Ambition & Contentment
It’s hard to name even a single American president who had a healthy relationship with their father.
Biden was humiliated by his father’s multiple business failures and sustained periods of unemployment. Trump’s father emotionally and physically abused him. Obama’s was so absent he inspired an entire memoir. George W. lived in the shadow of his father until midlife. Clinton was raised by his drunk, abusive stepfather. George H.W. grew up in the shadow of his father too, and was raised largely by boarding schools anyway. And so on, and so on, and so on1.
Perhaps this is nothing more than a commentary on the sad state of fatherhood in mid-20th century America: if you chose a dozen men at random from that same time period, you might get similar results. But I suspect it’s something more. The suffering and sacrifice necessary to become president requires the kind of extreme drive that’s often powered by emotional damage. For the most part, the psychologically healthy self-select out of the process. Like that Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member, the desire to be president can be seen as a sign that its bearer is not mentally fit to hold the office2.
So the question is: to be truly ambitious, do you need to be a little bit fucked up?
While the correlation is far from perfect, the most driven people I’ve met have all seemed to be at least a little bit damaged. It’s not just daddy issues, of course. I chose those examples because the presidency is such an extreme form of ambition, and because biographers have taught us a lot about our presidents’ childhoods, and because the whole thing is honestly kind of funny. But, contra Philip Larkin, there are a million ways you can be fucked up besides having a bad relationship with your parents.
This kind of connection, between ambition and messed-up-ness, makes intuitive sense to me. In my experience at least, fixing your damage isn’t about repair as much as it’s about acceptance. Or at least, the acceptance has to come first, as in psychologist Carl Rogers’ famous quote that “only once I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
But striving for something great inherently involves not accepting things as they are. Picture success as a ladder: in this highly oversimplified picture, there will be some people at every step who say “this is enough” and stop climbing. The people who climb the highest must therefore be the hardest to satisfy—and the only ones who never stop climbing are those who can never be satisfied at all.
Congratulations: we’ve just reinvented Buddhism. Or at least, a bastardized version of it.
In the Buddhist view, the underlying cause of all suffering is desire—or actually, it’s perhaps better conceptualized as craving. We naively think we can cure a craving by acquiring the thing we crave, but when we do, our minds just move on to the next craving. The only way to break the cycle is to attack the problem at the root, by training our minds, via meditation, to crave less aggressively.
Of course, many people meditate and remain ambitious. But it sure does seem like if you get really, really into it, you end up becoming both more content and less ambitious. Other than the Dalai Lama, who doesn’t count for obvious reasons, the most conventionally successful serious meditator I’m aware of is Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, who spends three months a year in silent retreat, and who seems to have found the overwhelming success of his books, and his ensuing celebrity, to be a complete surprise.
If there’s a single philosopher who represents the opposite of Buddhism, in my mind, it’s gotta be Nietzsche, who was obsessed with ambition, achievement, and greatness. Nietzsche saw the driving force behind all human behavior as the “will to power,” a term he never defined clearly, but which seems to be at least kind of like ambition. (This, by the way, is one of the secrets of being a successful philosopher: being just vague enough with your use of language that people can debate your work for decades without ever being able to conclude whether you were right or wrong, or even being 100% sure of what you were trying to say in the first place.)
One who loses the will to power, or never has it in the first place, ends up as a “last man”: a passive nihilist who seeks only comfort and security, and is destined to be perpetually unfulfilled. In the Nietzschean view, achieving greatness isn’t easy, but if you don’t even try, your life won’t have any meaning at all.
Then again, Nietzsche himself had a complete mental breakdown at 45, allegedly prompted by his dismay at seeing a man beating a horse in the street. He spent the rest of his life as an invalid, cared for by his mother and sister—not exactly an Übermensch. Philosophy: don’t try this at home.
As you may have guessed, I come to this topic out of more than just an abstract interest. I’ve been thinking about this stuff because over the past few years, I’ve found myself becoming both more content and less ambitious. And I’ve been wondering: is the connection real? And if so: is the tradeoff worth it?
For as long as I can remember being old enough to be aware of any of what was going on inside me, I remember being ambitious. For most of my life that ambition was shapeless—I knew I wanted to do something great, I just didn’t know what. This is a feeling common among young people, I think, probably young boys especially. It’s afflicted many fictional characters (Pippin, Tobias Funke), and many real people too, some well into adulthood. A recent biography of Ted Kennedy quotes one of his early senatorial aides as saying, “Obviously you should do something unique and spectacular. I don't know what that will be, but we’ll come up with it.”
I poured my shapeless ambition into a variety of vessels—startups, writing, appearing on TV—but of course, it was never sated, only whetted. I knew that the struggle didn’t always feel so good, but I told myself I was fine with that. In my founder days, I often said that running a startup didn’t always make me happy, but that my main goal in life wasn’t necessarily happiness—which is both true and a great excuse for being unhappy. I was even judgmental of people I saw as insufficiently ambitious, in the way only those who aren’t secure in their own choices can judge.
If, ten years ago, you’d told me I could push a button that would make me 50% less ambitious in exchange for being 50% more content, there’s absolutely no way I would’ve taken that trade. But that’s effectively what’s happened anyway, only incrementally, in baby steps so small I didn’t even notice it. I don’t know whether I made this change on purpose, or whether it just happened to me. Perhaps it’s all downstream from aging, a side effect of testosterone in men peaking at 20 and declining from there.
Or maybe it’s all just a question of how we define ambition. We code things like pursuing a career as ambitious, not so much things like building community or trying to become a more moral person. But the latter are still accomplishments, and they’re often harder. For me at least, becoming an open and vulnerable communicator has been much harder than raising a round of venture capital ever was.
It’s almost a cliché, in many fields, to think you need to be broken to be successful: the artist who thinks they need to suffer for their art, the comedian who thinks they’ll stop being funny if they stop being depressed. I generally don’t buy that those connections are all that real. But as much as I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise, still I’m not sure it’s possible to be incredibly ambitious and incredibly content at the same time.
So perhaps the solution, as it is with so many things, is balance. My fading ambition may have made me mentally healthier, but nonetheless, I hope it doesn’t fade any further. I want to hold onto a little bit of the old hunger, even if it means I’m destined to be perpetually just a little bit dissatisfied.
I find myself thinking, as I often do, of my own version of St. Augustine’s prayer: God, grant me peace and contentment—but not just yet.
Reagan’s father: alcoholic. Nixon’s: cruel and abusive. Joe Kennedy needs no introduction. The only obvious exceptions I can find in the past 100 years are Carter (always the exception) and the never-elected Ford, both of whom seem to have relatively happy childhoods.
Interestingly, the picture appears more complicated if you look at presidential losers: Hillary, Romney, McCain, Kerry, and Gore all seem to have had happy childhoods and good relationships with their fathers (although one could argue that Romney idolized his to an unhealthy degree). Someone should do a study on this.