Ambition is Not Greed

The Desk community (are you checking these cats out when I link to them???) is doing a little digital book club experiment reading Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro, and so far I highly recommend this short book packed with a hundred jabs straight to your complacency. We’re going to read and reflect on the book for the next ten days, but I promise you all my reflections won’t be this long! (I think they literally couldn’t be this long. Blogs cut you off at some point, right?)

Pressfield jumps right into his reason for writing the book, and even provides a thesis statement, which the academic nerd in me absolutely loves: Here are a few passages to give you an idea of where he’s coming from:

The thesis of this book is that what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs.
The solution, this book suggests, is that we turn pro.

What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.

Ambition, I have come to believe, is the most primal and sacred fundament of our being. To feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls. Not to act upon that ambition is to turn our back on ourselves and on the reason for our existence.

Oooohhh. What a slimy bastard! Watch out Charlie Sheen, you’re in over your head!

Pressfield also writes a lot about his struggle to accept his ambition, and this struggle is one I’m very familiar with.

If you’re of a certain age and/or a movie nerd like me, whenever someone mentions ambition you immediately picture Gordon Gekko standing before a large crowd of stock brokers and Wall Street money people (aka, “The Bad Guys”) and telling them, “The point, ladies and gentlemen, is that GREED, for lack of a better word, is GOOD.”

The problem is that even though they’re often synonymous in my head, greed is not the same thing as ambition. With adulthood (hopefully) comes nuance, and it’s way past time for me to get these two terms straight. The last few months have been all about me stepping into my ambition. Wanting things in my life to be different and realizing I actually have it within me to make that difference happen.

I recently heard a podcast with Rebel Wilson, an actor who you may have seen in the movies Bridesmaids or Pitch Perfect. She’s from Australia and spoke with the guys interviewing her about an Australian/New Zealand/UK phenomenon called “Tall Poppy Syndrome” where anyone who gains any type of success or notoriety is met with suspicion. It actually has an interesting origin story — involving Plato! — that I trust you’ll to read for yourself, but it also feels very familiar to me even though I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

There are a couple of factors to TPS (they even named a report after it!). Namely to be a “tall poppy” you have to think much too highly of yourself and you also have to have taken resources for yourself that rightly belong to others. Think about that for a second. Do you think ambitious people think too highly of themselves? Do you think ambitious people are taking resources (money? attention? jobs? love?) that rightly belong to you?

I thought this way for years. I probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate it so succinctly at the time, but there was just always a vague sense that you were not living the life you wanted and that must be someone else’s fault. Right?

Maybe that’s true of greedy people. Let’s keep calling those bastards out for who they really are. But ambitious people are the ones who realize nobody can take from them what is rightfully theirs. There is a job, a relationship, a way of being in the world that is uniquely yours. Nobody has taken it from you because you haven’t created it yet. I may be skipping ahead, but the life you’re yearning for is waiting for you to create it.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a Christian. If you’ll allow me a little space to indulge that side of my life, let me quickly tell you about a similar default negative attitude I held against God. Again, I wouldn’t have articulated it so strongly, but it dictated a lot of my actions unconsciously as a “religious” person so I think it’s important to bring up here.

When something goes wrong in your life or when something happens you don’t understand. People often say, “God’s ways are higher than man’s ways” or something to that effect. It’s actually our way of saying, “I don’t know why that happened, and I kind of think what happened was really messed up, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m questioning what’s going on here, so I’m just going to say, ‘God’s ways are higher than man’s ways.'” It’s also a way of saying, don’t be too ambitious, because you may have a plan but it won’t work out, and in fact you’ll be ruined, because God’s plan is for you to be mediocre and not to aspire to do anything great.

Now, I’m making some blanket statements here, obviously, but in those quiet moments over coffe and drinks and meals with a lot of other Christians, most of us have this weird default setting embedded into our psyches. I don’t know where it comes from, other than garden variety fear, but I see it working through tons of well-meaning religious people constantly.

But here’s the crazy part, Christians use that passage to enforce borders or keep people in line, but that’s not what God is saying in those verses. Here’s the actual passage:

	“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
		call upon him while he is near;
	let the wicked forsake his way,
		and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
	let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
		and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
	For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
		neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
	For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
		so are my ways higher than your ways
		and my thoughts than your thoughts.

(Isaiah 55:6-9 ESV)

I know you’re used to thinking the Old Testament is full of doom and anger, and there is admittedly some pretty messed up stuff in there. But here’s what God is saying: “If you’ve messed up, turn around and let me have compassion on you. And I know that makes no sense to you because I should be punishing you, but that’s OK because my ways are higher than yours.”

This is where ambition comes into my life. I want to do great things, I want to help build things that last and I want people to feel better for having known me. I’ve held myself back for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which fear of an omnipotent being who may judge or punish me for being a “tall poppy.”

But that’s not what he’s about. So that’s not what I’m going to be about. And I hope that’s not what you’re going to be about. In fact, I’d say nobody is going to be a bigger fan of you creating the life you’re yearning to live than him. That still might not feel right to you, but just trust me on this one.