The antidote to ambition

Historically, the topic that has generated the most interest on this site is ambition. There simply are more people struggling with ambition than people writing about it. So I want to discuss ideas for combating ambition. I’ll get practical in my next post, but let’s start with a broader philosophical foundation. What I’m building toward is the provocative idea:

What if the antidote to ambition is ambition?

Have you ever noticed that the areas where you are specifically prone to weakness, temptation or sin correspond well to your strengths? Or, to put it another way, your strengths are the same areas where you’re often tempted to sin? Aristotle noticed the connection and attempted to explain it by describing a virtue as a mean between two vices. In other words, an excess or a deficiency in the core traits behind any virtue leads to vice.

I prefer another way of looking at it: our strengths correspond to our idols. We are created with certain strengths, desires, quirks of personality and weaknesses. Add to that our experiences and our spiritual gifts to make up who we are as adults who seek to follow Christ. But we know we live in a broken world where perfection is unachievable, and we have an enemy who constantly seeks our destruction. Satan’s greatest goal is to see us either bury our strengths or to make our desires and strengths ultimate. We call the latter idolatry, when anything takes the place of God in our lives. As C.S. Lewis illustrates in his classic, The Screwtape Letters, Satan attempts to twist every positive attribute into something sinful. His tactics are more about confusing and corrupting good desires and strengths than about overt temptation. (See more on The ugly side of strengths)

All of that is background for why we can’t battle back with sin management or suppression. So what is the appropriate response? I don’t think it’s helpful to consider opposites, because if areas of sin correspond to areas of strength, then to attempt to fight with an opposite would require us to work in our area of weakness. For example, if your area of struggle is fear, it simply doesn’t make sense to screw up your courage; if you weren’t missing courage, you wouldn’t be struggling in the first place. In addition, opposites are often surprisingly difficult to identify. A friend recently pointed out that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s apathy. His reasoning? Because hate and love both require passion. But apathy is the absence of passion. At least the person who hates cares about you in some way.

Instead, I think a better metaphor comes from the medical profession: an accurate diagnosis leads to a correct prescription of the appropriate medicine. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how we can apply this methodology to areas of sin and weakness.

In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender discusses the difficulties of narcissism. Leaders with a bent toward a strong ego and self-centeredness will have lifelong struggles with the positive reinforcement of success or adulation. The solution isn’t to attempt to control those behaviours, suppress those feelings or hide the sin. Instead, Allender says a better way to combat narcissism is with gratefulness. Narcissistic leaders need to focus on others and what God has given them, constantly finding ways to celebrate and appreciate how others have participated in their success.

What about the elusive quality of humility? After all, if you pursue humility, you can’t obtain it. If you think you have achieved it, you haven’t. Allender says that the only way to attain humility is through humiliation. I didn’t like that statement when I read it, and I still want to challenge it, but I can’t shake the ring of truth in his statement. Ask anyone on the street who the most humble person in recent memory was, and they’ll say Mother Theresa. But how did she attain such incredible humility? She pursued opportunities to be regularly humiliated. How’s that for a strategy?

So here’s the bad news: seeking to quell ambition is probably just as futile as pursuing humility. So maybe quelling it is not the answer.

The ugly side of strengths

I’m at the RESET Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Yesterday started off a little slow. Today has definitely picked up. But let me draw attention to a challenge from Cobie Langerak last night.

She moved pretty quickly in the TED-style format, and some of what she said was just phrases she didn’t have time to unpack. I suspect I’ll go back to her material more than anything so far. The phrase that caught my attention was when she said that we love to focus on strengths and gifts, but we never talk about career derailers. “Career derailers” was on my radar because the phrase is used in the books Topgrading by Smart and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Goldsmith. But she’s right – I never taught anything about it in leadership development, except to do some personal reflection and to apply it to a few coaching situations with others with whom I have earned the right to speak into their lives.

She also said that our derailers often correspond to our strengths. Come to think of it, I have taught that, using the term “idols” instead of derailers. A while ago, God exposed the truth that all of the idols I struggle with tie directly to my strengths. In fact, I think of The Screwtape Letters, where C.S. Lewis drew attention to Satan’s jujitsu-like methodology. When we find a good thing, his strategy is to embrace it and keep us moving past the point of virtue until it becomes a vice. Let me give some examples.

  • Where God has given me Strategic strengths, I turn them into control and manipulation.
  • Where God has given me Achiever strengths, I make everything about me. Combined with my other strength of competition, this one can be deadly in terms of career advancement.
  • Where God has given me Futurist strengths, I try to plan beyond what God has shown me about the future.
  • Where God has given me Woo strengths, I try to please people rather than God.

Goldsmith says that the strengths that got you here can turn on you at the next level, limiting your success. If you don’t confront and deal with them, you won’t get where you want to go. But I think Lewis and Langerak have it right: there are spiritual bases to these derailers. You have to deal with your tendency toward idolatry and sin. If you don’t ruthlessly expose them, your own success and the success of your organization is at stake.

The sum of your ambitions

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. It’s the story of his journey to make a better story of his life. If that’s confusing, you’ll have to read the book.

Anyway, what struck me were his points about ambition as they relate to your story. He starts with the supposition that, “a story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” In other words, a character has to have ambition to have an interesting story. Miller then stacks up his life in comparison, at one point gazing through the lens of his bank statements:

The stuff I spent money on was, in many ways, the sum of my ambitions. And those ambitions weren’t the stuff of good stories….

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want.

The problem with most Americans is that we want stuff. Ambition for stuff makes a boring story, or even a stupid story. For instance, Miller admits he bought a Roomba vaccuum cleaner, falling for the marketing industry’s manipulations of the elements of story: your life is miserable, and you’d be happy if you had a Roomba. The American Dream is a bad story! It’s a trap and a sellout.

Building on this premise, Miller quotes a filmmaker named Steve, who explained to him what separates an “epic” from most movies:

A story goes to the next level with two key elements, and both of them have to do with the ambition of the character. First, he said, is the thing a character wants must be very difficult to attain. The more difficult, the better the story. The reason the story is better when the ambition is difficult, Steve said, is because there is more risk, and more risk makes the story question more interesting to an audience….

The second element that makes a story epic, he said, was the ambition had to be sacrificial. The protagonist has to be going through pain, risking his very life, for the sake of somebody else.

So, are you living an epic? What do you want? Is your ambition difficult and sacrificial, or shallow and selfish? That’s the difference between healthy ambition and the kind the Bible warns against. See my previous posts on the subject.

What’s your Roomba? My prayer is that my ambition is for God’s fame and His kingdom. I don’t want to live a stupid story.