I try to make my thoughts turn to the abundance of opportunity around me, to the good luck I have been afforded. Every morning as I write in my journal, I think of Adam Smith who asked, “what can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience?”
But then, as I look to the day ahead, I veer from gratitude toward the realm of ambition. What can I do today to better my position? What activity will most move the needle? What can I do to take control and build the life I wish to have?
Cognitive dissonance is a term for the discomfort and angst we feel when we hold two opposing ideas in our minds. Ambition and gratitude conflict. But they also compliment one another.
Gratitude recognises what we have. It is an appreciation for the people around us, for the environment we live in and for the opportunities available. Ambition realises there is more. That we can be better. That we have further to climb.
When it’s object is to surpass others, either in influence, in status, in wealth, or in that most poisonous of concoctions, power, ambition is lethal.
Dangerous ambition arises from an attitude that views life as zero-sum. If I am to succeed, someone must fail. If I am to gain, I must take from another. It comes from a person with no appreciation. It flourishes in the absence of gratitude. It places no value on what it currently has, so violently thrashes to take what it desperately needs.
But there is another type.
When ambition is directed towards exceeding yourself, not others, it takes on a healthy, vigorous quality. This is the mastery mindset. The BRFG approach. We start to favour process instead of outcome. We start to think not in terms of surpassing others, but of helping them by improving our own capabilities.
Healthy ambition comes from a foundation of gratitude. By recognising how much has been bestowed upon us, we feel an obligation to pay it forward, to give back and to keep giving, without expectation of reward.
Adam Smith poses another question in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power and preeminence?”
Humans are social creatures. We view ourselves in relation to the hierarchies we exist in and our standing amongst them. For some the answer to Smith’s question is “to rise.” For others the answer is that we know no other course of action save incessant busyness.
And for a few the answer is that wealth and power and preeminence are just by-products. They are the consequences of a life spent seeking to better themselves and to give back to the world they are so grateful for.
In the absence of gratitude, ambition spreads and devours like a cancer. We all strive to rise. But only by starting from a foundation of gratitude can our rising do good, and not harm.