By Praveen Chunduru
How did we get to the stage where we always prioritise our minds over our hearts? How did it come to be that we lack any discernible talent or passion outside of our work lives? At what point did we stop painting that picture, writing that poem, or gazing at stars, only to decide that our mission is to become a partner at a large organisation?
Human history is defined by many things and ambition is absolutely one of them, but why have the most educated among us have come to equate ambition with money and structured power? If you want to find out what my ambitions are, you will have to ask me that question three times. My responses will be as follows:
First: I want to join an impact-investing fund focused on education. Second: I want to lead an organisation focused on enhancing educational quality in India. Third: I want to be an author, to tell a fantastic story, to interview sports stars, to write and deliver historic speeches, to change people’s lives, to climb mountains, write poems, and sing songs.
Of course, not many except my closest friends have heard the third response. I am not saying I am very proud of my third-level ambitions, but what I am saying is that you are likely to dismiss the third response as no ‘real ambitions’, and I would urge you think about why is that so.
You could cite one of the following reasons:
There is no ‘career path’ or structure to them. They are not realistic and will not help you make money. They do not result in you leading a ‘significant’ life’. ‘Changing people’s lives’ is very vague. They sound like things that can change at the drop of a hat. They are easily achievable. Write a poem now if you want to.
Underlying these statements is our definition of ‘ambition’: a challenging and well-defined goal for the far future, achieving which will a person afford a high standard of living, and which is attainable by taking a difficult, yet established, path. This is so very different from the actual definition of ambition: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work. (Oxford Dictionary of English)
Ambition is not a goal, it’s the drive – it does not have to be structured, it does not have to provide me with a livelihood, it does not die the moment it is achieved once (Federer’s passion for tennis did not die with his first title), it does not have to be in the far future.
We are mechanising ourselves by defining our lives according to the pre-existing chairs we want to sit in. Our future looks hazy, with some untaken paths leading to oblivion, some untaken paths leading to glory, and a few taken paths that lead to comfort and mediocrity, and we are choosing the last. We have lost our exploratory spirit. We have passions we are ignoring because we feel we have more monetarily lucrative uses of our time. While we have recognised that having money helps lead a happier life, we feel that the marginal utility of money is exponential, failing to recognise that after a certain minimum amount, money is redundant.
Aren’t better off following our passions? Isn’t Salman Khan of Khan Academy, who left a lucrative job at a hedge fund to follow his passion for teaching, who did not have a robustly defined end-goal, who had no visibility of money when he started on his journey, more impactful than most business leaders? What if Abraham Lincoln chose to run a very profitable law firm instead of joining politics? What if Da Vinci worked at Deloitte? What if Zuckerberg focused exclusively on getting straight As in Harvard so that he could join a PE fund upon graduation? I have no doubt that these men would have been exceptional at whatever they did, but the world is better today because they pursued interests which at the start did not seem realistic or lucrative at all.
My plea to you is simple: don’t be afraid of defining ambition with your heart instead of your mind. Do what you have to do, by all means, but never stop pursing the things you want to do. The chances are that you will be a happier person for following your dreams, and that the world will be a better place for it.
Praveen Chunduru is a Co-Founder of VideosForKnowledge, an NGO aimed at enhancing general awareness and good-citizen values among children in low-income schools in India.