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Monday, April 23, 2020

The problem of ambition

Is being strongly ambitious a benefit? Is searching for excellence always worth it? Whatever happened to “good enough?”

The Ancient Greeks had a word for the behavior shown by over-ambitious people who went too far in striving for excellence. The word was hubris. Not in our modern use of the word as meaning little more than being somewhat too big for your boots, but in its original sense of causing your own destruction by drawing down the wrath of the gods. The writers of Greek tragedies focused on showing the effects of hubris on previously successful people: men like Oediipus the king, who blinded himself, and King Agamemnon, murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover. In our modern world, we have forgotten that the pursuit of excellence can sometimes go too far: that crossing certain boundaries turns success into a nightmare of deceit, stress, and guilt. Maybe we ought to recover this idea, for the sake of our sanity.
This is something that it’s worth thinking about; a saying I came across somewhere (I can’t recall quite where), but which has stuck with me because it seems to express something profound about the way that most of us live our lives:
80 percent of the problems in your life come from wanting what you don’t have. The other 20 percent come from getting it.
Our consumer society cannot exist without a large majority of people constantly wanting what they don’t (yet) have. Advertisers and marketers spend their lives promoting craving in potential customers: not just a craving for particular products, but a generalized sense that you are never complete. There is always something new to long for—and seek to find some way of possessing. Always something more to pull you on into greater and greater hubris.

People in the past shared the belief that mankind began in an ideal state (the Golden Age or the Garden of Eden) and, since then, has descended in a more and more debased and troubled existence. Nearly everyone nowadays believes the exact opposite. Our superficial assumption of progress convinces us that each year will be better, more prosperous, more plentiful than the last. Success can never be too great. Like the profits in commercial endeavors, the only acceptable direction is upwards—and the faster the better. But is it true?

Our belief in unending progress is just as much a cultural myth as those ancient beliefs in a Garden of Eden and a subsequent fall from grace. Before we dismiss these stories as simple pessimism, consider this: they actually offer us a clear-sighted view that going too far typically extracts a terrible price in mental health; one that quickly destroys all the success that went before. With constant ambition and desire for more comes constant anxiety. What if your progress falters? What if others do better than you? What if you suffer some significant failure that thrusts you backwards? What if the only way to go on winning seems to be to lie, cheat, and use any means to destroy rivals? What if failure, however small, flips you into depression, or even a psychotic episode?

It’s no coincidence that the highest achievers are typically the most anxious and stressed. Those who have gained most have most to lose. Stress hits hardest at those who are most productive and successful. They live with a constant sense of fear. They worry whether their progress is good enough. Whatever they earn, whatever level in the hierarchy they reach, however many goods they buy, there is always more, just out of reach. They cannot relax because they never reach the point where they feel relaxation can be justified. They have lost the notion of “good enough;” of reaching a state where what they have is sufficient, so that they can now spend time enjoying it. They never recognize the point when productivity becomes less important than pleasure.

To find pleasure in your life, you first need to come to terms with the fact that constant economic striving and enjoying yourself are rarely fully compatible. Making time and space for pleasure usually demands stepping back from all that striving to be the leading rat in the race. “Good enough” can be better than excellence, if the price of achieving excellence is continual overwork with a thick topping of anxiety and guilt.

Even for businesses, the cost of being the market leader can become too high to tolerate. A good business that provides sufficient wealth for those whom it employs, some reasonable stability for the future, and a lifestyle that has a good balance of pleasure as well as productivity, used to be the ideal. Only in recent times has that image been replaced with that of an organization that is never satisfied with anything; and which automatically responds to meeting any goal by setting another, more demanding than before.

We need to see this for what it is: not some profound and inescapable truth, but just another cultural norm that will, one day in the future, seem just as strange as the wearing of powdered wigs and knee-breeches seems to us today. For most of us, “good enough” is in truth very good indeed. Pushing too far beyond it often produces more stress than is compatible with a good life. The problem of ambition has always been the same: knowing when to stop.



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