My parents often ask about my future and about what I’m doing to prepare for a career. Most of these conversations descend into arguments, during which they become frustrated with my steadfast uncertainty about what I want to do. During one such discussion, my father exclaimed in frustration, “Where is your ambition?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have any.”
As can be expected, my parents were not happy. They said that bosses were going to take advantage of me, that I would never succeed and that I was doomed to a life of tedious mediocrity in a low-level career without any fulfillment.
But I spoke the truth. I have very little ambition, at least in the conventional sense. Sure, I have my hopes and dreams, but I don’t have the passionate urge to go farther and achieve more.
And I don’t understand why this is wrong.
I have a lack of ambition because I work so hard on the present. There is nothing more for me than what I have today, because nothing else exists. Every little thing I can do to simplify my today makes each moment more peaceful and joyful.
Ambition is the desire for more. But I’ve never understood why it is a barometer for success in the workplace. It never stops; there is always something more that could be gained. Sure, I am motivated to move beyond poor college student status, but there is a definite endpoint to this movement in my mind. I want a life that allows me to fill out my world with understanding, not to achieve greatness.
We need to let some of our ambition go, to be content with where we are at each moment. The archetypal student at a college like Middlebury is highly-driven, passionate, motivated and never satisfied with what he has. But a student can be passionate without being highly driven, motivated but still satisfied. There is too much emphasis on what we don’t have, and not enough on what we do have. We are rarely encouraged to enhance the lives that we already live. Too many times I have been told to go outside of my comfort zone and try new things. Obviously that is a good idea. But it has been perpetuated to an extreme. To speak metaphorically, society now encourages us so strongly to look at the world as a whole that we miss the flowers right in front of us. The lives within our comfort zones hold so much unbridled potential for learning. Our routines allow us to pass through each day half-blind, so that we miss so much. Instead of looking forward, we can look around. We can invest more attention in our classes, attempting to get as much out of them as possible—not for the sake of a degree but for the sake of better understanding ourselves and our lives. Instead of constantly casting ourselves out to find new acquaintances, we can instead attempt to establish and grow the friendships we already have. With a greater understanding of our immediate, present lives, our ability to push outward into new experiences becomes not so much a violent upheaval of what is familiar but rather a natural extension of who we already are.
The way I look at it, ambition makes each day nothing more than a step toward something greater. It undermines the value of each individual moment. It makes a day a part of a whole, rather than the whole itself.
But when we take each moment as something to be explored, investigated, enjoyed and lived for its own sake, our lives expand in turn. When we get the most out of our lives as they are now, the end result is still success. Even without ambition, you still end up with the tools to shape a career—just instead of searching for success, you search for peace. And where peace goes, contentment always follows.
Artwork by NOLAN ELLSWORTH