Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Makes Ambition Good Or Evil Is...


Image courtesy of madonna-pix

...Mindset.

My pal Ben just posted his thoughts on Joseph Epstein's "Ambition." In it, Epstein tackles our ambivalence towards ambition:

"In the modern world, and especially in America, a new distinction, a cruel twist, has been added: not to succeed means to fail. Leaving aside for a moment what it is that constitutes succeeding -- something that depends upon where one starts out from, what aspirations one sets for oneself, what league one chooses to play in -- the crux of this distinction is that it enters everyone in the race for success. The need to succeed, in other words, can also be viewed as the need to avoid failure. And as to which is greater, the hope of success or the fear of failure, this, in individual cases, does not always allow a clear answer."

As I read Epstein's words, I realized that whether ambition is a force for good or ill in one's life depends on one's mindset.

Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford, found that there are two basic mindsets.

Fixed: The fixed mindset believes that one's abilities are largely fixed. Activities are undertaken to prove one's worth (or avoided to prevent being found out as a fraud).

Growth: The growth mindset believes that achievement comes through intelligent effort and execution. Activities are undertaken to stretch one's capabilities, and failure is not the devastating evidence of incompetence, but a valuable signal of where to focus one's efforts.

The fixed mindset leads to the dark side of ambition--obssessive behavior, attempts to prove one's superiority. The growth mindset demonstrates the good side of ambition--the desire to do and be more.

For more on mindsets, check out Dweck's book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success"

Those who see success and failure as opposites are doomed to dark ambitions. Those who see success as the logical result of failure can channel their ambition to positive ends. I'll end with another quote from Epstein:

"We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: courageously or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or in drift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide that what makes us significant is either what we do or what do refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. And as we decide and choose, so our lives formed. In the end, forming our own destiny is what ambition is about."

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