Two Sorts of Ambition

Photo by Marcel Knupfer on Unsplash

I like challenger brands. There’s something about the feistiness, the unreasonable effort, and the effort to engage people with an idea that matters beyond the bottom line which is is refreshing, exciting and worthy of attention.

It feels like a relationship. There is something visceral about it when volumes are small, there are lots of small mistakes and things are not yet slick and polished.

I love it when people put in the hard yards to qualify. It takes years to qualify as a professional – as a doctor, a vet, a lawyer, a teacher, and for most incurs a significant chunk of debt. That’s commitment.

I admire performance sport, but there is a point where we cannot run, jump, swim any faster or higher, or increase our batting average.

At that point, we are qualified. We have won the right to recognition.

The thing is, what happens then? For a very few, the success continues, and they move from being a qualified success to an unqualified one. Stars.

What about the rest of us?

Qualifying is hard work, whatever field we are in. The problem though, I think, is that qualifying is a finite game. It has rules, judgement, winners, losers and timescales. It has certificates, medals, cups and professional bodies which become ends in themselves. An end point, rather than a beginning.

The trouble is, the game is longer than that. Infinite even. The game is not the result, it’s the game itself, for it’s own sake.

There are, broadly speaking, two sorts of ambition – the sort that wants to be, and the sort that wants to do.

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed in another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

Lt. Col John Boyd. “The fighter pilot who changed the art of war”

I’m watching with a somewhat sad fascination as the first sort plays out in a clothes brand and a wine brand I had come to value, and in those I watch who have qualified into professions as they tread the “to be” path.

The signals with the brands are quiet, but obvious. Newsletters which they had used to author which they now edit. The increasing professionalism of advertising and SEO. The move from slightly lumpy but passionate websites to something glossy and slick, together with the inevitable presence of investors and the protective armour, from HR to Risk Management that goes with it.

You don’t have to come back far from the edge to be part of the centre ground, and that’s a much more crowded place.

It’s similar with the professionals. Of course, their investors – the holders of the debt they owe – got in early and their presence casts a long shadow. The hard work of many years study carries with it an understandable plea for respite. They have qualified, they want a break and an income and there are plenty of professional factory farms in the wings with tempting offers.

The result is the same. Idealism is easily sacrificed on the altar of comfortable conformity and the conversations change from making wonderful, quirky products and embracing radical ideas to ones that provide reliable dividends, and from being on a professional mission to negotiating working hours and bonuses.

The second sort though inspire me. Those who would rather close and move on than sell out. Those who pass up lucrative offers in corporates to tread hard, and often dangerous paths in places where the feel they can make a difference. Those who are prepared to speak truth to power and live with the consequences.

It’s all very well to spend $3bn to buy a chunk of Twitter (and make $750M in the process) but that is unlikely to make an important difference anywhere. On the other hand, those developing networks to hack the more egregious aspects of society may well do so, and we need them now because the centre is not holding.

What, I’ve been wondering separates the two ambitions?

I’ve been re-reading Viktor Frankl’s “Mans Search for Meaning“; as I do regularly, and was reminded that we don’t have to go looking for meaning, we can find it in everything we do.

Perhaps the difference between the two ambitions is horizon – we can all, if we look hard enough, find meaning in what we do today, but those with ambition two have a much clearer view of where today’s meaning aligns with their deep sense of purpose. They just imagine further.

There are three key messages from Frankl’s work. First, we need to choose our own way. Second, spirituality matters if we are to retain a link through what we don’t understand to what matters, and lastly that what we are looking for will find us if we follow the first two edicts.

It’s worth bearing in mind when the going is tough.

I don’t think there’s a course in the world can give us meaning. Courses come with qualifications, and qualifications are a short term trap unless we’re careful.

Conversation and community are better routes. Talking about what matters with people we trust about what we might do. Finding meaning in each moment and joining the dots. Quietly imagining what might be, and what we might do to bring it about.

In some cases, those dots will include our organisation, in most cases not. Quite often I’m finding that the dots join people of similar dispositions in quite different fields, people I’ve come to think of as New Artisans, those who characterise the second sort of ambition whether they work for themselves, or with a small group of others. Sometimes, they are to be found in bigger organisations where they are iconoclasts, questioners, curious – just about the most powerful sort of employee to be found, and a validation of the culture. Full marks to those organisations that put up with the productive pain.

To thrive, we have to be able to embrace paradox. In my research wanderings, I found a paper by H.B and Carol Gelatt from a while ago that , for me, captured it beautifully. A sort of source code for second ambition types.

  1. Be focused and flexible about what you want.
  2. Be both aware and wary about what you know.
  3. Be realistic and optimistic about what you believe.
  4. Be practical and magical in what you do.

How good is that?

Whatever we do, we need to treat our ambition with respect.

It matters to far more people than just ourselves.

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