Book Notes: Ambition by Joseph Epstein


A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend about a mutual acquaintance who I referred to as “a pretty ambitious guy.” My friend responded, “Yes, he’s nothing if not ambitious.” The word “ambitious” hung in the air a bit, carrying a heavy, negative connotation.

To characterize someone as ambitious is not necessarily a compliment, unfortunately. There are certainly favorable aspects to the label — energy, drive, an overarching desire to make the most of one’s life. But ambition also bears less kind associations, too — “that it is antisocial; that is is insatiable; that it is corrupting; that it leaves only victims…the ambitious view of life is forbiding and unforgiving. Its price is too high. It is inhuman in its demands; it is inhumane in its toll. If life is to be lived differently, if life is to be more spiritual, more tender-minded and large hearted, ambition, clearly, must go. Or so it is said.” Those are Joseph Epstein’s words.

What makes me squirm even more than the unattractive single-mindedness of stereotypically “ambitious” people is their relentless humorlessness. They take their ideas, goals, and life too seriously. I’ve blogged about being at once serious and self-mocking — an optimal point too few go-getters achieve.

For these reasons I have never embraced the label while at the same time not denied it altogether. This would sadden Joseph Epstein. In his book Ambition: The Secret Passion, he mounts a spirited defense of ambition in the face of those who have given it a bad name. He calls ambition the fuel of achievement. He says that to deny a natural drive to achieve and do and push oneself is to deny the full experience of living. There’s not so much a thesis here as much as various examples of how figures dead and alive have discovered, cultivated, and applied their ambition in a healthy, positive way. (And there are the examples of those who did not.)

What’s fantastic about this book is the breadth of Epstein’s examples. He samples literature, movies, philosophers, and others. He interweaves telling quotes on the sentence level — it’s the author with a strong grasp of his material who can find pithy, revealing quotes and display them mid-sentence, as opposed to slapping them generically at the top of chapters.

And then there’s the writing. Epstein writes about ambition — and success, money, high society, literature, and many other topics which don’t quite cohere — with characteristic flair. He is the “wittiest writer alive” according to the late Bill Buckley, and this book fulfills the praise: it’s a pleasure to read if only to study the writing.

Here’s the last paragraph of the book, which is excellent.

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.

Below are various excerpts and favorite paragraphs, all Epstein excerpt for the italics which is me. They continue below the fold. As always with these excerpts I hand picked the best from a long book, so enjoy!

Ambition is one of the Rorscach words: define it and you instantly reveal a great deal about yourself.

As drunks have done to alcohol, the single-minded have done to ambition — given it a bad name.

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.

Disraeli wrote that “our business in this world is not to succeed but to continue to fail, in good spirits,” but the philosophical calm behind that remark could come from only one source — years of success.

When a person asks himself what he wants out of life, he is asking a question that cuts to his soul. To answer it with candor and precision and realism about one’s own limitations requires self-knowledge of the highest kind.

If it has any logic, human destiny, at its simplest level, is a compound of the qualities of an individual and of the spirit of the community in which that individual lives. “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community,” said William James.

Some people hold that we are, essentially, what we keep hidden about ourselves, our fears and secrets. Other people hold that, whatever our personal secrets and fears, we are what we do.

Where does ambition come from? Why for some does it burn within whereas others, as Epstein puts it, fail to feel the heat?

Is the key to success, as Hemingway once claimed it was key to being a good writer, having an unhappy childhood? Is ambition really as simple as a wish to make the most of one’s abilities and thus to get the best the world has to offer? Does it arise from a consciousness of superior worth? Or is it instead really a more or less secret desire for revenge for humiliations received? A cover for fear of being discounted as a negligible person? A disguised cry for love and attention? Or the acting out of some other psychic scenario? Not known, nor soon likely to be.

“Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from inside is simply a series of defeats.” – George Orwell

One cannot speak about winners and losers unless there is some rough agreement on fundamentals. But agreement on fundamentals is far from being had at this time in the U.S. How important is work in one’s life? Is achievement more important than happiness? Are the two separable? Does one truly have an obligation to make the best use of one’s gifts? What is the just reward for a life of effort, and is it commensurate with the effort? When such questions are even asked — as they are, repeatedly, nowadays — fundamentals are in dispute, and no scorecard exists to tell the winners from the losers.

Inside [high society life] can become phantasmagorical; one can become lost in the glitter, the elegance, the forests of family trees. If order can be the reigning virtue of life in the cage, monotony can be its vice. Much there is in life that is not countenanced in the cage; many experiences are sealed off to its occupants in a style of life where decency is more highly esteemed than courage and scandal more greatly dreaded than cancer. If the cage protects from the harshness of life outside its gilded confines, the price of its protection to its inhabitants is often innocence. “The innocence,” as Edith Wharton remarked in The Age of Innocence, “that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience.”

These are people for whom the great question in life is not “What shall I make of my life?” but “How shall I survive?” These are people who do not think of some Kafka-like literary abstraction called the abyss but who live in smelly clothes and on foul food and in fear of the cold.

The point of Benjamin Franklin’s life was not affluence but the freedom that affluence made possible to do good works and think clear thoughts without the distractions of business and financial worry.

Novels are among the world’s greatest instruments of personal education. People, and especially the young, take from novels a great many things, not all of them what the novelists themselves might have originally intended. Like the movies, novels teach small things: how to order a drink, how to conduct oneself in intimacy with someone of the opposite sex, the nature of repartee. But unlike movies, novels are better in teaching what might be called general ideas. Part of the greatness of the novel as a form, surely, is that there is scarcely any general idea with which it cannot, at the hands of an expert practitioner, deal.

Measured modesty is the winning autobiographical tone of the success story.

There’s discussion around whether one learns more by testing oneself against the world — through ambition — versus renouncing ambition and “living within oneself” and accessing true self-knowledge. Emile Durkheim:

The active, ambitious type upbraids the more passive one for losing his life, neglecting his duty to the ‘here and now,’ and shaking off responsibility for the actual by taking refuge with a Higher Reality which commits him to nothing. The passive type retorts, by maintaining that his opponent is sacrificing his inner ‘self’ to the ‘world,’ and that instead of minding his own soul, he concentrates upon purely mundane objectives.

If ambition be the fuel of achievement, money is often its octane. Like octane, money can remove the knocks. Or so it is generally conceded. Certainly, almost every dream of achievement — for founding a university, curing a disease, composing a symphony, getting a useful invention out into the world, reforming public life — eventually wakes to the necessity of money for its realization. For some ambition starts and ends with money; for others money is the great stopper, the substance without which even dreams do not seem possible. Although the majority doubtless do view money as a means to other, perhaps never finally formulated ends, money and ambition are nonetheless bound together — inextricably.

Few stories give so much pleasure as those about either a man or a woman who has succeeded in his or her quest for money, or someone who has inherited great wealth, but who ends in grave unhappiness.

Money talks, no question about that, but if it is always worth attending to, it is less because of what it has to say on any particular subject than because of what it tells about human nature. The puzzle is not why money talks but why other people, on the edge of their chairs, are listening so intently.

To say, as for so many years people have, that behind every successful man there is a woman is to say a cliche: a statement alike stale and unbelievable; or, if believable, then in need of elaborate qualification.

To achieve a noble failure it is perhaps best of all to die for one’s cause, but even short of death a stylish defeat, a noble failure, can gain moral resonance of a kind that success rarely attains. Socrates and Jesus are the two most notable failures.

Even the extravagantly gifted often find themselves weighted down by countervailing forces: indolence, a violent temper, a quickness to grow bored. To take the gifts one does have, to concentrate one’s strength upon their development, to disallow distractions — none of these is an easy task.

To have ambition or to be without it affects a person’s conduct in every regard: one’s sense of time, place, relations to other people, feelings about one’s self, and views about the rationality or irrationality of the world.

Yet some people do think themselves decided failures, and doubtless one of the largest categories of such people comprises those who think themselves failures even in the face of the world’s disagreement. Included in this category are all the men and women who feel that they have misspent not alone their youths but their lives. Although they may have succeeded grandly in business or journalism or administration, they nonetheless believe that they have denied their true natures, violated themselves in some essential way. No one close to them may possess the candor to say it aloud, but they themselves know the truth about themselves — and the truth, as they construe it, is that they are sellouts….The first thing to be noted about the drama of selling out is that it is a highly self-serving one. It assumes, right off, that one truly does have something important to sell — that one is a sufficiently significant person for the Devil to want to do a deal with.

Fascinating is the last thing failure is. True failure is a destroyer of self-respect. To fail decisively is almost certainly to lose one’s perspective: to be filled with self-scorn that turns outward into envy, to review endlessly the accumulation of disappointed hopes, frustrated talents, wounded pretensions. It is regularly to anticipate misfortune and not be often mistaken; it is to live with full-time tedium; it is to look into the mirror and see waste staring back.

What is the worst that can be said about ambition? In sum, that it is antisocial; that is is insatiable; that it is corrupting; that it leaves only victims…the ambitious view of life is forbiding and unforgiving. Its price is too high. It is inhuman in its demands; it is inhumane in its toll. If life is to be lived differently, if life is to be more spiritual, more tender-minded and large hearted, ambition, clearly, must go. Or so it is said.

To make any broad assertion about human nature — that men and women are, say, essentially aggressive, acquisitive, selfish, in sum, oriented toward success — is to call to mind exceptions, to invite skepticism, and to enter the flux of controversy.

8 comments on “Book Notes: Ambition by Joseph Epstein
  • A great companion read to Epstein is Carol Dweck’s “Mindset.” 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.

  • Hey Ben… what would you say about the negative review about the book “Ambition” on Amazon?

    Freimut-Johannes from Berlin

  • “…within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live” – how true !

    How does it matter if someone chooses a way of life that is relentlessly single-minded or humorless so that he can go where he wants? After all, that’s the only choice that he gets to exercise.

    Who is right here – the cynic that swallowed the sarcastic pill or the gritty one that views his life seriously? If the latter is ambitious, the former is boorish or even obstinate (for not noticing perseverance that supports ambition). The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.

    The truly motivated one is a dream chaser and there’s no telling how many miles his pursuit takes. He obviously can’t let go off the rope if he reaches its end. He will have to tie a knot and hang on – because he knows he has to win. And he is right.

    What makes him pushy? The awareness that the road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spaces but just one slot fits him. The knowledge that race is not always to the swift, but to the one that keeps running. What seems to the critic of taking-life-too-seriously in fact is his watchfulness and endurance at every step. Nobody trips over mountains; it’s the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Cross all the pebbles and you’d soon realize you’ve crossed the mountain.

  • this reminded me of a post secret i saved…it said,

    “i am not ambitious enough for my own dreams.”

    also, i had this quote saved.

    “Once you achieve one goal you will suddenly realize that you have many more goals to attain. Don’t let this bring you down, just focus on slowly improving your weaknesses one goal at a time. Life is about constantly challenging yourself and you will never be perfect. When you think you are close to perfect on one subject you will suddenly realize you have so much more to learn about another subject.”

    isn’t that ambition?? pursuing your dreams!

  • Epstein’s Ambition….is a classic for me. I was riding the bus in the late 80’s dutifully reading yet another book on my way to work. I was a banker then and found the Entrprenurial grit and spirit attractive. What noble Souls they are! Yet they missed / overlooked so much of the technical…maybe that is why they are entreprenurs rather than accountants….Epstein on John D. Rockefeller (an accountant by training) beautifully wrote

    “…by uniting Audacity with Precision, imagination with caution, he created an empire..”

    All the pieces of what my life’s purpose neatly, precisely and with artistic flair fell into place with those words. I’ve never looked back. Am still intrigued with uniting those two worlds and will close with another favorite;

    “..Pitythe poor critic, for he can not act until I do…”

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