The Lost Art of Ambition: Debunking The 6 Lies Keeping You From Your Full Potential

The Lost Art of Ambition: Debunking The 6 Lies Keeping You From Your Full Potential
Desire greater.

So you graduated college.

You're young, you're energetic, and you're equipped with about two decades worth of knowledge which you finally get to use. Out into the freedom of adulthood, you'll feel like there's nothing you can't accomplish.

Or at least, that's what we tell ourselves.

Cue the chaos of daily life. Long days of work, bills, unexpected expenses, car trouble, stress – you name it. With all the sound and fury of your early twenties it can be easy to lose track of all those lofty goals you first had in mind after graduation. As if that wasn't challenge enough, it's at this point in your life that you're being given some of the most self-sabotaging advice you'll ever encounter when it comes to pursuing your dreams.

Now these myths weren't created by people trying to be harmful, but by people who were trying to be helpful – and that makes them all the more dangerous. Bad information mixed with a little bit of truth becomes all the more insidious and destructive.

Don't let 'em fool you.

Ambition Is Just Another Word For Greed

This is probably one of the most common myths out there. It's wormed its way into philosophy, literature, even movies and television. Just think about any show or film you've seen. Chances are that the “ambitious” person is the villain. The nasty, spoiled student running for re-election as school president. The corrupt, money-crazed stockbroker. The double-talking, Machiavellian politician. The megalomaniacal warlord seeking world-domination (usually just for the heck of it). The weaselly, brown-nosing junior partner. The mad scientist who will fly in the face of nature and God alike to shriek “it liiiiiives!” over some grotesque abomination.

You get the idea.

Now don't get me wrong – these people are the villains. They're corrupt, they're covetous, they're sleazy, they're slimy, they're vile. What they are not, however, is ambitious. Here's the difference:

Greed is the desire to take everything you can. Ambition is the desire to give everything you've got.

The ambitious person isn't the one lying to make that sale, it's the person working his tail off to close it all on his own. The ambitious person is the guy you see sacrificing his pleasure for his work, rather than work for pleasure. Why? Well, for the ambitious person it's less about the outcome than it is about the effort. Give an ambitious person a million dollars and they won't be happy. Not because he or she doesn't want the money (who wouldn't?) but because it wasn't something they earned for themselves. Because of that sense of dissatisfaction common to most ambitious people they often get mis-characterized as being ungrateful, obsessive, egotistic, and selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth, and understanding that is your first step to clearing the way to realizing your full potential. Don't cripple yourself by imagining that there's something wrong with wanting things – just understand that you'll never be happy unless you get them on your own.

Article quote inset - Greed is the desire to take everything you can

Talents Are Things You’re Born With

There seems to be a fairly common idea in our culture that every human being is born with predetermined potential. Everyone has an array of talents and aptitudes which they have to discover. Some things you'll find you're a natural at while other things just aren't for you.

And that is some bullshit.

Now yes, some people do have natural talents, but let's be clear here – these are nothing more than “predispositions”. Math might come easier to some folks than others, but anyone can (and should) learn it. A musically talented person might have an easier time understanding music or picking up an instrument but that's not what makes them a good musician – it's dedication and practice. More than likely you know folks in your own life who have these same talents, but without ever applying themselves, never turn it into anything. At the same time, you probably know people who had to struggle tooth and nail to learn something, but now make it look effortless. Art, writing, science, languages – you name it.

Let me offer myself as an example.

A major part of my line of work is teaching classes to ex-felon students, most of whom vary from being a “tough crowd” to openly hostile. In spite of that, I make my presentations and I am damn good at 'em. I'm not saying that because I'm arrogant (I mean I am, but that's unrelated), but because it's the simple truth. But was I born with a knack for public speaking?

Absolutely not.

I've never been a good public speaker. I trip over my words, stutter, and struggle to keep my mind and my mouth on the same page. The very thought of talking to one person, let alone a whole room, is utterly terrifying and it always will be. Still, through brutal practice, I managed to develop into a half-decent orator to the point that no one would ever guess I'd rather take on a tiger using only a rusty spork than lecture (though it's getting easier).

All that's to say that your skills are something you build, not something you're born with. You’re not destined to be one thing or another. The shackles of fate are not encoded into your DNA. Don't let a simple struggle dissuade you from pursuing something. While you don't have to be a master of everything, there's nothing to keep you from being decent at something.

Everybody's Special

Buckle up, because this is a brutal one.

No, not everybody is special.

That's not to say that some folks don't have value (everyone does). That's not to say that not everyone can be significant (everyone can be). It's just that not everybody tries.

Again, this myth has its roots in good intentions, making it all the more toxic. Somewhere along the line self-esteem stopped being about feeling good about one's best qualities and devolved to just trying to feel good. As a result, many people seem to have fallen into the line of thought maintaining that one person's apathy is just as commendable as someone else's energy. We imagine that the person sitting on the couch covered in a fine layer of potato chip dust is just as outstanding, intelligent, and interesting as the folks he's watching on TV.

That's just not true and we know it.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel important and there's nothing wrong with wanting other people to feel significant. That's just a part of life and you wouldn't be human if you didn't have that urge. But understand that a misplaced or malformed sense of self-esteem doesn't add value to your life. Confidence, self-esteem, a strong sense of worth – these things aren't just good, they're essential. But without them being tied to anything substantial, they're hollow and meaningless.

So does life only have meaning when you can blow all the competition out of the water? Not at all. There's always going to be someone better, and there's always going to be differing opinions on what is best in life. You don't have to be everything, but you have to be something. A runner, a programmer, a parent, a teacher, a student, a collector of novelty bookmarks. If you're a living, breathing human being then you can't be nothing. Simple existence isn't enough – be good at it.

Accept Yourself

Self-acceptance, without a doubt, is something we should all strive for. An unflinchingly clear and accurate understanding of who and what we are is essential to any growth as human beings. Knowing our own strengths and weaknesses, understanding our best and worst qualities – all of these things are integral. Without this knowledge, we might as well be trying to build a house without knowing what supplies we have or how much money’s in our budget. And make no mistake – the point is to build something.

“Acceptance” has tragically been distorted into the (wrong) idea that you can’t change anything in your life, and trying to is just a symptom of self-hatred. It’s become the all too common belief that your flaws, your weaknesses, and your fears are permanent features of yourself. When life gives you lemons, you should just hold onto ‘em.

The temptation to “be realistic” is what keeps plenty of people from even trying to make more of themselves. We get it into our heads that people just don’t change, and we can’t either. Make the effort, and we’re just dooming ourselves to failure. “This is where I am now” swiftly transforms into “this is all I’ll ever be.”

It doesn’t have to be.

We should accept ourselves and the reality of our present situations, but that doesn't mean you should view yourself as a finished product. You're a work in progress, and the only thing keeping you from evolving is fundamentally you. Now change isn’t just scary – it’s terrifying, and nothing is more daunting than the fear of changing yourself. After all, there’s a good chance that the only constant you’ve had in your life has been yourself, and even shedding a flaw can be a painful process. Don’t let that stop you from trying, however. Change isn’t only possible, it’s necessary. Regardless of what you choose to do, life will keep on moving, and it’s up to you (and only you) to move along with it.

Evolution or extinction – what’s it going to be?

Article quote inset - Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings

Ambition Isn’t Worth it

Yes, there are people out there who will tell you that.

While most of the myths that keep us away from ambition arise out of genuinely admirable points, you will encounter unabashed opposition as well. Wherever you go in life, you'll encounter cynics and skeptics of the worst breed – folks who'll tell you the faults and flaws in whatever you want to do. These people were around for the Wright Brothers, they were around for T.E. Lawrence, and they'll be around for you as well.

And they might be right.

I'd be lying if I told you that every ambition was achievable. Maybe you won't become an astronaut, or an FBI agent, or a professional videogame tester. Maybe you're not going to be able to turn your passion for macaroni-based art into a fulfilling and profitable career.


But what's the alternative? All the folks hurling snide jabs, what've they done today?

Sure, not trying might sound easier and safer. And for a long while, it might very well be easier and safer. But each and every one of these people will, for the rest of their safe and easy lives, be haunted by the nagging doubt of “What if I could have…”

There's no worse feeling in the world than regret. Better to shoot for the stars than sit in the dust.

You Should Just Be Content

Just as “ambition” has too often been misconstrued as greed, “complacency” has been mistaken for contentment. There's nothing wrong with be being happy, but the second we start becoming comfortable with where we are is the second we start to fall behind. This is especially challenging for us when we're in our twenties. After graduation we're forced to struggle to find a job, we're forced to struggle to find a home, new friends, and a sense of meaning in a world where the old rules of life just don't seem to apply. When we do find these things (and don't lose heart- you will get there), it can be easy to relax. After all that effort, there's going to be the powerful temptation to just rest on our laurels.

Don't do it.

We might slow down but life is going to keep trundling relentlessly onwards. The world will keep on changing, and sooner or later that change is going to come back to bite us. Whether it’s in our relationships, in our work, in our knowledge, or even just in our perspectives, we will be made obsolete if we're just standing still.

Contentedness- true contentedness- is about making the most of what we do have, not convincing ourselves to be satisfied with the things we don't. Trying to pretend that a lousy job, worse pay, and a nasty apartment are perfectly acceptable isn't noble or commendable, it's delusional. Never feel guilty about demanding more out of life.

Real danger comes not from wanting too much, but in asking for so little.

Get to it.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his award-winning work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, The Ocotillo Review, 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. His writing has appeared in Primer for the past seven years.