Here’s the problem. It turns out when people are forced to take the time to sit back and reflect on their lives and all they’ve accomplished, their feelings of contentment are boosted but their ambition is drained. They become happier and less productive. It makes sense. Oh my, I’ve come so far, done all these things with my life, so now I can sit back and relax. But when people are forced to do the opposite, when they take time to reflect on their goals and dreams and all they still want to accomplish, their ambition goes up and they actually get more done. They work harder. The problem: their overall feelings of contentment drop. So which should we strive for? Lazy happiness or ambitious misery? Which values do we want our children to have?
I read about this study in Baumeister and Tierney’s great book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. They did the experiment on a group of employees at a company, and it played out just as stated above. Those employees who were told to reflect on all they’ve accomplished on the job became happier and less motivated. The ones who were pushed to reflect on all they still needed to accomplish were less content but harder working.
I feel this dynamic daily in my own life, the battle between contentment and ambition. There are days when I just want to sit on my little front porch, watch my kids play in the yard, and reflect on how full my life is. I’ve made it. I’ve got a decent job (eacher), the dream house (tiny, but it’s standing), the car (an old, rusty mini-van), the bling (my kid’s gave me a bicycle chain bracelet!), and the babe (I dig my wife). I’m content and grateful, and now I’m just waiting for retirement. Why can’t I stay in this place forever? Then my ambition kicks in. I’ve worked for ten years to land a literary agent, and he’s going to want my next book soon (and hopefully sell the one he has now). I’ve got to keep my blog going and publish more in other areas and record another album with my band and do some PR for our next gig and finish the curriculum guides for this website. I have a grant I need to finish for another project. I need to finish my reading license. I’m only a young public school teacher with tons of work left to do, lots of ambitions, a book I want to publish, a tour I want to go on.
Suddenly, I’m working my butt off, and I’m not as happy.
I’ll never forget watching a Q & A with spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle. A women asked him flat out about this problem. She was young, hungry for success, and very ambitious, and, of course, this got in the way of her ability to live fully in the now and embrace the moment as perfect, which is part of Tolle’s message. She wanted success and enlightenment. His response was simple and a disappointing. He told her, kindly, that perhaps this was not the right time for her to be hearing his message. In other words, if you want all that (ambitions, success, power), then you probably aren’t going to get this (contentment, happiness, presence). There aren’t many monks running corporations, and there aren’t many CEO’s who lounge in gardens and smell the roses.
But I want both. I want to be perfectly happy with what I have and still dream big for the future. I want to love my job teaching kids in jail, love my little, crowded house and my rusty mini-van, but still strive for a huge book deal (including film rights) and a chance to write abroad in Spain for a year and the time to get my PhD in Sociology while I’m getting my Masters of Divinity and touring with my folk band.
Replacing Ambition with Resolve
One trick I’ve learned through much meditation and reflection, is to trade my ambitions for resolutions. I spent a long time reflecting on this line from the Tao Te Ching:
The master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve.
As a writer and a musician, it’s really hard to not be ambitious. Of course you want people to read and hear your stuff. But by replacing my ambitions with simple resolve, I’ve been able to let go of the more painful parts of working in those fields: suffering over not getting what I want. I’ve resolved to be a writer and a musician no matter what, even when my book gets turned down and my band shows up to perform at an empty club. I’ve resolved to keep going and keep enjoying every moment of the process.
This works with other ambitions. It’s a simple mindset change. Instead of saying, I want to start my own business, and filling yourself with desire for what you don’t have. Say, I will start a business and here’s the first thing I’m going to enjoy doing to make that happen. Instead of, I want to be promoted, resolve says, I will be promoted, and here’s what I’ll enjoy doing to make that happen. Instead of, I want to get married and have a family, resolve says, I’m resolved to have a family, and I will enjoy the path of dating and meeting new people as I work to make this happen.
By the way, this is a good way to test out whether your ambition is right for you. If you want to own your own business in the future, but don’t enjoy doing the work it takes to get there now, maybe a business is not for you. My students all want to be rappers and ball-players, and, of course, my first question is, are you rapping every day, all day, and playing basketball every day, all day, practicing your ass off.
Contentment with Acceptance and Resolve
Resolve is the certainty that an outcome will happen. It is a form of acceptance, which makes it possible to let go and focus on the now. Once you’ve resolved that what you want will happen, you can be content with the work that is needed at the moment.
I’ve struggled greatly with ambition these last two years as I’ve watched my agent come very close to selling my book just for it all to crumble before my eyes. But I’ve tempered this by replacing my desires and ambitions with the simple resolve that it will happen, someday, possibly long after I’m dead (that’s what happened to poor Kafka). I just need to continue to enjoy writing.
Of course, it’s not always perfect. Meditation helps because it is technique for focusing on the pure moment and letting go of the spinning monkey mind that often obsesses over future outcomes.
Homework: Take an ambition or desire and turn it into an accepting resolution. Now find a way to enjoy the present moment that you’ve created in the space of the resolution.
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