Abraham Lincoln’s law partner and eventual biographer said that Lincoln was “a little engine that knew no rest.” In other words, he was ambitious. Ambition is a key that unlocks our drive to make a difference. If you are not ambitious, you will probably not make the sacrifices necessary to channel endless amounts of energy to a productive outcome. And you may miss the opportunity to impact the world.
Ambition evolves in people. In childhood, the ambitious person has natural desires that say “I want to be great,” “I want to be famous,” “I love control,” or “I want others to adore me.” These self-centered drives and fantasies are often the undeveloped roots of ambitious people. For some, these desires never grow to a higher order of development, and as adults, these people become very sophisticated at disguising their true intent for fame, power, adoration, or control.
For others, childish fantasies of ambition are transformed from being self-centered to other-centered. This transformation can occur in a thousand different ways, but I have never seen it occur without the insight that we are on this earth for a greater purpose than just serving ourselves. The person develops a heart for solving social problems usually through a first hand experience of giving back, such as by volunteering, supporting others at school, or going the extra mile for a friend. Ambition then transforms into a higher purpose. It is grounded in empathy and the service of others.
Lincoln went through the transformation of childish ambition to other-centered ambition. In his early years he was driven to escape the life of a yeoman farmer in Southern Illinois. His father berated him for reading books, which his father viewed as a complete waste of time and the avoidance of real work. Lincoln wrote that he worried the desire for fame or fortune could cause him to make choices to compromise himself. He knew that such desires could cause a person to commit deep wrongs in order to gain personal advantage. As in a quote from MacBeth, which Lincoln read frequently, the main character is “swept on and on” without the ability to check the egotistical drive for fortune, fame, and power. In MacBeth ambition trumped conscience and the good of other people. Fortunately for Lincoln, and through the influence of key women in his life and important friends, he developed a deep empathy for the plight of the slave. He saw that slavery was wrong and slavery was going to tear the union in two. Lincoln’s ambition “grew up” and was transformed into a focus on a great cause much bigger than himself. Here is my counsel for anyone who knows they are ambitious and wants to make a difference in this world.
1. Ground your ambition in a purpose that serves others. A focus on others grounds your spirit – you learn you are not better than others and you do not exist to be served by others. This may sound basic, but our human nature is such that once we have achieved fame, fortune, or power, we are vulnerable to all kinds of temptations. A person does not understand these temptations until he or she is elevated to such new heights of status. At that point, a person’s true character is tested. My experience is that people can learn over time how to check their egos and check their ambitions. What I have observed is that the people who invite friends, advisors, and associates to encourage them and challenge them, are the people who thrive the most The people who keep friends and colleagues at a distance and react to criticism are in for trouble.
2. Pace yourself. Ambition can make you a slave to it’s ends. Ambtion requires you integrate four critical priorities: 1. your family 2. your career 3. your community, and 4. your spiritual health. Stewart Friedman, from the Wharton School of Business, says you need to create a four way win. He says, “make decisions that give you a win across all categories.” It’s not about life balance – it’s about integration and alignment for the long run. Lincoln was good at this and wove in quality time for reading, spending long evenings with his friends, and enjoying time with his family, all while he was leading America through a great crisis.
In summary, ambition can evolve from being ego-centered to other-centered. It is tamed through awareness, touching encounters with others, and surrounding yourself with great people who have forged an “other centered” path before you. Ambition is the gasoline the drives great contributions to the world. It is also the gasoline that creates great infernos.
The great spiritual teachers got it right. Ambition that is detached from making yourself the “great one” and focused on making others great, is indeed the most rewarding activity in life. And paradoxically, when done right, is where the greatest rewards, both emotionally and financially, can endure.