The Flame of Life

While contemplating the incredible accomplishments of the Roman leaders who had fought for the Republic throughout its history, Sallust wrote that there was a “flame in the breast of extraordinary men” whose soul “was most irresistibly fired to accomplish acts of virtue.” Fire is a metaphor for the ambition that drives people to take great risks, and it would not be wrong to call this the flame of life, a strange force that burns fiercely in human hearts.

I here write about ambition from two different perspectives. The first is a societal perspective, where I look at how our ambitions are in large part shaped by the society in which we live. The second is at an individual level, where I consider the relation between ambition and success, and how one should manage ambition.

For this I will be drawing on Eckart Goebel’s literature review in his aptly titled book Ambition. Alexis de Tocqueville, he says, describes ambition as a “yearning desire to rise.” Ambition is “clearly distinct from daydreaming, from resigned, inconsequential wishful thinking, from the sterile ‘life-lie’ of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck that tends to breed resentment.” Ambition must have a basis in reality. Its objectives have concrete and immediate implications. It always leads to action.

One could define ambition paradoxically as a “deliberately, rationally pursued passion,” in the sense that ambition is clearly driven by innermost emotions but also implies the presence of elaborate long-term strategies. “Ambition is not a short-lived fervor, but a deep-seated passion that can shape or even dominate an entire life.”

There is often a discrepancy between an ambitious person’s low origins and his or her lofty aims. “To pursue one’s goals with ‘blind ambition’ and stumble in public is to be laughed at,” to be subject to ridicule. “Ambition is a passion with a considerable drop height, pursued in solitude, that the ambitious person speaks about only rarely and reluctantly, and then only to trusted confidants.”

Goebel points out that “the Latin noun ambitio is derived from the verb ambire and refers to the process of eagerly canvassing for the votes needed to be elected to a desired office in the cursus honorum.” While ambition is a solitary passion, it is also one that is pursued in society. We will therefore consider its social ramifications in the following section.

Ambition and society

“The notorious tension between personal ambition and the prosperity of the whole,” writes Goebel, “led ancient writers from Plato to Sallust to the wise political conclusion that it was imperative to establish identification with the polity as a way of mediating between personal ambition and the interest of the state, to ensure that personal ambition could be fulfilled only in service to the state.”

The tension between individual ambition and public welfare is prone to many great moral dilemmas. Yet as Goebel points out, ambition is merely a passion rooted in our biology. It is not ambition itself, but rather “one’s choice of objects and the means used to attain them that determine its moral quality.” It is not ambition, but rather the insatiable hunger for power, wealth and fame which is problematic.

Sallust is subtle. On the one hand, he praises the thirst for glory and understands ambition: “for both the good man and the worthless man desire for themselves glory, honor, power.” On the other hand, he also makes a critical difference between the means used to achieve these goals, and their quality.

Taming our ambition is easier said than done. The historian Jacob Burckhardt shows that the modern individual is one whose existence is defined by his or her ambitions. In Christian feudal society, ambition was largely a function of one’s position in society. People born into nobility could seek honor and glory in war, whereas people born at the bottom had few options in life. Ambition was the sin of the privileged.

The Renaissance unleashed an age of individual existence, where people discovered themselves outside of traditional orders and hierarchies, leading to “a competitive society of equals in which the path to success for a person who must fend for himself is paved by personal achievement.”

In a society of equals, ambition loses “its sensational, exceptional character, its demonic aura, its diabolical sheen, its distinctive association with gloomy solitude, and becomes bourgeois, prêt-à-porter. A society of equals is a society of the ambitious. A desire to distinguish oneself is not a distinctive trait, but one shared by everyone. To be ambitious is to be part of the mainstream.”

Equality of rights enables universal competition, which consistently produces new economic inequalities. Not everyone can be successful in an imperfect market in an uncertain world, and hence many ambitions are bound to be frustrated. If not acted upon, this becomes ressentiment, suppressed feelings of envy and hatred. “In a world of equals,” writes Goebel, “ambition can at best be managed.”

Ambition is a double-edged sword that reflects our paradoxical condition: we are free to do what we want, but at the same time we are navigating social events that we do not control; we constantly dream and are excited about the future, while somehow the present always seems to be lacking what we want.

“The ultimate object of individual ambition is an answer to the question of the meaning of one’s own identity and life, a question to which there can be no answer outside of a revealed religion,” writes Goebel. “Every spectacular success or brilliant triumph thus inevitably rings hollow, because it does not bring with it this secretly longed-for answer.” Our constant struggle in competition “can never attain its ultimate goal of overcoming meaninglessness.”

The desire for future success is what drives the ambitious man: “a lack of success is his worst nightmare, as to be unsuccessful is to fail, and to fail means to sink into the shadowy world of anonymity into oblivion.” Goebel therefore ponders on whether it is possible to emancipate ourselves from the idea of success and “its serious psychological effects,” to which we now turn our attention.

Achievement and success

Drawing upon the work of social psychologist Gustav Ichheiser, Goebel observes that “success is not inherently related to achievement, but rather is the result of a particular social competence.” The best example of this is the fraud of the confidence man, who is socially competent but attains success without any real achievement whatsoever.

“The well-known and oft-lamented fact that achievement does not automatically lead to success, whereas a consistent orientation toward success can at times make up for a lack of achievement to an astonishing extent, does not mean, however that in pursuing success, one can dispense with achievement entirely.”

The fact is that achievement, recognized as skill, enjoys high social esteem. Accordingly, “the ability to generate at least the impression of achievement is among the conditions of an aptitude for success.”

This is why so much of an executive’s job is about impression management. A big part of personal authority and success results from semi-conscious role playing and theatrics. People in positions of influence understand the importance of appearances; they know they must act as if they are on top of their shit at all times. Leadership and influence does not rest on some mysterious “personal charisma,” rather it is born from a certain level of social skill and manipulation, something that naïve nerds with a first-order perspective often fail to understand.

Goebel also observes that “there is a well-known asymmetry in the relation between aptitude for achievement and aptitude for success, inasmuch as those who possess a great talent for a particular activity or occupation often lack the ability to develop the necessary aptitude for success on top of this.”

“Aptitude for achievement […] is very often associated with a number of qualities that make it impossible to develop behaviors apt for success: a heightened sensitivity that avoids the brutality that propels success, a certain pride that disdains blatantly advertising one’s own achievement; […] an internal resistance to putting time and energy toward the purportedly meaningless business of pursuing success that could otherwise be spent on more sensible pursuits.”

“So much value is placed on giving the impression that one’s success is – counterfactually – the result of achievement alone.” Success vindicates the successful person, who will often claim that his or her success was the legitimate result of achievement through hard work and intelligent decision-making.

Hard work and intelligence are perhaps necessary conditions, but they are never sufficient: success always requires a certain amount of luck. The problem with luck, as authors such as Ed Smith and Nassim Taleb clearly demonstrate, is that it cannot easily be quantified and assessed from the outcomes that we observe in real life. The world is simply a lot more random than it seems.

For instance, we often fail to see the extent to which the world is filled with people whose remarkable accomplishments go unnoticed, underappreciated underdogs and creative minds whose achievements found no path to success. The first myth of success is the idea “that it is the capable and industrious who break through and establish themselves.”

The second myth of success, says Goebel, is the idea that honesty pays off. There is in fact an inherent tension “between norm-bound and success-oriented behavior.” Ambitious people are sometimes haunted by a bad conscience, “because being oriented toward success all but inevitably implies violating norms.”

Most business leaders understand that the pursuit of success sometimes requires making very hard decisions. This can result in split personalities, as one can be a “loving father” at home while also being “a ruthless businessman who plays hardball out there in competitive society.”

The ambitious individual, if he wants to have success, must have what Ichheiser calls “freedom of movement.” First, his talent and his commitment to his cause must not cloud his sober view of the facts of social life. Second, he must develop a realistic balance between the pressure to succeed and social norms, since his quest for success will sometimes require that he circumvent normative systems.

In a competitive society, people with a disguised lack of principles will have an advantage, a fact that I have always found extremely problematic. A person’s values simply cannot be inferred from conversation; you can only infer how flexible someone’s ethical principles are by observing how they behave under stress, and when they have an opportunity to act unethically.

A seemingly kind and honest individual may hide a deep-seated ambition, which will manifest itself as an unexpected breaking of promises, exploiting and neglecting others for his own benefit, while a seemingly ambitious person may turn out to be less confident and capable than expected when shit suddenly hits the fan.

One should avoid ending up in situations where ambition clouds people’s judgment. This can only be achieved if ambition is managed so as to minimize its most corrupting effects.

Managing ambition

In his Pensées, Pascal writes that even a king will be unhappy if he begins to “consider and reflect on what he is.” Except for the wisest sage, few people can rest satisfied with their current situation. Pascal famously said that “man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room.” This begs the question: if we are incapable of staying quiet, if we are inherently restless beings, how do we manage our ambition?

Aristotle offers a clue in his Nicomachean Ethics, in which he lays out his theory of the golden mean. For Aristotle, virtues always correspond to the middle ground between extremes of excess and deficiency. Courage, if excessive, becomes recklessness; if deficient, results in cowardice. Generosity, if excessive, will be called extravagance; if deficient, will be called meanness or stinginess. And so on.

All virtues have their best form somewhere on a continuum. But strangely the mean between excessive ambition and lack of ambition has no name. “From the fact that there is both excess and deficiency with respect to ambition, Aristotle concludes that, as with the other virtues, there must be a good middle ground here, even if it is nameless.” Managing ambition is thus about finding this nameless golden mean, about avoiding excess and deficiency.

We live in societies that invite us to compete with others and define ourselves through our ambition. Taken to the extreme, we risk losing ourselves in what is essentially a rat race, in which we make ourselves and others miserable in our struggle to win. This is a trap. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are playing a competitive game, which we can also refuse to play. To survive in the modern world, it is sufficient to be good enough: one does not need to be the best.

However, if we do choose to play competitive games, ambition will help us stay afloat. “Ambition is necessary if one is to be successful in competition, but because of its latent, inherent boundlessness, it all but inevitably clouds one’s perception, such that the ambitious man may end up stepping on his own toes.”

The entrepreneur Jason Fried argues that expectations, especially those born from extreme ambition, can be harmful. They cloud our mind and limit the number of great landing spots, and make the idealized one impossibly hard. When you don’t go in with expectations, you almost always come out ahead. It’s better to have a wide gaze, point in a general direction, do your best, and just see what happens.

Most things in life do not involve very high stakes. “Sure, why not?” is a great reason to do most stuff. But for high commitment, high cost situations, “fuck yes or no” is a pretty good heuristic. For such situations, we should consider the downside, ask ourselves if we can live with the worst outcome, before we dive.

While we should avoid worst-case scenarios, we should equally avoid never committing to anything, never taking risks, never going all in, never facing failure, never having to work hard and be uncomfortable.

Many decisions that seem risky have much less downside than we think. Many outcomes — such as going through a divorce, losing one’s job, being rejected by an investor or a customer — are hard but not impossibly hard to handle. Most people who go through such situations overcome and grow from their experience.

What we should avoid is ruin: things such as degradation and destitution, or complete dependency on people who might harm us, or experiences that can make us lose our minds and fall into depression or substance abuse. These are outcomes to avoid at all cost, because they are very difficult to recover from. The threshold for ruin depends on the person — some individuals have incredible mental strength while others have more fragile minds.

On the one hand, most of what happens to us is likely outside our control. On the other hand, if we do nothing, then nothing exceptional will happen to us. An eventful life requires a belief in agency. Nietzsche argued that wisdom wants us to be courageous, untroubled, proud, mocking, violent, like a warrior facing death. We should never let fate win.