. This would prove to be a necessity.
Next, he created the goose-bumped, hair-raising sensation that would encourage us to pay closer attention to our surroundings. This, too, has proven to be a worthwhile invention, particularly for those humans who choose to tune in to more subtle dangers.
Fear is also behind the invention of adrenaline, a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, to give human beings the quick energy they need to run from lions, or lift a car, or just stand up in front of a room full of strangers and give a speech.
Again, a critical component of surviving.
But, because of his capacity for imagination, Fear was able to see into a modern future, like the one we now live in. He understood that what he’d created so far only became activated in times of imminent danger and in situations of short-term decision-making. He knew he could not pour a constant stream of adrenaline into the body, as humans would inevitably cease to pay attention to the warning if their skin was constantly breaking out in goosebumps.
He also knew there would come a time when running from the lions would no longer be a daily event. This knowledge scared him, for it would make him irrelevant. There is nothing Fear fears more than becoming irrelevant.
In contemplating this future society, he knew he needed something that would motivate human beings to get up each morning and fight the good fight, even if it was not for their lives.
He needed to create something that would stand the test of time and cultural progress.
Something seductive and addicting.
Something sweet on the tongue and soothing to the ego.
With these criteria, Fear entered his laboratory.
He mixed together our human need to receive love, acceptance, and approval with our experiences of dissatisfaction, vulnerability, and unfairness.
He topped it all off with dash of jealousy and suspicion.
He named his potion Ambition.
He exited his lab and curled himself up in the amygdala of the human brain—the most intelligent brain of all life on Earth. Humans bought it hungrily—no one and no thing sells quite as well as Fear does. Ambition was purchased with coins of contentment and bills of self-worth.
However, there was one antidote to his powerful potion that Fear could do nothing about: the human Soul. But, cunning as he was, he understood that the more ambition became a non-negotiable staple of human life, the less likely it would be that people would take the time to truly seek their souls—and the less likely it would be that they could ever wean themselves off of his intoxicating drug.
Fast-forward to today.
It is clear that Fear’s potion is working quite well—so well, in fact, that most people don’t remember that Fear was Ambition’s Frankenstein—its creator.
On the outside, fueled by Ambition, humans never cease their pursuit of success and achievement. Under the guise of Ambition, they will walk past, climb over, stand upon, or push in front of others.
“Blind” is not a bug; it’s a feature.
But inside, Ambition makes us constantly want more than we need, for it instills in us a belief in our own lacking. We are always on the lookout for what we are missing in life, for we fear being forgotten.
With Ambition, we can never let ourselves feel satisfied. We are no longer chased by lions—we are chased instead by unworthiness. We are discontent beneath our confidence, frustrated beneath our boldness, dissatisfied beneath our self-assurance.
There can never be enough money, power, or possessions that can calm or reverse its effects. Any success, small or large, leaves us only craving more and more potent doses of Ambition, dizzyingly grasping for the next rung on the ladder.
In today’s world, we barely recognize the problem. On the contrary, a person filled with Ambition is admired, respected, and emulated by children everywhere, creating generation after generation of people who have never had the opportunity to ask themselves what they really want in life, who never have a shot at true contentment.
Meanwhile, Fear whispers in our ear that it is not we, the drinkers of his sweet potion, who are to blame for the problems of society. It is those people over there, the lazy ones, the ones who lack Ambition, who are the problem.
Don’t ever become them, Fear warns.
As a young woman, especially as a competitive runner, nothing made me stand taller than someone telling me that I was an “ambitious young lady.”
I loved watching eyebrows as I spoke of my “ambitious” life goals—many of which far outweighed my personal stamina, several of which I didn’t even enjoy. But the word “ambition” filled me with such pride. It made me wonder if I could achieve even more. And so I pushed on and on.
Then, suddenly, for no reason I could explain, I could no longer draw up any more of the magical potion. The well was dry. People asked, “What has happened to you? Where is your ambitious spirit? How can you not want to climb higher in this organization?”
But when I looked inside my body for answers, I discovered that not only had the well of ambition run dry, but that my words were like sandpaper—dry and flat on my tongue, absent of flavor or wholeness. My heart was parched, squeezed out of following its own unique path. Even my bone marrow was, well, bone-dry. There was no fire of ambition to be found anywhere within me.
Instead, a fire raged along the surface of my skin. It was a constant fire that spread without discernment, burned without sympathy, itched without ceasing. The ambition that had once fueled me was now attacking me. Chronic hives, the doctors called it. But I used another name: toxic ambition.
It was then that I first heard my Soul call my name. She asked me to invite her in.
I’d heard her in fits and starts throughout my life, but she usually only served as a distraction. She was not at all ambitious. She was, in fact, everything that an ambitious society loathes: content, joyful, and grateful for her abundance.
But, out of other options, I invited her in. She remained by my bedside every day—nurturing me, offering me sips of something she concocted. It aroused my awareness, not dulled it. In small sips at first, and then eventually larger doses, my soul fed me Courage.
Her courage strengthened and reinvigorated me. With this Courage, I sought out the help I needed to heal. The fire soon fizzled out across the terrain of my skin.
To an outsider, it may have appeared that this Courage from my Soul eventually manifested itself as something that looked a lot like Ambition. Like an ambitious person, I once again had ideas, goals, dreams, and passions. But they did not arise from Fear. They came from my Soul. How different it felt inside my body!
Courage did not siphon from my bones. Instead, it flowed through my freshly-pumped blood.
Courage did not wear off over time, but, like success, bred and multiplied the more I tapped into it.
Courage noticed outside praise or criticism, but focused its energy on building up stores of inner authority and confidence.
This Courage I drank worked like an antibiotic, developing within me a kind of immunity to the opinions of others—or at least, the influence of those opinions.
This Courage I felt was not addictive—I didn’t need more and more to keep me going—but it responded naturally to the fluctuating needs of my body and the world.
This Courage I eventually learned to embody helped me create a steadfast vision for myself—one principled with integrity, truth, and love.
When I think of the word “ambition,” I don’t tend to agree with the definitions I shared at the beginning of this piece.
Instead, I prefer this definition by David Whyte, from his book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:
“Ambition left to itself, like a Rupert Murdoch, always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control.”
The trouble with ambition is not what it points to—passion, goal-setting, vigilance. The trouble with ambition is that it doesn’t coexist with cooperation, sharing, and communal good. The trouble with ambition is that it knows no bounds. The trouble with ambition is that it is disconnected from our soul.
But our soul—and a life filled with courageous passion rather than fearful ambition—is no further away than a whispered invitation.