Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is the difference between ambition and discontent?

I am honestly trying to figure this out right now.

“Ambition” is defined as “desire and determination to achieve success.”.

“Discontent” is defined as “dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances”.

Is it possible for one to desire to achieve success, if they are not dissatisfied with their circumstances?

Or, to bring this out of abstract realm and put my skin in the game: is it possible for me to desire to achieve success, without a dissatisfaction with my circumstances?

It seems theoretically possible. I could think “Well, things are alright right now and I’ll be content if they stay this way, but it’d probably be better if I was able to improve this thing, so I’ll try that out.”

Sometimes I do have that mindset. But after I put thingX on my TODO list and the fantasy of finishing thingX taunts me, my mindset soon turns to “Gosh, I just won’t be satisfied until I improve this thing! And look at all these other people and things taking up my time, preventing me from getting thingX done! I really really want to get it done!”

My preference for achievement turns into a desire, and that desire turns into an obsession, and that obsession turns into anxiety.

Why does preference turn into desire? Why can’t I avoid discontenment?

Let’s take a tangent into etymology land, to see what it yields.

The word “content” comes from Latin contentus, meaning “contained, satisfied”, as in “their desires are bound by what he or she already has.” Thus, the state of discontent is when your desires reach outside what you already have. You must achieve that thing outside of you in order to become content again, and hope that you can keep that thing inside your bounds.

The word “ambition” comes from Latin ambitionem, meaning “a going around”, as in the act of going around to solicit votes — “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity”. Apparently in its early uses, ambition was always used pejoratively, and the positive sense is only from modern times.

I must say, that was a very interesting detour. So much is contained within the etymology of those two words.

The original meaning of ambition is certainly one that’s bound to end in discontentment. If my desire to achieve things is literally to become popular, then the bounds of my desires are reaching far outside myself — to a possibly infinite extent. Once I’ve gained the favor of 100, why wouldn’t I want to gain the favor of 1,000? I cannot be content — I cannot be self-contained — if my desires depend on the votes of others.

But we could argue that the new meaning of ambition is a different one, and that you can have a desire to achieve success not because you personally need the good favor, but because you recognize a problem in the world and you see that you have the capabilities to fix it. That seems reasonable.

Now let’s go into a Buddhist critique (from an amateur).

Desire is suffering. Desire is a form of attachment. Attachments are dangerous because of how strongly they stick to the mind. They make it hard to see truth, they make it hard for the mind to be free and open to all the possibilities of the world, they constrain the limits of the self.

Desire can be contrasted with preference. You are attached to your desires, you are not attached to your preferences. If the world changes such that you can’t follow your preferences, you can just go with the flow.

What if ambition could be a “preference to achieve success”? What if I could prefer to achieve thingX, but not be bothered if it can’t happen for some reason? That does seem nice, as it’d mean never spiraling from desire to obsession to anxiety.

The risk to it is that, in actuality, I might be able to achieve thingX, but I let some other false belief get in the way of that achievement (like a subconscious belief that I’m not capable). If I am not driven by mad desire, then I may miss out on potential personal growth.

That means that I must be very honest with myself. I have to admit everything that affects my ability to achieve thingX, and question how real those obstacles are. I also have to admit when I no longer think it’s useful to achieve thingX. Finally, I have to admit when a preference has turned into a desire, and when that attachment has clouded my other admissions.

It sounds hard, especially when desire is the standard modus operandi. But I do think it may be possible, to cultivate a form of ambition that is compatible with a sense of contentment.

Thinking through this has been most helpful. Thank you for reading.

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