On the limits of ambition, the harnessing of desire, and the importance of balance.
“It’s not that I’m not satisfied, it’s just that I always want more.” A friend of mine used that line a while back and it got me thinking about how much is enough? Where do you stop? Do you stop at all? If you do, do you stop for a day, a week, a month, a lifetime? Or is it just slow down? Or redirect your energy into new and different fields? Periodically redefine yourself, your interests?
My version always has been: “I don’t want much. I just want the land that is mine and the land that is next to it.”
Ambition is variously defined as a desire to obtain a certain result or outcome, “an earnest desire to some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame or wealth and the willingness to strive for its attainment: Too much ambition caused him to be disliked by his colleagues.”
Desire is to want strongly or an inclination to want things, as in “a man of many desires.” Desire is defined as an aspiration, hunger, appetite, thirst, or a craving, longing, yearning, a strong feeling “worth or unworthy” that impels action.
Obviously, both ambition and desire are powerful drivers of human behavior and both have their dark side. If some are disliked for their ambition, often it’s because it is naked ambition, unchecked by a reasonable allowance for the needs and concerns of others. It is in the intelligent harnessing, the wise directing, of both these fundamental emotions that we find the energy to improve ourselves and our communities.
The key is to be in that sweet spot, that zen zone of disciplined wanting, satisfied but still aware of greater possibilities.
I consider the desire and ambition that dwell deep within me to be my dear friends, a bit wild at times, sometimes unruly, but loyal and faithful sources of energy and creativity throughout the decades of my life. We have forged a great working relationship and I do not know what I would have done without them. Yet even today, occasionally I must rein them in, remind them of the need for balance, family, and community. Ambition and desire are tremendous servants, lousy masters.
I close with two quotes, one on desire, one on ambition.
“Had doting Priam checked his son’s desire, Troy had been bright with fame, and not with fire.”
– The Rape of Lucrece (l. 1,490), William Shakespeare
“I do not fear failure. I only fear the ‘slowing up’ of the engine inside of me which is pounding, saying, ‘Keep going, someone must be on top, why not you?’”
– General George Patton
ambition: desire to obtain a certain result or outcome
1. an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment: Too much ambition caused him to be disliked by his colleagues.
2. the object, state, or result desired or sought after: The crown was his ambition.
3. desire for work or activity; energy: I awoke feeling tired and utterly lacking in ambition.
1. a strong drive for success
2. an eager, and sometimes inordinate, desire for preferment, honor, superiority, power, or the attainment of something.
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling a way ambition: By that sin fell the angels.
3. aspiration, hunger, appetite, thirst.
Desire, craving, longing, yearning suggest feelings that impel one to the attainment or possession of something.
Desire is a strong feeling, worthy or unworthy, that impels to the attainment or possession of something that is (in reality or imagination) within reach: a desire for success.
Craving implies a deep and imperative wish for something, based on a sense of need and hunger: a craving for food, companionship.
A longing is an intense wish, generally repeated or enduring, for something that is at the moment beyond reach but may be attainable at some future time: a longing to visit Europe.
Yearning suggests persistent, uneasy, and sometimes wistful or tender longing: the feeling that accompanies an unsatisfied state.