The Ambitious Christian…

Can ambition be a Catholic virtue?

ambitioninside

Margot, 31, wants to be the first female partner at the boutique law firm where she’s worked for four years. She’s getting great reviews from her bosses because she works long hours, always delivers for clients and, “when a partner tells me to jump, I ask how high on the way up,” she says. “It’s been my ambition to be a partner at a law firm for years. So many women start out as associates at firms, but so few end up as partners. I really want that success.”

She admits that to me with a sigh, and an apologetic look. She continues: “Women aren’t supposed to have that burning ambition — or at least that’s the message I get from society. I’m 31, I’m single and I’m Catholic. I really do want to get married and have a family, but I’m just not sure where that fits in.”

Ambition. It’s a loaded word — and one that’s harder to define than you’d think. Ambition is when you want it — bad. It’s going after your dreams. It’s single-mindedly pursuing a goal, the opposite of apathy. Right? Well, yes… but that’s not quite a complete definition.

Would you say someone who wanted to relax and get a lot of sleep was ambitious? Probably not, although that is a goal that you could single-mindedly pursue. Nor would you probably consider it ambitious to spend the summer going after your dream of a tan-line-free golden glow. Our modern definition of ambition is more than just going after a goal — it has to be a particular goal that we as a culture deem to be worthy of such efforts.

Not just any goal

So, working on your tan is easy to dismiss as not a “real ambition.” But then it gets a little more complicated: For a Buddhist monk meditating in a monastery, the goal might be to have an empty and calm mind. Is that an ambition? He will spend years trying to achieve it, but won’t have much to actually show at the end. What about the stay-at-home mother who wants to homeschool all her children? She’ll work really hard, but she won’t get paid or promoted.

We tend to define ambition as the quest for individual accomplishment and material prosperity, which means we have a pretty narrow definition of what goals “count” under the term ambitious.

As a society, we tend to define ambition as the quest for individual accomplishment and material prosperity, which means we have a pretty narrow definition of what goals “count” under the term ambitious. We would say that Margot is ambitious because she wants to be a lawyer. But if she meets Mr. Right and decides she wants to focus her energies on raising a family, most people wouldn’t call her ambitious anymore. Why?

And what about the man or woman who wants to get married — and joins internet sites, hires dating coaches and networks like crazy to meet the right match. Is that ambition? What about the person who wants to expand a charity program so it reaches double the number of needy people? Is that ambition?

There are dozens of ways that people express their desire to work hard for a particular goal — and not all of them mean earning lots of money or attaining worldly success. Ambition in many forms is terrific: I salute the business executive who wants to triple revenues, and I’m in awe of the mother who wants to homeschool five kids. To me, both are ambitious. Ambition is a virtue when it’s used to create — and that creation can be more prosperity, more opportunities, more educated children, you name it.

Maybe it’s because of the narrow focus of our definition of ambition — or maybe it’s because we’ve begun to equate ambition with corrupt business executives and the financial crisis — but ambition gets a bad rap. Our cultural message is: Yes, we should have energy; yes, we should be successful; but ambitious? That sounds like you might be trying too hard or hustling too much.

Ambition Survey

TAKE THIS SURVEY!!

Are you ambitious?

Is it ambitious to say you want to grow in faith?

Are some people just genetically wired to be more ambitious than others?

Take the Ambition Survey here and share your thoughts anonymously. In a future column I’ll post the results and responses.

Ambition gets conflated with aggressiveness — the type of person who has no use for social niceties. In novels, it’s the ambitious character that gets taught a hard lesson. In movies, ambition is equated with greed and corruption. Ambition has become a dirty word, and yet it’s the cornerstone of so much of American progress.

So here’s my question to all you Pure Sex, Pure Love readers out there: Would you say that you are ambitious? If so, what are your ambitions? If not, why not?

Is it ambitious to say you want to grow in faith?

Is it ambitious to say you want to be a great husband or wife?

Are some people just genetically wired to be more ambitious than others?

Take the Ambition Survey here (see box above, right) and share your thoughts anonymously. In a future column I’ll post the results and responses.


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