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Ambition and the Soul

Several weeks ago, I traveled to the north side of Chicago to visit my son. I drove from downtown Chicago to Lincoln Park, where he lives. As I turned onto Clybourn Avenue, I suddenly encountered a scene that I hadn’t seen or thought of in years—the Clybourn Gospel Chapel.

The summer of 1967 flashed across my mind. I lived in the Clybourne Gospel Chapel between my junior and senior year of college. I spent that summer living with ten other students from Wheaton College teaching classes and sponsoring sports activities for the teeming youth of that neighborhood.

I have many memories of that long, hot summer, most of them involving intense interactions with other people: teaching classes, refereeing basketball games, and joining late-night discussions with friends about important issues such as the meaning of life, the state of the church, and the dynamics of American politics.

Yet the most vivid memory of that summer was an evening I spent entirely alone. I remember, like it was yesterday, going up on the roof of that church where I could survey the lights of the entire Chicago skyline. That skyline was both alluring and frightening at the same time. It represented the world spread before me, in all of its vastness and complexity. I would soon leave the safe confines of a religious college to make my way. I knew how intensely I wanted to accomplish something, to make a difference. Yet on top of that building with the immense panorama of Chicago in front of me, I was never more aware of my potential insignificance, of how unclear my thinking was about what I wanted to do in life, and how insecure I felt about being able to accomplish anything noteworthy.

I spent that night wrestling with my own ambition. Why am I here? Will I make a difference? What are my gifts, my limitations? No one could answer those tough questions for me; and my own wisdom and experience seemed so limited.

Many of you may share the same intensity of concern about the future. My intent is to speak not only to those of you whose professional path is clear, but even more so to those whose future is uncertain. My subject today is: how do talented leaders, such as yourselves, come to terms with ambition? What I have to say may also apply to those of you who, like myself, are further along life’s path.

This inner wrestling with personal ambitions can be intensified for three simple reasons. First, you do not know what you can accomplish and how far you can go. Many of you may feel like the young Abraham Lincoln, whose early career, without much distinction, left him with more than his share of self-doubt. In 1841, the melancholy Lincoln, doubting whether his life would amount to anything, confessed to a friend, “I would be more than willing to die, except that I have done nothing to make any human remember that I have lived.” All of us aspire to use our God-given talents to do something for which others will remember that we have lived.

Second, it is not only self-doubt that shapes ambition. The fact that we are Americans also brings the issue front and center. The drive that you can make it on your own and be all that you can be is intense in this culture. We idolize self-made people, rags to riches stories.

In the United States, professional aspiration has replaced strict social class and family connection as the way we sort ourselves out. Professions reward hard work and performance rather than family connection. This appeals to our democratic instincts. At the same time, professions allow those with ambition to gain wealth and social standing—as the advertisement goes: put some distance between yourself and the crowd. We cherish social mobility and we expect social advance. In America, ambition is part of the air we breathe.

Those of us called to be followers of Christ also wrestle with ambition for a third reason: yearnings for accomplishment or success can be seen as the siren song of the world. We take seriously our Savior’s call and example that to find life, we must lose it, that a seed must die before it lives. When the Zebedee family clamored for James and John to occupy the seats of honor in the kingdom, our Lord redefined, even inverted, the priorities of his kingdom. What constituted greatness and prominence was to serve, not to be served.

In volume one of the History of the Church, B. H. Roberts reports that Joseph Smith called believers to forgo vain and selfish ambition that he saw “mounting higher and higher.” “The Church needed restoration because ambitious prelates of an apostate Christianity had gradually supplanted the religion of Jesus Christ.” Instead, Joseph Smith called the faithful to follow “the Master,” who had “discouraged ambition and had said that he who would be great among his followers must be their minister; and whosoever would be chief among them, was to be their servant.”

The question you face today, and one that you will face the rest of your life, is: How do you relate the drive to make a name for yourself with the commitment to honor Christ, the name above all names? Are we to nourish ambition as it wells up within our souls, or are we to kill it off? Does ambition constitute a virtue or a vice? Which of these American proverbs are we to heed: “Ride your ambitions to the skies,” or “Ambition destroys its possessor”? How are we to discriminate among ambitions that are proper and those that are inappropriate?

In the past, ambition was condemned as unnatural, even immoral. The Latin word ambitio refers to those who would scurry about soliciting popular favor, drumming up votes, rather than allowing people to recognize true worth and character.

In the age of William Shakespeare and John Milton, ambition was often equated with the sin of Lucifer or of Adam and Eve—the unlawful desire to be of higher estate than God had intended. Many of Shakespeare’s protagonists, like Macbeth, seek to reinvent their identities bequeathed to them and find themselves cut off from their true selves, their lives given over to shipwreck. “I charge thee, fling away Ambition,” Shakespeare wrote in the play Henry VIII. “By that sin fell the angels.” Ambition seemed like rebellion in a society that defined one’s identity largely by birth and inherited status.

In the modern world, and particularly in America, by contrast, we have come to idealize opportunity, mobility, and progress. Onward and upward has been the prevailing American spirit. We idealize self-made figures like Abraham Lincoln, the rail splitter who went to the White House; Frederick Douglas, the ex-slave who became an articulate advocate for his people; Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who without education or status, transformed the scale of corporations.

Within your own tradition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a distinct pantheon of heroes who have accomplished notable things: business leaders like George W. Romney, J. Willard Marriott, and Stephen R. Covey; educational leaders like David Gardner, Kim Clark, and Gordon Gee; writers like Anne Perry and Brenda Novak; statesmen like Brent Scrowcroft and Orrin Hatch; and scholars like Richard Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. One cannot imagine the sterling achievements of these individuals had not some blue flame of ambition burned brightly within.

Let me return to the central issue. It is easy to be caught in the vise grip of conflicting expectations: the drive to accomplish great things for noble purpose, on one hand, and to lose one’s life that one may find it, on the other.

How does one cope with this abiding tension? Let me offer five pieces of advice.

1. Don’t attempt to stifle ambition.

Your finest hopes and dreams spring from the core of your very being. Those given great energy and drive are burying their talents if they do not use them. The process of suppressing ambition reminds me of Dorothy Sayers’ description of trying to force a large cat into a small basket. “As fast as you tuck in the head, the tail comes out; when you have at length confined the hind legs, the forepaws come out and scratch; and when, after a painful struggle, you shut down the lid, the dismal wailings of the imprisoned animal suggest that some essential dignity in the creature has been violated and a wrong done to its nature.”

The drive to accomplish is a good gift from God. The question is: What are its ends, what are its means, and by what measures do you judge success? My first point is that it is inappropriate to simply stifle or suppress ambition itself.

2. The ambitious path is a dangerous one.

Ambition is not evenly distributed, as Joseph Epstein has noted, “Some people burn with it, while others, apparently wrapped in metaphysical asbestos, never feel its heat.” For those of you, like Lincoln, whose ambition is a little engine that never rests, you will trod a path of great opportunity and of great peril. Let me mention two reasons why ambition’s road is dangerous.

A. Success rarely quenches ambition’s thirst. Benjamin Franklin, an ambitious man if ever there was one, once noted that ambition never has the good fortune to satisfy us. Its appetite grows keener by indulgence. Two of the most famous people I know seem to hunger for achievement and recognition after having made it to the top. To me it seemed odd, and sad, that after all of their well-deserved achievements, they could not simply relax and revel in all that had been accomplished. At retirement age, one of these persons was bitterly disappointed at not receiving another presidential appointment.

B. Being driven to succeed often stems from a desire for belonging and appreciation, as C. S. Lewis once noted, our longing to be in the inner circle of things, to hear a profound “well done.” Yet the style of ambitious people often repels those around them whose esteem and love they crave. How often have you secretly wished that the person who breaks the curve, who wins the race, and who is most popular will be shown to have clay feet or will somehow stumble? I recall vividly the experience of the golfer Gregg Norman. He came to know the adulation of fans for the first time not when he was a champion, but after he experienced a devastating collapse of his game in the Masters’ Tournament. Overt success easily backfires; seeking belonging and affirmation, it generates isolation and distance. Ambition is a dangerous path, because success rarely satisfies and ambitious behavior creates distance and resentment.

3. Be ruthless and sober in scrutinizing your own ambition.

At Notre Dame we had a wonderful assistant dean, who for forty years advised pre-law students. Bob Waddick was an old Navy salt who called a spade a spade; he deflated more pretentious and naive students than anyone I know. He would look at a student’s ability, their record, and their work habits and tell them exactly what level of law school they should attend. Bob was so true in his judgments that law schools unfailingly accepted the students he recommended.

All of us need this kind of ruthless advice from time to time. The American myth that we can make ourselves anything we want to become sometimes allows our reach to far exceed our grasp. In the Christian community, where we are called upon to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, it is even more imperative to form our identity in a process of careful listening and seeking advice.

It is also important to scrutinize professional ambition with respect to how it affects other dimensions of life. President David O. McKay offered sterling advice when he said, “No success in business can compensate for failure in the home”––a phrase that Dean Kim Clark of Harvard Business School often shares with MBA students.

The problem for people entering business and other careers is this: right out of school, the most formative influence in your life may be your profession. This world of work can easily embrace you with a grip more powerful and alluring than anything you have known in church or among friends and family. It is your law firm, your investment bank, your medical practice, your television station, or your consulting group that will consume most of your waking hours and exact your most creative energies. Your profession will tell you when to get up in the morning, what neighborhoods you should live in, what to wear to work, where to take clients to lunch, and what kind of organizations you should join.

At a more substantial level, professional cultures will define what success means and what are acceptable values, patterns of behavior, and standards of conduct. In all likelihood, you will form close friendships with those who toil in the same professional vineyard.

To excel today as a lawyer, a scientist, a research physician, or as an investment banker can easily demand exclusive loyalty. The time, energy, and commitment required to excel in these arenas make it difficult to balance work with other priorities: family, church, and community. The issues are even more acute for young women in religious traditions such as your own. Your education and ability draw you naturally toward professional excellence. At the same time you seek also to sustain religious commitments that make home and family the highest priority. Balancing these competing claims for men and women alike requires great wisdom and forbearance.

4. Ambition springs up in the most unlikely places,

even in religious organizations and institutions. In these contexts, ambition takes on more subtle forms—forms with their own liabilities. In a religious culture, many will never admit to being ambitious even if others may perceive a pattern of ambitious actions. In a business organization, it is often a liability not to express ambition for more responsibility. In a religious one––and in most universities––overt interest in leadership is generally frowned upon. Yet we would be naïve to act as if ambition, our own and that of our peers, were not a powerful force in shaping religious organizations. For those of us who work in places like Notre Dame or Brigham Young University, we must give extra scrutiny to our own ambitions. We must check and channel those powerful subterranean currents of ambition, even if in public they are rarely acknowledged. We must ensure that our own dreams for an organization are directed to the common good. We must serve not just in word but also in deed.

5. My fifth piece of advice about ambition is this:

Who you are has nothing to do with how successful you become. Our culture forges a tight link between success and identity—your accomplishments give you worth.

Modern professional life reinforces a sense that success is the measure of all. Professions are a meritocracy of good works. Right diagnoses will lead to a successful cure; sound legal argument will win the case; correct design of a bridge will make it withstand traffic. Professions reward competence and penalize incompetence. That is all well and good. Who can argue with it?

The problem is that success easily becomes the measuring stick for everything. Life becomes a bookkeeping scheme of merit and reward. We applaud success in ourselves and take great comfort in it, and we rank other people accordingly. Professions reinforce our love of being winners and of rubbing shoulders with other successful types. All too easily professionals get to the top of the heap, congratulate themselves, and look down upon others.

The problem with this ethic of success is that it stands on a collision course with how God treats his people and how we are to treat each other. Christ did not come into the world to save only those who were helping themselves. He came to rescue those in need. The clarion call of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young was for a reconstituted church that would not be a respecter of persons but would embrace everyone and take care of everyone. Success is dangerous for the Christian, because in its grip we can easily judge each other and ourselves by its yardstick rather than by standards of love and acceptance.

All of us, those who are driven and those who are relaxed, those at the top of the class and those who have struggled, those who relish the future and those who are gripped with fear––all of us derive our tremendous worth because God in Christ calls us sons and daughters and welcomes us into the wonderful banquet of his kingdom. Our identity rests not on our fickle ability to climb the organizational ladder but in the embrace of God and his people. Any of our own achievements will pale before these priceless treasures.

I have attempted to bring some perspective to the reality of ambition in our lives. I have suggested 1) that ambition is not something merely to be suppressed; 2) that ambition is a dangerous path, both because success rarely slakes its thirst and because the ambitious person often repels those whose friendship and acceptance we crave; 3) I have suggested that ambition needs regular scrutiny; 4) that it is a reality even in religious contexts, even if its form is more latent than overt; and my final point, which I wish to underscore, is that 5) our identity is not based on how successful we may become.


by Nathan O. Hatch
Illustrations by Wiktor Sadowski

About the speaker Nathan O. Hatch, Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History, became Notre Dame’s provost in 1996. As provost, Hatch is the university’s second ranking officer and, at the direction of the president, exercises overall responsibility for the academic enterprise. A Notre Dame faculty member since 1975, Hatch regularly is cited as one of the most influential scholars in the study of the history of religion in America. He graduated summa cum laude from Wheaton College in 1968 and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in 1972 and 1974, respectively, from Washington University in St. Louis. He delivered this forum address at Brigham Young University 27 March 2001.

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