What is it called, when a man’s found balance between being content–and wanting more?
This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately, both professionally and personally: what is an appropriate ambition? Whenever I spend time in the classics, I’m always reminded–be grateful for what you have. Life’s short, there’s a lot you can’t control, and–well, I’ll let the Roman poet Horace take over:
… You’ve got to be well if you want
To enjoy the things you own. If you life is governed
By cravings for what you lack, or else by fear
Of losing what you have, then what you have,
Your house and your possessions, give you as much
Pleasure as a picture gives a blind man…
… The avaricious man always feels poor;
Set limits to what your desires make you long for;
When his neighbor grows fat the covetous man grows thin.
The worst Sicilian tyrant couldn’t invent
A torment worse than envy…
There’s a lot of wisdom here. Be glad for what you have. “Enjoy the things you own.” And of course, I know that. But it’s also obvious that it’s possible to enjoy what you have too much. There’s a balance–and on the other end lies ambition.
There’s a tendency, reading the Ancients (and even many Moderns), to hear that wealth and power and fame are all bad. And with all of that, it might seem that ambition of every kind can be “bad.” But a careful reading show that Horace, at least, still has ambitions for something:
And if you’re able to learn to do without
Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow
The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.
Horace said he wanted wisdom, and history shows that he wanted, too, to be accepted and revered as a great poet. In other words, ambition wasn’t all bad. Ambition for fame, along with professional achievement as well as my own family legacy–that is alright for me to have, as long as it’s not to excess.
So e shouldn’t have too little or too much ambition. Too little ambition–that’s slovenly indifference–and we shouldn’t have too much ambition–that’s, well, I can’t think of a better word for it than excessive ambition, or over-reaching resolve. (It’s what ruined everything from the Roman republic to modern souls, like the people running Enron or Bernie Madoff.)
Now, whatever the state is called, of being perfectly balanced between contentment and excessive ambition, it is an Aristotelian virtue. It’s a virtue with too vices. Courage is a good example: too little, and you’re a coward, and too much, and you’re rash.
So, here’s my question: what is the middle point called? And as a creative as well as a human being, what does it look like?
I’m not going to belabor the point, but two things come to mind. First, I don’t think it’s bad to be ambitious in our careers. Writing this blog is, in part, an attempt to hone my thinking and, yes, showcase it as well. I want to design good things, and I want to be known for being a strong UX designer, capable in several domains. I think the danger lies in letting our careers and professional ambitions ruin the other dimensions of a good life, insofar as they’re present: marriage and family, recreation and leisure, emotional and physical health. I think balance is essential to being not just a great worker (creative work is hard if you’re exhausted or your family life’s falling apart), but also to being a great human being. In other words, desired rightly, professional success, accomplishment and even wealth can–along with wisdom and the other “classic” goods–can be worthy ambitions. We just have to find the balance, and remember which goals are most important.
My second point is about what to call this balance of ambition. There is a term I like, a term that has admittedly religious overtones: divine discontent. This was used by a leader in my church, Neal Maxwell, in a 1976 address to church members:
We can distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon…
Perhaps divine discontent is too religious a word to cover every kind of ambition. Maxwell is talking about ambition on the moral, character-forming front, but we can also feel a desire to improve our professional work, our net wealth, our notoriety, our knowledge in a particular domain, or our relationships. Maybe “righteous discontent?” “Tempered ambition?” Neither do quite as well for me as divine content, which has the benefit of a poetic, memorable phrasing.
There are still questions to ask and answer, but I’ve reached this conclusion: whatever lies between contentment and ambition, it’s real, and whichever way I’ve steered too far, I need to correct. How this reflects in my professional life is still, for me, up in the air–am I ambitious enough? Am I after the right things?
Creatively and morally, these are important questions, because I’m convinced that finding the sweet spot between satisfaction and ambition allow me to make my best work–not overburdened by “anxiety’s chilling effect,” nor under-burdened and incapable of making anything at all for lack of drive.