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The Curse of Ambition

As they set sail for the United States of America in 1630, the Puritans’ ships were brimming with an ethos of hard work and frugality.
The Curse of Ambition

As they set sail for the United States of America in 1630, the Puritans’ ships were brimming with an ethos of hard work and frugality. As part of the Protestant Church, they taught that only those who were predestined to be saved would be saved. Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important traits of those destined to spend eternity basking in sunshine.

This etching by Frans Hogenberg illustrates the Second Coming of Christ and references the Olivet Discourse. Angels can be seen gathering the elect.

Over the years, this ethos seeped its way into American culture. Writer Frank Chodorov argued that the Protestant work ethic was long considered indispensable for American political figures:

"There was a time, in these United States, when a candidate for public office could qualify with the electorate only by fixing his birthplace in or near the log cabin. He may have acquired a competence, or even a fortune, since then, but it was in the tradition that he must have been born of poor parents and made his way up the ladder by sheer ability, self-reliance, and perseverance in the face of hardship. In short, he had to be self-made."

Anybody who could not measure up to that standard could not qualify for public office.

It's naive to think that remnants of that ethos don't exist today. Not just in the USA, but around the world. Radio, television and movies spread this ethos, often under the guise of the American Dream.

Catch yourself procrastinating and these deep-rooted Puritan beliefs make an appearance.

“You can do more. You should do more.”

Many of us tend to think that by self-punishing we're being responsible. Anxiety is conflated with productivity. Stress means you're taking your work seriously. Effort is key. Even failure is acceptable, so long as you tried your hardest.

The flip side of the coin is coloured by the image of the individual who confident, relaxed, or heaven forbid, carefree. If you’re lucky enough to land on that side of the coin, it won’t be long until society informs you that you're being irresponsible.

"You can do more. You should do more."

That line has a frighteningly familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? I suspect it's from the multiple appearances it’s made in conversations with myself. Regardless of how much I do, it doesn’t disappear.

"You can do more. You should do more."

Self-chastisement doesn't help us achieve much, but it leaves us tired, achy, and guilt-ridden. Thus it satisfies the implicit logic of the Protestant work ethic: if it's hurting, it must be working.

When your work ethic determined your eternal resting place, what could be better than hard work, self-denial, plus the threat of eternal damnation for the lazy?

There Are No Winners In a Casino

In his book, The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel tells a story about going to a casino. Upon entering, he asked the doorman what people who win at the casino have in common. The man replied: "The only people who win are the ones who exit as soon as they leave."

It hits you like a slap in the face. Amongst the dim lights, stench of smoke, and rolling roulette wheels, you can imagine the tears, heartache and falls from grace the doorman has seen.

Why do people keep returning to play? Because once you start, you want more. Once you get a taste of success, you crave it like an addict.

This isn't limited to casinos in casinos. It's a game that we all participate in. It’s the Social Comparison game.

You experience the taste of luxury and you want more. The things you so badly wanted yesterday no longer satisfy you today. What you have is never enough, because there’s always somebody that has more. You work harder, self-chastise more, and live with the feeling that if you aren’t working as hard as you can to reach the top, you’re doing something wrong.

The problem with the social comparison game - much like a casino -  is that you can never win. Regardless of how much you work, you cannot reach the top. The only way to escape is to exit as soon as you enter.

The escape plan is a simple two-step formula:

  1. Identify the game you want to play
  2. Define success in terms of that game

Identify the game you want to play

Different people play different games. When I was in law school, I remember seeing people spending every waking moment in the library. If they weren't in the library they were in class. If they weren't in class they were in the lecturer's office. I looked at this and asked myself, "Am I doing this wrong?"

"You can do more. You should more" frequented my thoughts. The Puritans would be proud.

I wasn't doing it wrong though. Those people had different goals. They wanted long and distinguished careers practising law. They wanted to be High Court judges and name partners at boutique law firms, whereas I'd discovered that I'd rather spend my time trying to build autonomous drones with facial-recognition capability. For them, graduating top of the class was a non-negotiable.

Neither they nor I were wrong, we were simply playing different games. Different games have different rules and scoring systems. If I were to measure myself according to their scoring system, I'd have failed miserably, and vice versa.

Which game are you playing? What does it mean to be successful? Without answers to these questions, you'll find yourself using the wrong information to change your behaviour. You'll feel that you can never win.

Define What It Means to be Successful

Success isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Success can be small, it can be personal, and it doesn't have to fit into the mould of 'success' provided by society. It certainly doesn’t have to be success as defined by the rules of the Social Comparison game.

Decide what is valuable to you. Decide which things constitute success, according to you: reputation, happiness, freedom, family and friends, peace of mind. Prioritise them in everything you do. Recognise when you're taking actions which might jeopardise or endanger these things.

Whenever I have a conversation with someone about what it means to be successful, the conversation turns towards money.

We're programmed to believe that being rich and being wealthy are the same things. They’re not. Being rich refers to your income, to how much you have available to spend. Being wealthy refers to far more than disposable income. It refers to time, flexibility and autonomy. It's the freedom to decide what you wish to dedicate your time and attention to.

In the social comparison game, being rich is a sign of success.

Most people don't want to be rich, they want to be wealthy. Creating your own definition of success gives you the freedom to pursue it relentlessly.

Hard Work is a Cop-Out

Worry isn’t work. Being stressed out isn’t work. Anxiety isn’t work. Hating yourself isn’t work. But as long as you continue to play the unwinnable game, it’ll continue to feel like work.

You might think it's admirable to put your head down and work tirelessly, but if you haven't identified the game you're playing and what it means to be successful in that game, it's a form of laziness. It's a cop-out. It's a way of avoiding the difficult conversation you need to have with yourself in which you identify your definition of success and question whether the road you're on is the one you want to be travelling.

Your job is to think. To really think, on a regular basis. Think about what’s important to you. Think about why you're here. Think about what the rest of the chessboard looks like. Think about what you would like the world to look like, and your role in moving it towards that vision.

That conversation is difficult. It forces you to consider the things you really care about. It forces you to be honest with yourself. The realisation that you've been caught up in the wrong games, with the wrong people, is devastating. Realising that you've lost sight of what you truly value is devastating. Time feels as if it's been washed away like a sandcastle, left by a careless child too near the water. But it's a conversation you cannot afford to avoid.

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