Ditching Ambition to Gain Success

In the moments between snapping off the light and slipping into a dream, I often succumb to discouragement. Last night, as my patient husband reasoned me off that familiar precipice, I wondered if there was anything I could do to minimize the need for such pep talks in the future. If I wish to be a writer, I will have to develop a knack for self-soothing. Either that, or my husband will have to take up golfing … or hunting in South America.

Let’s look at this thing logically.

It seems to me that discouragement surfaces in at least three forms:

1)   Fear of the future. Under this category falls fear of failure, of prolonged suffering, of disappointments, of hypothetical crises, etc.

2)   Fear of what others may think. What will people say when they find out I still have not finished editing my manuscript? What will my beta readers think, and can I handle their opinions? What will that agent think when she finally gets her hands on the manuscript she requested a year ago? What will my writer friends think of my story? What do my friends think of my blog? What do my parents think of my attempts at being a writer? And so on.

3)   Fear of self-deception. This is perhaps the most terrifying of the three. What if I mistakenly supposed myself to be an able storyteller?

Now, discouragement of these kinds are reasonable under one condition only – that I pursue this or that goal out of ambition. Aristotle defines ambition as the seeking of honor from fellow man. And so, it would stand to reason that an ambitious writer would worry as to whether that honor will ever be achieved, whether others are inclined to honor her or not, and whether she is worthy of honor at all.

But St. Thomas Aquinas offers an alternative to a life of ambition: to strive for excellence only insofar as it honors God. This changes everything.

To she who wishes to honor God rather than herself through the success of her work, the aforementioned fears are inconsequential. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a second look.

1)   No fear of future. If we adjust our motivations from self-glorification to Divine glorification, then there is no reason to fear the consequences. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Mt 5:8)! So, there is no need to be fearful of what is to come, because, whatever it is, we will put it toward bringing honor to God.

2)   No fear of the opinions of others. Now, there should be concern as to whether our work honors God. That is the primary objective. If, however, to the best of our ability and to the satisfaction of our consciences, we produce work we believe to glorify God, the interpretation of it is not our responsibility. Some may respond venomously, others gratefully. The goal is to be sure that all observers, belligerent or otherwise, are directed toward God. Their response to that directive is not in our control.

3)   No fear of self-deception. When concentrating all efforts on honoring God, the possibility of not being talented enough, or skilled enough, or charming enough becomes irrelevant. For it is not from ourselves that any abilities derive, but from God. To doubt our abilities is to reject whatever gifts God so graciously bestowed upon us, no matter how humble they may be. Perhaps we cannot honor God in so eloquent or moving a fashion as others, but why should that cause unrest? They are obligated to use their gifts to the best of their ability, and we are likewise called to do the same. The goal, remember, is to honor God. If others achieve this goal with more excellence, all the better! God is being honored well, and our work can be added to the symphony.

How to know I am excelling, then? If my measure is not praise from others, then what is to indicate that I am succeeding?

Toward this end, I think I will try and compare me to myself. I will recall my performance in the past, and honestly ask whether I have advanced. Is my writing better than when I started? Am I less easily distracted? Is my time used more efficiently? This, I think I can do – to be better than my past self. Or even than my present self.

All the right books and all the right writers fill our heads with that alluring catchphrase, “Believe in yourself, no matter what!” But it is not ourselves that deserve the honor. I say, believe in the One who believes in you, and leave ambition at the door.