Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Ambition

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 28, 2010

Thirty-something years ago, I read a book that changed my life. The book was by Norman Podhoretz and it was called Making It. I can’t really recommend it as a read for today (I tried a month ago and couldn’t get through it) and I certainly find little to admire about Mr. Podhoretz’s current politics. But his book hit me like a box of dynamite. It overthrew everything I thought I knew about myself and turned my life around 180 degrees.

No, not Gordon Gekko (though I love the guy)

Making It is about ambition. Mr. Podhoretz’s thesis is that the “dirty little secret” of American life is not sex, but ambition. Lust for success, he said, is the love (the book was published in 1967) that dare not speak its name.

When I read Making It, I was living in a rented room in a halfway house in Durham, North Carolina, making $1.75 an hour delivering reconstituted orange juice, Salisbury steaks and frozen Crinkle-Cut French fries to restaurants and school cafeterias. But when I read Mr. P’s confessions (in a 35-cent used paperback picked up at the Goodwill Store), I thought, “That’s me.”

I didn’t dare breathe a word. And certainly nothing altered in my external life. But everything had changed inside me. Norman P. had obliterated denial. He had forced me to own up. I may be a bum, I told myself; I may be a loser, I may still have a long way to fall before I hit bottom. But the truth is I ain’t happy being a bum and a loser and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life at the bottom.

I hate what I’ve done to myself. I hate what my life has become. I want to do something great, and I want people to know about it. At the time I was years away from finding a job that anyone might call half-respectable and a generation away from making my first dollar as a writer. But that was only surface stuff. Inside, I had changed. Inside, I had taken the first step.

Accepting the fact that I was ambitious took a great weight off my shoulders. I felt terrible about it (it seemed so aggressive and competitive and non-regular-guy-ish), but at least I wasn’t lying to myself any more. To admit that I wanted something better for myself didn’t mean that I intended to morph into a raging egomaniac who clawed his way to the top over the bleeding bodies of his dearest friends. It just meant that I was ready to kick my own butt and to, at last, reject every sorry-ass excuse I had been dishing out to myself for so long.

Today, thirty-plus years later, I feel exactly the same. I’m still ambitious. I still hate mediocrity. I still want to do something great. When I get up in the morning, that pissed-off feeling is ambition—ambition rubbing up against Resistance and throwing off sparks.

This doesn’t mean I believe in “success.” I don’t. I don’t believe greed is good and I don’t think wealth or fame bring happiness. Those are externals. Those are fruits. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about labor. I’m talking about doing the work. To pretend to NOT want to excel when in fact you do—and thus crap out on the work–is a prescription for misery. To NOT try is fatal, for me anyway.

Are you ambitious? If you’re reading this blog, you must be. Do you want to do something great? Do you feel a secret power inside you? Do you hate being ordinary and normal? Do you refuse to accept that?

I do. I hate that shit. I don’t believe anyone’s ordinary or normal anyway. An oak litters the earth with ten thousand acorns, and inside every one is the drive to grow to be as mighty as its daddy. Every lion cub, every fledging eagle carries in its DNA the will to be king of beasts and lord of the air. That’s nature’s law. Why should we humans expect to be different?

I thank Norman Podhoretz for making the scales fall from my eyes. What he said about himself was true for me too. The realization that I do value myself, that I do respect myself, that I do expect great things from myself has fueled my work and me for three decades–and I haven’t run out of gas yet.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

43 Responses to “Ambition”

  1. July 28, 2010 at 1:35 am

    Thanks for that one, Steven, because it’s something I recognize not only in myself but in others around me. Some are content with getting by, with coasting. Gosh, I know I have done my fair share of coasting in my time too. But these days, now that I can be honest about how precious life really is… Well, nowadays I want to be the best at what I do. Like you do.

    Thanks for the honest blog.

  2. JasonM
    July 28, 2010 at 1:50 am

    One problem I often see is that if I express my ambitions to others they take me as an egomaniac. It mostly comes from those being beaten by resistence.

    Now i keep it to myself determined to do it.

    “Do not reveal what you have thought upon doing, but by wise council keep it secret being determined to carry it into execution.”
    Canakya Pandit. Niti Sastra.

    Another great post.
    Thanks Steven.

    • Annette
      August 2, 2010 at 9:04 am

      To Jason M – I couldn’t agree more. Its best to keep your plans to yourself. I am in a phase where I don’t quite know how much to say (to get interested e.g. if you want to collaborate) and how much not to say (to make sure you don’t scare them off). Any advice, please reply.

      • August 15, 2010 at 7:55 am

        I think it all depends on the person you’re talking to.

        If the person is clearly losing the battle with their resistance, then they’ll be more likely to resent you for wanting more from your life. Those types will drag you down, so your ambitions aren’t worth discussing with them anyway. Good people will love to hear about your goals and help you get there. I’m assuming most of us reading this blog fall under that category.

  3. PC
    July 28, 2010 at 2:42 am

    How many people these days, stuck in dead end jobs, burn inside like Rooster in “Gates of Fire”?

    I do

  4. July 28, 2010 at 2:56 am

    Salvador Dali once said: “intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings”.
    As long as your ambition is healthy, without the will to destroy people around you rather than accept competition.
    No ambition = no enthusiasm.
    No enthusiasm = no work.
    No work = no start.
    No start = no end.

  5. July 28, 2010 at 3:50 am

    I cannot tell you how much I needed to read this today. Enough said.

  6. July 28, 2010 at 5:12 am

    “This doesn’t mean I believe in “success.” I don’t. I don’t believe greed is good and I don’t think wealth or fame bring happiness.”

    I don’t have a problem with success, and yet agree that greed isn’t the answer. What is best? For me, to come to the end of the day and look back and say, yes, I got something done, that is success.

    Working every day to, as Van Morrison’s song says, ‘keep mediocrity at bay.’

    THAT is success.

    Mike

    • July 28, 2010 at 5:07 pm

      Mike, can you expand on those lyrics? I love Van Morrison but I’m not familiar with that song. Which one is it? Thanks!

      • Regine
        August 1, 2010 at 8:10 am

        Hello Steven,
        The song is called: Keep mediocrity at bay and the lyrics are here:
        (Van Morrison)
        You gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
        Gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
        Got to fight with all your might not to get in the bleeding heart’s way
        You gotta fight for your rights you can’t bury your head in the sand
        You gotta fight for your rights you can’t just bury your head in the sand
        Politics and religion superstition go hand in hand
        Well you’re going through the motions and they can’t hear a word you say
        Well you’re going through the motions they don’t want to hear a word you say
        Got to keep boredom at bay and keep mediocrity away
        Gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
        Gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
        Got to fight with all your might not to get in the bleeding heart’s way
        Enjoy!
        I love your post. Thanks!

  7. Frank Freeman
    July 28, 2010 at 5:50 am

    Thanks for the kick in the ass, Mr. Pressfield. I remember reading an interview with William Kennedy in which he said when he was a newspaperman he had a stack of nine drafts of a novel by his desk and that every time he wrote fiction he said to himself, “I’ll show those bastards.” There weren’t any bastards, he said, but it still helped him write to say it.

  8. Alex Wexo
    July 28, 2010 at 7:03 am

    I like this website of your’s. Well designed.

  9. July 28, 2010 at 7:17 am

    “Are you ambitious? If you’re reading this blog, you must be. Do you want to do something great? Do you feel a secret power inside you? Do you hate being ordinary and normal? Do you refuse to accept that?”

    Yep.

    I used to describe this feeling as wanting something BIG and it was my (secret) reason for flitting from one job to the next. I didn’t exactly know what BIG was but I knew it was important. BIG means something. BIG isn’t about money but it is probably about limelight (for me, anyway). It took a long time to admit that I like the spotlight. I resisted (should probably be capitalized) it and tried to pretend that I was more of a behind the scenes person – someone who sits back and let’s others get the attention. Meanwhile, I found other not so healthy ways of getting the attention I craved.

    I need the crowd. I need applause or laughter or dare I say…(gulp)…adoration. I didn’t like this about myself and spent years trying to deny it. You can pretend you’re something you’re not or not something you are but, in the end, you’ll be a lot happier if you just accept the basics of who you are and then work within that.

    Thanks for this post and thanks even more for The War of Art. It’s the book that changed MY life.

  10. July 28, 2010 at 7:51 am

    The War of Art, is to me as Making It is to you.

    It was the book that woke me up and literally made me take responsibility.

    Thank you.

  11. July 28, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Hi Steven – I love this post. It’s nice to hear stories about where people started, instead of just how they achieved success.

    I’ve always been ambitious. My first full-time job was mind numbing. I worked at a fruit and vegetable wholesalers, inputting figures into a computer all day long.

    On my first day, I asked a couple of colleagues what there ambitions were and they replied that nobody with any ambition had worked there before.

    I realised I couldn’t stay there long – I was afraid the place would suck the life out of me.

    I’m still a long way from where I want to be – but I’m also a long way from that sucky first job. I think it’s important to give ourselves new goals to aim for.

    Now I’m going to check out your book – the one that Andrea mentioned.

  12. Jen Y
    July 28, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Reminds me of the Marianne Williamson quote that somehow became credited to Nelson Mandela:

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. As we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    Thanks for shining your light, Steven Pressfield!

  13. July 28, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Ditto Andrea. The War of Art was my “Making It.” And luckily, I don’t think I’ll have to question Steven’s politics when I re-read it in 30 years.

  14. July 28, 2010 at 10:41 am

    When I get up in the morning, that pissed-off feeling is ambition—ambition rubbing up against Resistance and throwing off sparks.

    Thank you for those words. That sentence succinctly describes and, more importantly, defines one of my aspects that always mystified and frustrated me. I’m struggling to express how empowered this makes me feel, so I’m going to stop here and go make something.

  15. Ines
    July 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Yeah, I’m ambitious. I hate injustice, specially the robbing of people’s hope.

    I believe it is suicide not to do our best. It is like keeping a treasure hidden from ourselves and others. This is why I want to go down fully spent. Like Paul, I seek to “fight the good fight, to finish the race and kept the faith” (2Tim4:6-8 edited). Why would people want to “coast” to a coffin is beyond me. If that means I am ambitious, I am not apologizing for it.

    I should not let resistance get in my way, but it does. This is where your posts help me. They remind me to get “pissed-off” again – and it feels good.

    Thanks!

  16. July 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I love this post! It is now saved in my stack & flow of media I must return to again and again.

  17. July 28, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    I needed this reminder, after a day spent tilting at windmills in the NHS.
    Reminds me of Langston Hughes’ raisin in the sun. Without the scope to even try to realize our ambitions, we shrivel and become something, someone less. I don’t want to do that any more.

  18. July 28, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    I used to run into so many people who would act like my having ambition for myself was the mark of a deluded egomaniac, and that I should be ashamed. I let these people get into my head for years.

    What I now know is that what they’re really lashing out at is the potential they once saw in themselves and turned away from. Their criticism is a sign that you’re on the right track. I’m always happy to remind them that they can make a start, if they so choose.

  19. July 29, 2010 at 5:27 am

    Hey Steve – you certainly nailed ‘ambition.’ If I want to succeed (my book in Barnes & Noble? a movie deal? make the NYTimes book review?) then I need to get off my ass and write – and ignore those who tell me I can’t-won’t-shouldn’t. It’s really that simple, isn’t it?

  20. JKL
    July 29, 2010 at 8:14 am

    I am forwarding this to my Son asap. Thank you Mr. Pressfield for continuing to be write this blog. Of all the literary soup of blog out there I can always count on you to come up with something insightful and stirring. Even if it was 30 years ago. I am hanging around Starbucks and waiting for my “writing” chair. Do you think I could throw the nice older lady sitting in it and explain to her that I want to be a “mighty oak” sometime this morning. LOL!

  21. George
    July 29, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Very good article. Ambition is the double-edge sword that has driven me in my business life and the fuel that I hope will allow me to do what I truly want to “succeed” in which is Art. Defining success is the other edge of the sword that I must master.

  22. Monica
    July 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    I’m a lyrics freak so I had to look these up. Ask and you shall receive….Enjoy!

    You gotta fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
    You got to fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
    Got to fight with all your might not to get in the bleeding heart’s way

    You got to fight for your rights, you can’t bury your head in the sand
    You gotta fight for your rights, you can’t just bury your head in the sand
    Politics and religion, superstition go hand in hand

    Well you’re going through the motions
    And they can’t hear a word you say
    Well you’re going through the motions
    They don’t want to hear a word you say
    Got to keep boredom at bay and keep mediocrity away

    Got to fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
    Got to fight every day to keep mediocrity at bay
    Got to fight with all your might not to get in the bleeding heart’s way

    You got to fight with all your might not to get in the bleeding heart’s way

    • July 30, 2010 at 6:16 pm

      Ah, thanks, Monica! I hope Van Morrison knows how popular he is around here. I did not know that song before. Thanks …

      SP

  23. July 29, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Another great post, Steve. One thing I’d add (and I’ll quote Leonidas via you in Gates of Fire) is that ambition comes with a price tag: “That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last.” If one would be king, then he or she must be willing to move rocks.

  24. July 29, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I am infinitely grateful for kicking me in my butt through the “War of Art”. You made me realize things internally which cannot be put in words. The first few hours after I read your book, I was laughing, I don’t know why!. I got something very deep that moment. I had this uncontrollable happiness and laughter inside me. As I was walking in the street, I was laughing. I was thinking that such a horrible thing as resistance had encompassed me but I had managed to jump each and every hurdle it threw unconsciously. You made me a professional, the day I read your book. It was a jolt I rightly deserved before resistance was catching up on me. Thank you.

  25. July 30, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Thanks for expressing so much of what I am feeling these days! It feels like life has presented me with, once again, a major intersection to cross. It involves owning my greatness and not being afraid to leave behind the well-worn world of my current life.

    Since reaching this new place, everything is different. I have no desire to explain this to anyone yet those around me can sense the change and the rumblings have started. Ahhh…resistance at its finest…change is the only thing we can be certain of yet so hard for some to accept.

    I applaud your work…your tenacity…and for giving each of us the opportunity to understand resistance. It continues to keep me moving forward when I participate in self-sabotaging behaviors. THAT is priceless! Bravo!

  26. Wiz
    July 30, 2010 at 8:55 am

    one of the most influential men in my life was a handy man/fix it man. there was nothing he couldn’t fix. people brought him anything from sick animals to outboard engines. rarely did he accept cash payment. he bartered usually for the good of someone else in need. he held a regular job that provided for his needs. everything that came to his little shop was a challenge. it was personal if he struggled with something. everything that left had to work…for good. no mediocrity in his life. those looking from the outside would consider him a tinkerer and possibly a nobody. if you ask those who benefited from his charity (if they even knew it was him who provided) or those who benefited from his mechanical abilities they can still remember his name and marvel at his gifts. fame is relative. compensation is relative. ambition must be stared down and striped from all of the vainglory you have attached to it through others expectations of you. in the end it is only a magnifying glass into your own soul.

  27. James
    July 31, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks, Steven.

    Honestly, I thought I was the only person on the planet who felt that way about my own ambition. I should have known better.

  28. Elena
    August 1, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    I must have been living under a rock, having just discovered War of Art and finding my way here. Thank you for having the balls to write your book and inspire.

  29. August 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Thanks, Mr. Pressfield. This morning, before reading your blog entry, I had said that I was tired of being beige. I have fought being like my dad, a competitive jackass. I have realized I chose normal – beige – instead. I don’t much like it either. I will change my color.

  30. August 3, 2010 at 12:08 am

    We either respond to this call to work to a better life or we die! You must know that Marianne Williamson quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

    Thanks for a powerful and courageous post.

  31. August 3, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    “True joy in life [is] being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

    George Bernard Shaw

  32. John
    August 11, 2010 at 6:08 am

    Mr. Pressfield –

    Thank you so much for nailing what I’ve been struggling with for so many years. For a long time I thought that being “ambitious” was a negative thing. It’s not. I just looked up the definition: “A strong desire to do or achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” There’s absolutely nothing negative about any of that. There’s no mention in there about ‘ego’ or rewards or riches or fame, which is what I used to think the ‘results’ of ambition were.

    Anyway, many thanks for this post.

  33. double tee
    August 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    On resistance – how can you tell if the resistance you face should be fought or is a telling sign that you are not doing what is right for you?

  34. Brandon
    August 23, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Wow, this was exactly what I needed to hear on my first day back to school. You never fail to inspire. Thank you.

  35. September 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Steven,
    Been gone for a bit fighting the good fight for the family. What a great series of posts and what a great discussion! I’m sorry I missed it!

    For the record, it was War of Art that woke me up, that wiped away the cloudy veil. From there, the fight got harder but, in a lot of ways, a heck of a lot more fun!
    ~Bryan~

  36. July 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Engaging piece. I was browsing for something like yet there are still some characters who would contradict it, or hate as individuals call it at the moment. haha

  37. November 2, 2011 at 1:01 am

    Hi there, You have performed a fantastic job. I’ll definitely digg it and for my part suggest to my friends. I am sure they’ll be benefited from this site.

  38. November 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I need almost all fancy recent taletid and picture!