On Ambition

by F.

One of the fundamental ideas of biology is the life cycle: organisms are born, they mature, reproduce (if lucky), and then die. This idea shows up in other places as well. For instance, in finance a theory called, appropriately enough, the life-cyle hypothesis tries to explain the way that people split their income between spending and saving as well as the way they borrow.

The cycle looks like something like this. When you’re young, you invest in human capital, such as education, you buy a home, you buy a car, and so on. Usually, people borrow a lot to do this. Later, things change. Mortgages and school loans get paid off and surpluses accumulate. The surpluses form a nest egg. In retirement, people crack open their nest eggs and start spending them. At death, if there is anything left over, if goes to children, charities, or relatives.

Ambition seems to follow this life-cycle pattern. When you are young, you need to be ambitious (unless you are born very rich, and perhaps even then). You need to be hungry. But at some point, you no longer need to worry so much. When you hit this point, the benefits of ambition are less than its costs—at least in many cases, it seems to me. Lucy Kellaway recounts the following anecdote:

We were in the car driving along peaceably enough, when my husband suddenly said: “I don’t think I’m ambitious any more.” In an instant my mood switched from faint anxiety over what to cook for supper that night to a deeper, more troubling angst. I minded, and was a bit surprised to find how much….

Yet after further cross-examination I discover that my husband may not be en route to becoming a wimp after all. He insists he is not going to spend the rest of his life watching the cricket on the telly, but plans to continue with work much as at present.

All he meant to say was that, at 50, he feels no further need to prove himself. He has succeeded at what he wanted to do and now feels less competitive and no longer cares much what others think of him. The urges that used to drive him to succeed are played out.

I feel the same way. In fact, I find it pretty hard to get ambitious anymore. If I was thrown into crisis, I’m sure I could still get it back—it’s a pretty natural reaction. But until then, I don’t have my elbows out.

But this lack of ambition feels odd. It’s hard to get used to. It seems like something is missing, some burning need, something I should be doing. But there isn’t.

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