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Ambition is often misunderstood. But its absence is, eventually, noticeable and negative.

Whither Ambition

Along the way I’ve heard a sermon or two castigate the idea of ambition. I think the well-meaning speakers equated ambition with selfishness, selfish ambition, or a grab for personal aggrandizement. They took one generally listed meaning of ambition, “a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous,” and rejected the word because they looked upon success, power, and fame pejoratively. For the speakers, success, power, and fame are suspect at best, so a person with ambition for these things must already have started on the broad road to destruction.

So…”Thou shalt not be ambitious.” It sounds good so it must be in the Scripture somewhere. But the thing is, while God provided plenty of examples of how success, power, and fame can warp human perspective, he never said, “Don’t be successful, powerful, or famous.”

And God certainly never said, “Don’t be ambitious.” In fact, the Apostle Paul said it had always been his ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ was not known, and later, Paul advised believers to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Only “selfish ambition” is condemnedrepeatedly—in Scripture.

Meanwhile, ambition is generally defined as “something a person wants to do or achieve” or as “a desire to do things and be active.” It’s a forward-looking attitude imbued with hope. Ambition is similar to aspiration: an aim, a goal or objective, a strong desire. Ambition is a longing to accomplish something small or great but either way, meaningful.

American Ambition Asked

I submit to you that American culture has lost its ambition. We don’t have a sense of Manifest Destiny, we’re not saving the union, we’ve already built a transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal, we’ve not set out to make the world safe for democracy, we’re not working, if painfully, to achieve MLK, Jr.’s “Dream,” we’re not trying to put a person on the moon, and terrorism or global warming or debt reduction notwithstanding, we’re not now mutually engaged in any kind of national purpose.

America, and too many Americans, have lost any sense of ambition, don’t know why, don’t know how to rediscover it, and don’t even know if they want to find it. Political leaders are not much help. They’re focused on re-election, picayune details, hyper-partisanship, and each other. And we’re not hearing much of a grand ambition (vision for accomplishing something) from academia, celebrities, or even religious leaders.

I don’t say this so much with criticism as concern. This is my country. I’d wish better for it.

Individual Americans, of course, can be found who are exceptions to this rule. Surely there are a few ambitious visionaries out there. We just lost one: Steve Jobs. Not that his personal life was much of a model, but his ambition for greatness in his profession was a stellar example.

Meanwhile, pundits are talking about terminal adolescence, boomerang kids, Millennials without life goals, the working class with a growing sense of alienation, and the middle class confused and angered by its lack of prospects for a better future. And worse, there is the so-called underclass (I do not mean this word disrespectfully) whose lives seem adrift and hopeless without some help from the rest of us.

American Ambition Answered

What America needs is not a good 5-cent cigar but a new American ambition, and what a lot of individual Americans need is a forward-thinking, hopeful, goal for their own growth and contribution to family and society—they need ambition.

We don’t lack for ideas:

*The United States ranks 28th in the world in average Internet connection speed. We’re way behind Asian countries that have made this a national priority. Focusing upon becoming Number One in the world in Internet speed would benefit education and the economy, which is to say everyone. 

*The U.S. is ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics. These numbers are embarrassing, yet we continue to claim we have the best universities in the world. To regain academic performance among the nation’s youth is to regain economic prominence tomorrow. It’s not rocket science—or maybe it is.

*Even debt reduction could be a positive American Ambition if presented as something more than “Woe is me, we can’t do this anymore.” Cut yes, but to what end besides no debt? Don't just retrench, reposition. Build for the future.

I could identify other kernels of ideas capable of growing into a national ambition. But the purpose of this piece is not to list every possibility, rather to raise the issue.

Ambition isn’t bad. If governed by time-tested character values ambition is decidedly good.

Reconstructing an American Ambition capable of blessing the world should be itself a national priority. What is our destiny? Find it, go for it, do it. Inspire us to Aspire.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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