More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Riddle of Ambition

One of my favorite lines of dialogue is from Quentin Tarantino’s film, Jackie Brown. The exchange is just a few seconds long, but it does a great job introducing the tension that I’d like to discuss today.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Ordell Robbie, a gun runner that’s looking to smuggle in half a million dollars from Mexico. He’s brash, driven by greed, and won’t take “no” for an answer. Any opportunity with a dollar sign on it, he rushes to take.

But of course, he happens to live with someone that’s the complete opposite.

His roommate / not-quite-girlfriend is Melanie Ralston, and in almost every scene, she’s holding a bong. She doesn’t care about anything else but the TV show she’s watching and the quality of the weed she’s smoking. As long as the bong is lit, all is well in the world.

In this scene, Ordell is getting ready to leave the house and scope out a venture. He’s pumped and ready to go, only to see Melanie on the couch once again to revisit her cylindrical friend. With a look of admonishment, he furrows his eyebrows and says:

“You smoke too much of that shit. That shit’s gonna rob you of your ambition.”

You then see Melanie, high as she always is with a smile on her face, who quips:

“Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.”

When I first heard this exchange, I just thought it was funny. But the fact that I can still recall it means that there’s something deeper about it that’s stuck with me. And I’ve since realized that it does a great job highlighting the paradox of ambition.

Ambition is a tricky thing because it’s both empowering and pointless. Empowering in the sense that it allows you to look for opportunities that actualize your potential (as embodied by Ordell), but pointless in the sense that it prevents you being okay with what is (as embodied by Melanie). Ambition helps set your future self up for a better life, but comes at the expense of enjoying that life today. This is what Schopenhauer meant when he said that one of the defining characteristics of humanity is our tendency to restlessly strive.

But one of the reasons I love that exchange so much is because it adds another dimension to this conundrum.

What if your ambition is to be okay with what is? Can you still call that ambition, or is it something else entirely?

To be ambitious is to imply that “you’re not there yet,” however you want to define those four words. That the bar is set higher than where you are now, and that the gap between them is what you need to make up for through your ambition.

But suppose there is no gap in your mind. That you’re perfectly content with what you have, like Melanie and her daily bong rips. Has ambition ceased?

I’ve thought about this quite a bit, especially because I consider myself an ambitious person. Not in the pursuit of status or recognition, but more so in the actualization of what I’m capable of. There’s this feeling that I can always be doing more, or that there’s ways in which I can express myself better. The distance between the crudeness of words and the richness of experience is ever-present, and I often find myself trying to bridge that distance with each piece I publish.

This desire to do so is both the source of purposeful challenge and unnecessary doubt, which is why I’ve thought about what it means to be perfectly okay with what is. While I initially thought that this would result in the elimination of ambition, I’ve since realized that it wouldn’t.

Here’s why: If you want a certain state to persist, you will no longer have an ambition to accumulate, but rather an ambition to preserve. Being perfectly content with your current state means that you’ll desire what you have now, and wherever there is desire, there is ambition.

In the case of Melanie, if you took away her weed and left her without a TV, she would no longer be at peace. In fact, if you’ve watched the film, you’ll see just how irritable she is when she’s no longer within the comforts of her home (which leads to some disastrous results). And while this character is an extreme example of this phenomenon at work, it scales to whatever our desired mindstates would be.

In my case, if I were to be perfectly content with my craft, then that presumes that I would have to keep writing at whatever level I’m at now. Any deviation from it would re-introduce feelings of discontent, given that I have an idea of what I imagine the best of myself is. And chances are, this kind of attachment to an ideal will introduce even greater suffering if I feel that I’m straying from it.

This is why I find it concerning when people rail against ambition. While I understand the premise of the argument, the solution to simply “be okay with what is” seems short-handed. You can be okay with what is, but for how long? For that moment? Sure. For the entire day? Maybe. For your entire life? I don’t think so.

I’ve said this before, but ambition is critical to the development of a healthy mind. Not only because it allows you to know who you truly are, but it also acts as a gateway to humility. Since ambition is about the putting the bar ahead of you, you’ll understand your shortcomings in a visceral way. This will allow you to keep arrogance at arms’ length, knowing damn well that your flaws are ever-present throughout the trek.

This is where we get ambition right. It’s when we’re driven from a point of self-awareness, understanding that we want to do the best we can with this mind and body we’ve been gifted. While we can be appreciative of everything we have, it’s important that we acknowledge how we could better direct our thoughts to solving the problems we care about most.

But where ambition goes wrong, however, is when we thirst for the byproducts of that ambition. When the promotion becomes more important than the work, when the money is more desirable than the challenge, and so on. This is when you’ve commoditized your ambition, rather than using it as a gateway to knowing yourself. And when you’ve swung too far to the rewards that exist outside of you, then it’s a good time to reevaluate what it means to be ambitious even when no one is looking.


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For more stories and reflections on ambition:

Pursue Mastery, Not Status

Burnout Is the Echo of Self-Judgment

The Day You Decided to Take the Leap

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