The Merit In Lack Of Ambition
They say you’ve got to be ambitious, to pursue success. These attributes of the self are the measures of your worth. Success appears to be objective and you better come up to the mark.
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Contemporary wisdom, that of gurus and thought leaders of the modern digital age, will suggest to you and me that ambition and personal success are vital ingredients to a life well lived. Writers like Gary Vaynerchuk, Benjamin P. Hardy and so on, and publications such as The Mission, Personal Growth and Thrive Global are prolific in their production of material that feed the insatiable penurious beast that is their readership. Both parties are, we could say, co-operatives in the pursuit of achievement.
You see, the commonly held position amongst the purveyors of positivity and personal success is that all this self-development stuff and life advice will eventually help turn you into something remarkable. Currently your life is less than perfect, that’s your reality, and now here’s how you can recover from your lack of perfection. Their intentions may be honourable, or not, but the effect of this trend results in us becoming lost and ultimately serves very few. If the opposite were true the appetite for this material would be declining. It’s not, and so this helps to illustrate the growing vacuum in the inner life of human beings.
This writer contends that there be balance in this conversation about the merit in ambition and pursuit of a successful life. In that it should be said, I’m not necessarily out to bash these guys. What they do, they do very effectively and attract voracious readers in the hundreds of thousands to their material — material designed to fill that unfillable void. Their numbers would make any would-be “successful” writer almost weep at her lack of profit in this regard, if she were so outwardly focused that she became lost in the data that is. So they have my respect, reluctantly, to an extent, kind of.
Consider this opposing view the antithesis, you could say, to the hyperbole of the modern age of the mass materialistic, self absorbed, statistically obsessive mind. Consider this your permission to take things as they come, to enjoy your life where it is without self-imposed pressure to conform to a universal concept of success, as if one exists, be it latent or explicit in the content you consume. Consider the implausibility of the idea that there is a “you” outside of you. That you can fix yourself — as if there is a you that can pull you up by your own shirt collars. Consider switching off to the notion that the answers lie outside you and accept that you will change, often without any concerted effort and to your own surprise.
“What is success?
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
A Personal Story
I had a distinct lack of ambition when I was a teenager.
Apart from playing football, I had no stand-out desire that I can remember. There was no one thing, no single pursuit that occupied my mind. I was doing whatever came to me and wasn’t getting too hung up on results.
Like all kids, I had talent in particular areas such as art and sport, but I felt nothing so intensely that I was driven to pursue it. I didn’t feel an emotional vacuum that needed to be filled (however, that would change).
I say vacuum because if we were truthful, many of us would admit that we pursue careers, relationships, sporting accolades etc., out of the idea that something is missing or that we need to gain approval or respect from other people.
We crave admiration and attention. We want others to value us. Appreciation from others gives us a purpose for being, but it is misplaced because the applause never lasts. When it stops, we’re back to square one.
Perhaps in our inability to see it, we are not in a position to admit it.
Maybe in admitting it, there is the fear we’ll lose our drive to succeed, and in that loss, we cease to exist.
Because you see, much of this surface level identity we’ve built up needs constant feedback so that it maintains.
That’s how our sense of self has been created — by the interaction of me with you and you with me. This is how all things are made.
This state of mind is compelling and can set us up for many difficulties given that we put ourselves in a place of less than what we are. We are the child continually seeking the love and attention it didn’t get.
This state of mind is a place out of which no medal, trophy spouse, yacht, aeroplane, fat bank account or a round of applause can ever take us.
What Drives Ambition?
I say it over and over in the content I produce; I write and speak from my own unique perspective and I claim no ideology that would apply to anyone else. If it resonates with you then great. If it doesn’t then that’s fine too.
But understand I offer you no advice, for I would not be so arrogant to suggest I know anything over which that you already know yourself.
I enjoyed being a teenager.
Training, playing ball, going to school, having a smoke, buying three bars of chocolate in one go and daydreaming about Joanne Boyle (who I subsequently married) was the only concern I ever had.
I had deeply embedded hangups about my childhood (not for today’s discussion) but so far as I can remember, I had no real driving force in me to be anything in particular. Many of us live under the illusion that this loose and easy approach to life is acceptable in teenage years but as get older we’d better cop-the-fuck on. #FlawedConcept
In retrospect, I see that lack of focus left the door open for others to influence my path. I wanted to stay in school, but my parents had other ideas. A job came up, an apprenticeship, and my folks told me I was taking it.
I remember resenting that they didn’t take my wish to stay in school seriously. But I did what they told me and accepted the job anyway.
As I reflect now, that move was hugely beneficial. To be honest, it brought me to where I am and to what I have come to know about myself, others and the nature of the environment in which we all exist.
Although there were other possibilities in both sport and academia, to ponder and lament now what could have been, is a waste of energy.
Through the skills I had learned in that work and a particularly strong work-ethic, that on reflection, seemed almost inherent rather than learned, I eventually started in business. I subsequently became very ambitious, quickly counting international corporations and governments as clients.
For 15 years I pushed forward in pursuit of bigger and better. But today that ambition to succeed no longer exists. It appears I’m back where I started albeit a little wiser.
I must say with absolute certainty that whatever ambition I had, it is no longer there. I was confused about that for a long time.
These days I’m back working in the same industry. It’s where I make a living and support my other interests like writing and drawing. It supports my family and pays the bills too and for that I am grateful.
What I do these days I do because I enjoy it, not because I’ve got a hole in myself to fill. The things I do are a result of what I am, they are not the cause. They do not drive my ideas, including those of an ambitious nature. If they do, in fact, still exist somewhere below my level of surface awareness.
Purposeful Accident Principle
I am an advocate for the principle of Purposeful Accident. This principle suggests that all we need to do is engage with the work here and now and good shit happens.
I felt the effects of this in the past but couldn’t explain it. Most people call the effects of Purposeful Accident good luck or random good fortune. But that is simply the ignorant person’s explanation for what they don’t understand.
Today, in many ways I can say my ambitions are already fulfilled and this principle guides my actions - although I do forget sometimes. Real success as far as I am concerned, is a measure of how immersed I can be in what I am doing right now without distraction. If worldly success comes or not then so be it.
No plans, no process, no roadmap, no future.
Just turn up and follow the inspiration.
“Care not for the things of the morrow, for the things of the morrow will take care of themselves”. — Levi of Capernaum
Plans and processes imply a linear cause and effect universe but neither the universe or any of its apparent constituent parts, including you and me, are linear. The universe is multidimensional and reticulate in nature. Everything affects and reflects everything else.
In acceptance of that idea, I don’t believe there’s a better version of me waiting for the current me to catch up. Whatever version of me I might realise later, it will move from the inside out, not the outside in.
Me and you are that already, we simply have to lose the concept of time and the idea that anyone else matters.
A Persistent Question
But in all of this pondering the merits of ambition or lack thereof, I am left with a question occupying my mind…
If some vacancy in my self-concept is the driver of my ambition, what happens to achievement in the eventual filling of that vacancy?
In other words, if I believe I am not loved, and all I strive for is in pursuit of that love, then realising I was loved already, what happens to my ambition and possible subsequent achievement?
If we managed somehow to fill the gap in our sense of self, if we realised that tomorrow never comes and all there is is now, would the world as we know it ceases to exist?
I think it would.
If we assume this is accurate then the meaning of life is to close the gap in our thought of who we are. It is to realise what the more significant part of us already knows — that we are already successful, we have nothing to prove.
Maybe we have only to remember that we have everything we need already. That there is freedom from the self-imposed notion that the answers are “out there” somewhere.
The downside however, is that the remembering is likely to hurt.
Once Bitten Twice Shy Perhaps
The fear of failure can keep us from doing what we want and love. And although we can confuse fear with what I am attempting to explain here, fear is another ball game altogether.
Fear is the irrational anticipation of something undesirable coming into our experience based on our observations and existing beliefs.
Fear is the destructive side of creativity. It takes down, deconstructs the inner creative framework.
You could argue that I’m once bitten twice shy in my attitude. Perhaps I’ve been there, gained the wounds to my ego, and I am unwilling to stick my neck out again.
Maybe I’m afraid.
Or maybe I’m not.
Maybe I couldn’t be arsed trying to prove a point to myself or other people anymore. The anticipation of negative outcomes that usually comes with trying to fill a hole inside is not there anymore.
I have felt a shift from ambition to non-ambition in recent years and in that there is relief.
It is this frame of mind that was the seed for The Artist’s Manifesto.
Download The Artist's Manifesto | Larry G. Maguire
I wrote The Artist's Manifesto because I believe that staying true to our inner calling is fundamental in creating…
The Artist’s Manifesto is a canopy philosophy on creativity, life and work that I am currently putting the final touches to at the moment. It may help explain this state of mind better than a 1000 word or so article can do on its own.
It suggests that there is only now, and in that ever-present now where we are engaged in our work simply for the sake of it, there is no ambition or need to achieve success.
All that exists is the creative process and our gradual revealing of the thing we are making and the evolving expression of the self.
Writer’s block or any other form of blockage to our creative energy is merely a focus on a preconceived result, fear and negative anticipation that we will not realise our ambition.
Ambition, therefore, is a lack of focus on the work we must do here and now. When we figure that out we allow the advent of Purposeful Accident.
Ambition In Linear Time
To be ambitious is to be caught up in a linear concept of time and a superficial surface level reality. One that we’ve been sold en masse by existing powerful momentum of an industrialised western society.
In this linear idea of life, we believe that a better version of us exists at some future date and we must work ceaselessly towards it. Like a donkey following a carrot on a stick, we fall for the age old promise of a better life that never seems to get here.
Invariably this is someone else’s idea, not yours. If you believe this idea to be true, which most of us do, then you’ll likely pursue it until you find out the accomplishment didn’t fill the space after all.
Or maybe you won’t.
The mistake in all of this is believing that you, me and our broader environment are binary, and as I pointed out in episode 125 of The Daily Larb, (and above) the universe is not a binary system.
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We can take apart this life and examine it through logic and linear analysis. We can refer to the so-called second law of thermodynamics which refers to entropy and the inevitable decay of all things towards chaos and disorganisation.
We can say that caused this. I dropped the egg, it hit the hard floor, it smashed and now we can’t put the egg back into the shell. This indicates an apparent direction in the unfolding of the disorder. This is cause and effect in operation with me being the cause and the eggy mess on the floor, the effect.
But this doesn’t take into account the endless factors that exist in that occurrence. It also fails to take into account the fact that this single apparent event is merely one snippet of a broader universal event. You could liken it to zooming in and examining a single line of magnetic force for example - it doesn’t offer the full picture.
The truth is we’ll never get to see the full picture for if we did the game would be up. The cat would be out of the bag.
A linear analysis may have merit at a particular level of mind. However, when we get into it, we find these means of interpreting human existence are lacking. Newton was a bright man for his time but his ideas don’t fit the network based, everything implies everything else reality that we know to “underpin” all existence.
Everything is in an exchange with everything else.
It is a happening, a playing out through fractals in a boundless network. I affect the environment, the environment affects me, and it all goes on now.
“The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”- William Blake
In our eventual realisation of this, material pursuit becomes pointless and stupid. And yet, simultaneously it may serve us.
I am not suggesting that you drop your pursuit of success whatever you happen to define that as. Nor am I suggesting that ambition is necessarily a bad thing.
What I am suggesting is that eventually the pursuit will end, and when it does, you will laugh at the folly of it all. You will feel the freedom to simply do things for the sake of it and all the stuff you used to care so much about won’t matter a damn.
The body, relationship, career, family and grandiose life you craved may, by virtue of giving up on it, turn up anyway and surprise you.
The truth is that life tends to do that anyway, surprise us, regardless of our efforts.
This article was originally written for Sunday Letters readers 25th March 2018 on larrygmaguire.com and has been edited and updated for publication here on Storymaker.
Thanks For Reading
I’m Larry G. Maguire, writer and artist from Dublin, Ireland. I write Sunday Letters weekly for my growing readership. You can join them here. I’m working on a non fiction work called The Artist’s Manifesto, due out May 2018. I’m also working on a YA Mythological Fantasy based in Ireland.