On ambition

By Michael Skywood Clifford.

I suggest obsessive ambition comes from neurosis. It is passed on by parent to its children and grandchildren. The most ambitious people can be the most dangerous. Of course, there is importance in controlling one's own life – and not letting it drift away from set targets too much – yet this is not the same as having to control everyone else's life.

You can see ambitious mum's in baby pageants and in the audition run. Their Shirley Temple daughters must be perfect – and are often so perfect for this world that they burn out before real adulthood sets in. (eg. Karen Carpenter, Lena Zavaroni, Marilyn Munroe, etc.) This 'ambitious mum' syndrome is often a sign of the 'nouveau riche', the 'Petit Bourgeois'. The real working class have a greater tendency to genuinely accept each other, muck in, have historically slept five in a bed, are deeply emotional about each other. The moneyed classes are cooler, they send their kids to private schools and continually ensure not only a geographical distance but an emotional distance from their children. There is a 'rational' coldness in much of the strata of ambitious families. What they care about is not the health of their children but their own finances, their glory and their historical legacy. They are not comprehensive of real intimate relationships with other humans. Why have they become like this? Because relationships are uncontrollable, take time and rarely bring material dividends.

I spoke to a woman recently who said that she was always disappointed with her dad, her brothers and all men thereafter because they always let her down. On examination it seemed she had always craved being whisked away by a knight in white shining armour yet somehow that never happened. I asked her if she liked to be in control.  Yes, she said. She needed to stay in control because she didn't want things to go wrong. So I postulated, how can a middle class girl, who likes to be in control, be whisked away by a knight in white shining armour? There was a conflict. The enjoyment of being 'whisked away' – like sex – is to let go, to renounce control.

But how many ambitious people can let go, can take their hands off the steering wheel, can allow someone else to drive? How many politicians are happy to stand down?

Ambition, the career, is the middle classes. There are massive legal repayments if a career gets damaged. The career seems to be at the core of the middle class individual.

Yet I met a man, a tramp, at St. Bernard's Monastery in 2009. It was around noon on a beautiful summers day. I was waiting for a car and he was waiting to collect some food and say goodbye to one of the monks there. So both hanging around, we got talking. He was a tramp but you would never have known. He told me he was 30, yet he looked much younger about 20, He was clean shaven, muscular, fit, clean, tidy and very articulate. He said he was going to walk to Derby – which was about 40 miles away. He showed me his few possessions and they all fitted into Dick Whittington bag which he attached to a stick, which he placed on his shoulder. He showed me the different mechanical advantages of placing the bag in different positions to create the lightest load on his shoulder. He told me about his life. He had been a criminal, served time and had turned to Jesus. Since then he had walked his life away: Sheffield to Derby; Derby to Nottingham; Nottingham to Lincoln, or any combination. He said he stopped by monasteries because they welcomed him and gave him hot food, or a packed meal to take with him on his way.

The middle classes are horrified by the idea of being such a man. Yet they secretly admire his access to real life. He lacks home ownership, lacks a pension and doesn't have a fast track career! Yet they envy the danger of his every moment: how he sleeps under the stars; How he displays real faith on moving into the next split moment of reality.

We all like to feel safe – and there's nothing wrong with that – but there is a trade off. To feel alive we have be near the edge, or at least within three blocks of it, not a hundred miles away pampered in cotton wool and Prosac.

The ultra exponents of ambition must be megalomaniac politicians and war makers whose aim has been to stand like some Atlas of history over the world, maintaining their stance with a propaganda colossus. These wild black holes of self hatred demand respect and demand control. Soon these qualities become tangible in the genocide that is emitted from them: Napoleon, Alexander, Xerxes, Hitler, Murdoch – you chose the list, there are hundreds to chose from. No one has made psychopathology illegal yet.

Like any word it is difficult to put 'Ambition' into any separate garden. As soon as you study one word millions of others come up to join it. The word 'ambition' brings a cluster of words with the weeds of meaning growing around them: 'power', 'career', 'success'

The reason why Citizen Kane is a great movie is because it shows what happens to a man with a burning ambition. In his early years, Kane is a dynamic go-getting newspaper owner who's empire grows and grows to astronomical proportions. Yet it all becomes meaningless to him as this avarice-egotist ages. His need to control becomes greater and greater, to the extent that he won't let him wife out of his castle. It has all been a Faustian deal without him even perceiving it. He is the saddest of men. He has had everything from the world of wealth yet squandered himself and his life. He realises how superficial he is, and the only thing he ever wanted was his mother's love, which he was deprived of when he was young.

Contrast a simple mum and a leader of a large company. The simple mum loves her kids. She is not perfect; she likes a drink and a smoke. She does her best for her children. When she dies, they feel a great sense of loss at her funeral because they know how much she loved them and how much she gave of herself for them, and how much she enjoyed having them around. When she is older, she is perhaps a little discontent, but she still loves her kids and can still laugh.

Now take, for example, the leader of a multi national corporation. He is permanently dissatisfied with himself. Whatever he achieves it is never enough. Whatever he is accruing or controlling it is never enough and he is annoyed that others are doing more and earning more. These ambitious people often live tortured childhoods, are deprived of their parents love, are humiliated by their strict teachers and are abused by their prefects. They are perfectly damaged now, and will never feel good unless they are accruing and controlling! They are never content… They never have enough. Yet they think the people like the mum above are pathetic peasants! Snobbery is the fire in their belly.

Charles Dickens touches on the deep gulf of contentedness between the classes in 'Great Expectations'. Evidence suggests that the richest 1% of the world are sadists who believe that the people below them are masochists whom enjoy the pain that is being sent down from the top. Wrong! We are all normal down here, mate.

Over the centuries the upper class have learnt that managerial leadership comes from early abject circumstances – maternal deprivation, bullying and abuse. This seems a dreadful concept yet sadly there is much to suggest it true. Conversely they know if you pamper a child it fails to jump the simplest of hurdles.

Surely, you may complain, if we weren't 'ambitious' we would all be saying 'manyana', like those procrastinating straw-chewing Mexicans lazing on verandahs in cowboy films. Without ambition nothing ever gets done, you say? Maybe nothing gets done; yet no harm is done either. Why are we all in such a rush? Isn't there simple pleasure in just sleeping under the stars?

Without 'Ambition', there would be no investigation, no science, no curiosity, I hear you cry.  It would be good if 'ambition' in science were still applied to the curiosity about what actually happens say in the test tube or in the standard particle model but over recent decades the main job of science institutions has been to create strata of 'ambitious' careers. In a boat that keeps you afloat you don't rock it. Science should not be exclusively institutionalised. There should be folk science (like folk music or folk art). 'hands on' science should be funded, like Lovecraft the Ghia man, a garage mechanic of science, he made his discoveries all in his shed (and was not funded by a hair shampoo corporation to prove the positive results of Pantome!) Funding from commerical corporations have to a large extent corrupted science. These university juggernauts we are told are too big to fail. Do you remember, when we had the nation state they said: 'No lame ducks', now we have globalism they say: 'everything is too big to fail'.

Let's look at those people obsessed with so called ''success'. Many are workaholics who don't care about anything than the bottom line and assessing odds. The most extreme of these people are more pernicious and dangerous for society than drug addicts. They are obsessed by work and obsessed by risk. Ambition is always a gamble. It takes risk to get yourself in the right place for an audition with X Factor, it takes risk to sell a piece of technology to an African state, It takes risk to get over and win that big job on the other side of the world.

And at the end of the day 'success' inevitably fails because the ambitious can't take their booty with them when they die. All they can take with them is how well they treated people while they were here. Not how many people have they stepped on to get to sit on the highest toilet seat in the world. "Argh! I'm a failure! That guy's toilet seat is higher!"  Oh dear…

To go deeper, ambition is good if the purpose of its action is beneficial to humanity.  Beneficial does not mean manufacturing chocolate bars or opening a rival to Anne Summers retail shops or dealing drugs. Beneficial means it nurtures, cares for people and helps them deal with deep human problems. Sorry, being an arms dealer doesn't get you off the hook. Ambition means to most people striving to be top, better and competitive. It is a lonely climb for the budding entrepreneur until they find and join their materialistic and snobby tribe and it's then they are at their most dangerous. Until they get to that point they feel inadequate. But they sense there is a class for them because in some way they come from that class genetically.

Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is a novel about a seagull who discovered he was a brilliant aeronaut. It is a partly a rewrite of the Han's Christian Andersen's ugly ducking who turned into a swan. It is an unusual and an interesting book. The message behind JLS is that we all have rarefied talents and they should be harnessed, used and honed. Yet you can't be a brain surgeon or a fantastic chef if you are built to be a mechanical engineer.

The jobs we have or aspire to come to us – we don't go to them. They encroach upon us as we step out of childhood and display our natural abilities and qualities. US pop psychology books suggest that anyone can do anything if they visualise or meditate enough.  This is palpable nonsense.  A person does what s/he does because of (and within the restrictions of) his/ her ethics, skills, talents and physical ability.

Many foolish people do jobs they are not suitable for, for example: teacher's who couldn't care about educating the young; judges who are prejudiced from the start ; salesmen who really don't like people, or who regard selling as unnatural; vets who wanted to become doctors and hate animals. Result: unhappiness.

The answer must be to forget ambition and just love your natural job – however lowly it may be.  Forget about money and glory, just do what comes naturally. The difficulty for most people is finding out what their natural role is – and the truth is that they know already – it's just so close to them they can't see it.

Modern life, Religious and philosophical

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