Ambition is a strange phenomenon. It can enable us to climb the highest peaks, but only the self-aware will admire the view.
At school, I never fully understood the critical flaw in Shakespeare’s murderous Scottish villain, Macbeth. A traitor sure, but he was never dominated by the deficiencies that I could so easily scrutinise in some of the bard’s other villains: envy, lust, hate or greed. On the contrary, Macbeth’s guilt often exposed a morality which grappled with his wife’s iniquity. All in all, he was more of a coward than a bad guy. And yet, every time he lamented his actions, it was his ambition which propelled him to continue wading across that river of blood.
As a schoolboy, this was at odds with my perception of ambition. Up until that point, my ambition was one of the very few traits people lauded as a virtue. My ambition had been cultivated, fostered and even grown. You find out what you’re good at and then you become as good as you can at it. That was the formula. In the words of Lady Macbeth, you “screw your courage to the sticking point” and drive forwards. And as you move forward, it creates a real sense of achievement. It exposes you to new experiences, new people, new challenges and an overall sense of “living”. Which way is there to be moving if not forward?
Furthermore, ambition opens the door to the ultimate self-affirmation: success. To achieve a goal is undoubtedly one of the best experiences life has to offer.
So what is so wrong with it? In the most successful philosophical book ever written, Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig describes two types of mountain climbers.
Firstly, the ego-driven mountain climber: those that climb to a point, camp and are so preoccupied with the next goal that they make camp, go to bed and think only of what heights they might reach tomorrow. And secondly, the self-aware mountain climber: those that set up camp, but take the time to make a fire, eat some dinner and maybe have a cup of tea as they take in the view. One of them inevitably climbs higher, but I’ll leave to you to decide who enjoys the climb more. And so, the more I disagree with Shakespeare and furnish my ambition, I am beginning to see that in fact, I derive far more happiness and fulfilment from another source.
The expected narrative by which I live has for so long been the core of who I am. Only now am I beginning to fully understand the tragedy of poor Macbeth: the often-overwhelming necessity to fulfil your own narrative can completely dominate your life.
On his podcast, Waking Up, Sam Harris recently spoke to the Israeli author and historian Yuval Noah Harari. Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus illustrate that the key to homo sapien global dominance is our unique ability to co-exist in vast numbers. Harari goes on to explain that it is our capacity to believe in fiction – a religion, a nation, a corporation, free love, the Essendon Football Club, whatever it is – that gives us the ability to cooperate in such large numbers. In an apparent contradiction, it seems that our capacity to believe in things which don’t exist has given us our competitive edge. No other mammal is capable of this. Further, however, Harari explains that whilst a common fiction gives us the great power of sustainable en-masse coexistence, the fictions which dominate our personal sphere are often crippling.
What more is our ambition than a fiction we have created for ourselves? Harari made me double-take as he exposed my favourite fiction – the story which occupies my conscious mind more often than not – the story of me.
It is very hard not to see your life as a story, with you playing the titular role. The centralising experience of sensations: I see, I hear, I think, I feel etc, have the overwhelming effect of making you feel as if the universe is happening to you, with everyone you meet and everyone you have ever met playing co-stars and supporting roles, all the way down to the extras. The way that feels is that you are acting in your own film. In your own story.
The problem within our life story, however, is that we all have the propensity to not just live the script but to let our ambition write it. Constantly. And it’s not just the immediate dialogue, it writes the pages and even chapters ahead. Some of us have even written a conclusion. And the scary part is, we believe it! It is a story that we create, that we believe, and that we spend the rest of our lives proving is true.
We write the pages with our family and friends, our lovers and our bosses. Where will I be in five years? Ten years? When do I want to have children? How much money do I want to earn? Where will I live? The action blockbuster of our lives is mostly already planned, scene by scene to the very end. Why? Why do we do it? For me, it is because it gives my life meaning. Without a dream, my life often feels meaningless and without purpose. Besides, it’s fun to think about the scenes you haven’t reached yet.
But what if we don’t get to those scenes – if one of the co-stars dies or we get injured and are unable to live life as we had been? You know the feeling. The script shifts and the great plan goes up in flames right before your eyes. It is incredibly rattling. Ambition is fun when you’re fulfilling it and you’re reading the lines in time with the script, but not when you can’t keep up with the pace. When that moment happens, it’s as if you’re skydiving and you realise that there’s no shoot. As terrifying as that thought is, what if you were told there was no ground?
If we follow our stories as Macbeth did, we can be propelled to do great things. As if we are ticking off a to-do list, we look at the script and if our lives are “up to speed” we feel good. But how long does this feeling last for before – like the mountain climber – you start thinking about where the next camp is?
In their chat, Harris and Harari accurately point out that the fiction of our futures and the narrative of our lives is the greatest and most burdensome fiction by which we live. You are the only one who is aware of it and you are the only one to whom you compare it. Yet we follow it blindly. There is an internal voice in our head which tells us that we should own our own house by the age of 35 and have a steady partner by 30 and have lived overseas by 25. Whatever it is, the expectations by which we live, the great story of our lives, is purely a fiction, a mind game, that does not exist outside our heads.
If we follow our stories as Macbeth did, we can be propelled to do great things. As if we are ticking off a to-do list, we look at the script and if our lives are “up to speed” we feel good. We make sure we have run a marathon by the age of 30 or we are the owner of our own business. But how long does this feeling last for before – like the mountain climber – you start thinking about where the next camp is? How often do the expectations of the next scene or the next chapter stop you from taking in the view?
What scares me is the abyss that emerges when I am not fulfilling the script I have written; that I am living without ambition. The expected narrative by which I live has for so long been the core of who I am. Only now am I beginning to fully understand the tragedy of poor Macbeth: the often-overwhelming necessity to fulfil your own narrative can completely dominate your life.
I cannot help but feel that the amount of depression and anxiety which dominates our contemporary youthful society is so often triggered by a great sadness that the script is not being fully realised. That the film is not as good as it was once envisaged to be and hence, what else is there? Why has it failed? Why have I failed? If this is you, remember, you’re the only one who knows the script. You’re the only one who compares yourself to it. Why not throw it out for an afternoon?
Go and check out the view.