Mastering Ambition: Why What You Have Is Good Enough

Mastering Ambition: Why What You Have Is Good Enough

Seneca's quote on internal peace

Repeat after me; “I have enough.”

Take note of yourself right this moment. How do you feel?

Chances are you are physically comfortable. You are free from exposure, warm, fed, hydrated.

Now take a look around you. What do you see?

You’re probably reading this from a smartphone, tablet, or personal computer. In fact, you probably own all 3 of these devices. Also, you have a TV, refrigerator, running water, plenty of clothes, and so on. Everything one needs for basic human

The first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are pretty much the de facto state in any first world country. The number of people struggling for food, physical security, and shelter has plummeted around the world. However, it is with the next three levels; love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization, that people get the most confused.

Too many people become obsessed with esteem, and fail to nourish their love/belonging level. They have flawed ambitions. They equate a better sense of self with the acquisition of more things to attain a higher status and more recognition from peers. The fault lies in the fact that there is always more to have. If you are always chasing the next big external thing, you will always be disappointed. You’ll feel inadequate because your internal state is neglected.

External focus, especially the constant need to acquire more stuff (for more validation), is a sickness that must be destroyed. If not, you will constantly be comparing yourself to other people; what they have, what they do, and how they act.

 Maslow's Hierarcy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarcy of Needs

For thousands of years, man have been in search of happiness; a never-ending quest to live the perfect life filled with joy, pleasure, and wealth. Most never get there. That is because the focus is on the wrong path. The search would be much easier (and successful) if we focused on what mattered and what we could control.

To be clear, wealth and money obviously contribute to a better life. That much is certain. What is also certain is that after attaining a certain level of comfort, more wealth does little to alter our inner sense of being.

The problem is that we quickly adjust to money, each new level of comfort leading to us wanting more and more. We use money to advance our lives materially, but after a while, this fails to quell our ego and ambitions. We revert back to how we felt about ourselves before having money, it’s only a matter of when. This is inevitable if we have a poor sense of inner self. We are at a loss trying to figure out what to do to change this. So we continue to do what we (and those around us) do best; we work, we earn, we spend – rinse and repeat. It’s all we know.

Yet, the discontent remains.

What do we do?

How do we find balance; a blend of external material comfort combined with inner harmony and balance?

Most advice you receive will describe a process where you sell out to make as much money as possible. Few address the fact that wealth alone will not get you where you want to be. Money alone doesn’t have the capacity to be the solution to life’s problems.

Let’s turn to Seneca’s “Of The Happy Life” for some answers.

According to Seneca, we must first “establish what it is that we seek to gain” and “determine both the goal and the road we will take.

Most people live in a reactive state, with no long-term plan and a slave to the whims and happenings of each day. A life without direction is one sure to be riff with mistakes in judgement and errors in decision-making. So first, we need to identify what we want and how we plan to get there.

Avoid Conformity

We need to make our own decisions and come to our own conclusions. In a world moving closer and closer to mass conformity, this is a big one. Independent thought is a rarity and group-think a deceptive trap, so be sure to heed to Seneca’s advice that “the most well-trodden and frequented paths prove to be the most deceptive” and that “we should not, like sheep, follow the heard of creatures in front of us, making our way where others go, not where we ought to go.

By doing so, we are doomed to live a life of imitation, one not our own. Seneca implores us to think on our own; “It is harmful to attach oneself to the people in front…it is the example of others that destroys us: we will regain our health, if only we distance ourself from the crowd.”

Use The External to Develop the Internal

Seneca thought the happy life “is the one that is in harmony with its own nature…free from desire and fear thanks to the gift of reason.” We have to develop sound judgement; becoming a rational actor, to fully unearth internal peace. Independent thought is everything; it elevates us above the masses with a fearless, unshakable demeanor. Only when we can think for ourselves will we be able to laugh at the widespread conformist tendencies in our fellow-man.

Perhaps Seneca’s most important observation is that the happy man is “satisfied with his present situation, no matter what it is, and eyes his fortune with contentment; the happy man is the one who permits reason to evaluate every condition of his existence.” 

Gratitude is the tool the wise man uses to stay balanced. It allows us to appreciate how far we’ve come in life. Without gratitude, your mental state is bound to degenerate. 

How many people do you know who have given up on their own dreams to please others?

How many men have sold out for money, doing something they hate just to earn a paycheck?

How many have embraced long, soulless commutes to an office building, neglecting their health, family and friends all in the sake of money?

And for what?

  • To acquire more material wealth
  • To stroke one’s ego through material gains
  • To be seen as a high achiever by friends and family

The question is why?

What most fail to grasp is that life is short. Really short. Our lifespan is so absurdly short, that we hardly register more than a speck on the timeline of human civilization.

Soon you will be gone and forgotten and nobody will remember the money you earned, the possessions you owned, or the stressful life you chose to lead. Even while we are alive, nobody really cares what we do outside of our immediate family. They may applaud your achievements to your face, but behind your back, they don’t really care either way.

So focus on being happy, not seeking happy. Work on your internal state. Otherwise, the joke is on you for not putting yourself first and being drawn to conflict by unimportant and toxic pursuits. All things in moderation; slaving for only money is not the answer, hence the crucial importance to prioritize your actions to focus on activities that will bring you internal peace and comfort.

Zigging, Not Zagging

Many a man is guilty of being a slave to pleasure and money. Money is a necessary evil to live a comfortable life, but it limited without mental stimulation. An obsessive pursuit of money and pleasures is sure to lead a man to ruin. One most look no further than historical men who have gone mad with power, or the countless celebrities who had it “made” on paper, yet chose to destroy themselves through drugs, alcohol, or violent actions.

How does one balance the urge to acquire wealth and pleasures with the necessary condition of inner peace?

Seneca was firm in his beliefs, saying, “You embrace pleasure, I curb her; you enjoy pleasure, I use her; you regard her as the highest good, I do not even consider her a good; you do everything for the sake of pleasure; I nothing.”

The irony was that Seneca, a renowned Stoic even in his own time, was a wealthy man. However, he controlled his wealth, and wasn’t a slave to it. He enjoyed the benefits money brought to him, but he would have been just as content if he lost everything he’d acquired.

Seneca was able to appreciate wealth and pleasure, but always knew the dangers and concerns with becoming too attached to them. He preached “we will nonetheless have pleasure, but we shall be her master and control her; sometimes we will accede to her entreaty (humble request), never to her compulsion.”

Tame your inner demons, or be eaten by them when you least expect it. Ambition is a noble quality, one needed to do great things, but with focused ambition. We cannot get caught up in our own success; that is when we become a slave in the pursuit of more and more. Seneca cautions “the more and greater the pleasures are, the more inferior is that man the crowd calls happy, the greater is the number of masters he has to serve.”

Don’t misunderstand the message and think I am preaching a life of poverty. My point is that we need external and internal balance; both moving along the same path at the same speed. We need to clear our head of any unhealthy desires and beliefs. We need to change the way we act and think about the life we want to live.

Wraping Up

Over two thousand years separate Seneca’s writings from my own, yet the same basic problems facing humanity have remained the same. People sell out for wealth, neglect their inner state, and conform to the whims of society and the masses in doing so.

This imbalance leads to negative thoughts and an overwhelming sense of void in one’s life. What’s left is a large portion of people chronically dissatisfied with their life. They sense something is amiss, but cannot point to the cause. On paper, everything seems great – money in the bank, big house, food, etc. But too many years focusing on the external over the internal can do heavy damage. So take Seneca’s words to heart; focus on the simple parts of life, the parts in which you can control. Seek to improve your external and internal states equally.

Acquire wealth, but take Seneca’s view on it:

“The wise man does not consider himself unworthy of any gifts from Fortune’s hands: he does not love wealth but he would rather have it; he does not admit it into his heart but into his home; and what wealth is his he does not reject but keep, wishing it to supply greater scope for him to practice his virtue.”

Most important, be gracious for all that you have accomplished and acquired, while still having the ambition to strive for more.

Screenshot 2015-11-21 at 12.56.17 PM

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