Ambition – Thoughts on attempting to row an Ocean and other things…

Ambition for me boils down to desire; the desire to achieve something. It’s something I’ve given plenty of consideration to recently. Around two years ago I signed up to row across the Atlantic Ocean with my Dad, my Uncle and a crew of eight other men. The process from the point of signing up, to the point of departure was arduous. The initial test was to row 100km on a rowing machine in one sitting. At the time I was half way through year one of university and a reckless hedonist so despite the advantage of my youth this was a challenge.

I did the 100km in nine hours and twenty-seven minutes. Josh, who was to be the skipper of the expedition had challenged me to aim for eight hours flat. Physically, I wasn’t up to that and I knew it before setting out.  My ambition at the time was simply to cover 100km in a single session. I sat on that machine into the night, sobbing in front of my own reflection in the window in front of the machine; my only view for the entire time. Everything in me wanted to give up, except for my ambition. I endured an exceptional amount of pain in order to achieve my goal and it was worth it.  

The reason I felt the ambition to endure the 100km row was because I knew that it was a path to fulfilling my larger goal of rowing the Atlantic. Despite this, viewing the 100 kilometres as a goal in its own right was instrumental to achieving it. A great achievement is made up by the success of many smaller achievements, all of which require a specific sense of focus if they are to be achieved. I reminded myself of this throughout the process of preparing for the Atlantic and so with the help of my father, persisted through every snag in the way of our ultimate goal.

There are so many features to this story that I can’t do them justice here. Very long story short; we didn’t make it. In fact we failed after three days at sea. That kind of knock after roughly two years of fierce ambition is a hard one to process.

Ambition is seen in the capitalist world as an extremely healthy attribute. I agree that it is to a degree, healthy. It is however absolutely essential to manage ambition in the right way and to treat it with respect, because it is just as capable of ruining people as it is of bringing them anything of value. My particular lesson has been learned through the lens of failure. Success however, can be equally dangerous. What is essential is that we should direct our efforts and desires in the right way and in order to do this, a degree of wisdom is necessary. 

I had a lot riding on the fulfilment of my particular ambition, my sense of self-worth for example. When it didn’t work out I suddenly had to address things that I thought the fulfilment of my ambition would have addressed for me. What though, if I had made it to the other side? Then I assume my ego would have been sufficiently satiated for a while, enough to mask my problems perhaps, until they would return after the smog of success had cleared.

 I actually experienced something similar last year on completing the Marathon Des Sables. This is a 260km ultra marathon through the Sahara Desert. It takes around a week to complete, which cannot be done without a serious degree of ambition. The reason being that it requires participants to endure horrific suffering for the medal. The glory and success of that achievement made me feel like a worthwhile human being for a short period of time; then I realised that the achievement made little difference to the important things in life.

The Marathon Des Sables may not have brought me enduring happiness but it did provide me with something lasting, something ineffable but worthwhile and I would advise anyone to challenge their own ambition if ever presented with the opportunity.

            A lack of ambition very often correlates with a lack of drive, and a lack of drive very often correlates with a bleak outlook on the world. This, I’m concluding from personal experience. When the mind has nothing in particular to focus on, such as an ambition, the tendency seems to be to drift into worries over things outside of our control, paralleled with bouts boredom which is the product of a self-inflicted stagnant and unmotivated lifestyle.

            Humankinds’ search for meaning is an ambitious one and anyone can tell you how important purpose (a derivative of meaning), is to them. Without it, what do we have? Perhaps it is the inability to answer this question that motivates people to scale mountains and row oceans. Could ambition be a plaster to mask our existential dread? I could be looking into it too deeply. It is true that many people do things for the sake of doing them, or so they believe. My reason for believing that ambition has deeper roots than the obvious is that if we trace any decision back far enough, we will realise that we get lost among a multitude of variables. True motivation therefore is rarely clear.

            We may not know where a drive came from in the very first instance, but we do know for sure that the lust to achieve a goal comes from somewhere within us. It has to be profound in order to make some of us to the things we do.

            The working world is a battlefield of ambition, Karoshi (death by overworking; an epidemic in Japan) makes this obvious. While many of us work daily against our will simply to survive, when we work ourselves to death, an unhealthy degree of ambition is at play.  Why would anybody allow themselves to be killed by their own ambition? My guess would be that these people have made a distinction between existing and living, between survival and greatness. The world is full of these examples, right the way through the spectrum, some more content than others.

            Lost in ambition, we can feel free from the underlying tensions of the human condition. We can however suffer for it. Achievement requires sacrifice. A combination of ambition and persistence leads to success, if conditions are favourable. A fulfilled ambition therefore comes at a price, whatever it may be.

            Often it is the willingness to sacrifice something for the attainment of a goal that separates those of us who really want it and those of us who only want it under certain conditions. Those who want to achieve a goal more, will sacrifice more and those who want it less will yield in order to keep whatever is at stake. It is therefore clear how ambition could become a destructive force when people are so blinded by it that they become willing to sacrifice a disproportionate portion of their lives for it.

            While compulsive ambition can lead to the loss of everything, those who manifest none at all never gain enough to loose. There must be a sweet spot in terms of how ambitious is healthy. It no doubt varies from person to person.

            We all share a certain spark, a characteristic that animates us. It is what makes us unique as individuals and yet unifies us. But what is it? It dawned on me recently that all endeavour may in fact be this ineffable thing unveiling itself in different ways. The same thing behind someone’s ambition to climb Everest, to some extent undeniably is the self-same thing behind a businessman’s ambition to make money, or a mother’s ambition to raise children.

            We praise those who express their innate need to fulfil a certain potential, when it takes the form of something decidedly impressive or respectable. Those whose innate need for focused expression remains perceptibly un-manifest compared with its potential, are criticised and slated for their lack of meaningful contribution. The ineffable spark often then takes the form of frustration, which if left unchecked will lead to more destruction than creation.      

            Frustration, as we all know can be horrific. It’s like a mental impasse and if it were easily overcome it would not be frustration. At some point or another we all experience it and to varying degrees. Ambition is just one of infinite causes, although it can also be one of the many reliefs. The most suitable relief of any ailment heavily depends upon the cause; in the same way that what a doctor prescribes a patient depends on their illness. The wrong medicine can make a person sicker, and so can the wrong reaction to frustration.

             The frustrated mind approaches things from a frustrated perspective and if it is true that like attracts like, it follows that taking action from a frustrated place will only serve to perpetuate the problem. Fortunately enough, life is transient, the mind included. Any glimpse of clarity among confusion can be grasped like a piece of driftwood in the ocean and turned into the foundation for the perpetuation of further clarity. Sure enough, the clarity will subside with transience again at some point. That’s just how it goes,peaks and troughs.

            One of my own great ambitions in life has been to attain some sense of lasting mental clarity. The pursuit of which has led me through a host of beautiful and terrifying experiences; from despair to euphoria. Clarity seems like a good thing to want, it’s positive. To go after the positive, one might think of as a largely positive experience. It can be, but it is not definitely so. The product of a pursuit first begins to take form in the reasons that lay behind that pursuit. The pursuit of clarity is very likely founded upon an inability to accept confusion.

Going after clarity with a confused mind trying to escape its own confusion; the very confusion that defines it, will no doubt result in a perpetuation of its problem. If instead an experience of clarity evoked the inspiration to continue having experiences of a similar nature, the process is far more likely to be a fruitful and enjoyable one. Such an endeavour however, is never undertaken for a single reason alone, and the aforementioned approaches are therefore overly simplified.

The fruits of ambition are always temporary. They may last a life time, but even a lifetime draws to a conclusion at some point. I can’t say for sure whether or not ambition is one of the most important things to be concerned with. That is subjective. It should be noted though that ambition can in some sense be regarded aside from the work that goes into its fulfilment. I would describe it as the drive behind the work.  

As a principle human drive, ambition is a shared feature of the human experience and one that has led to great things throughout history. Without it, we would not be here and future generations will not ever come to be if we lose ours. In that way I suppose ambition is important. 

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