Ambition in a Time of Crisis

Dr Zoe Lawson is a social entrepreneur, MBA alumna and member of the OU Business School’s Alumni Council

What is Ambition and is it Good or Bad?

Most of us if pressed for a definition would say that ambition involves some sort of striving for achievement. Whether we define it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is somewhat more complex and is often influenced by our cultural frame of reference. Western societies generally view ambition as a precursor for success, while in Eastern traditions it is sometimes seen as an evil that reinforces the ego and distracts from spiritual growth.

Aristotle talked of degrees of ambition, with ‘proper ambition’ being the ideal. He defined ambition itself as a ‘vicious excess’ and lack of ambition as a ‘vicious deficiency’. Today, we talk of healthy ambition as the sweet spot – the striving for achievement that is individually enabling and socially constructive. Conversely, unhealthy ambition is more akin to greed; it is inhibiting and destructive.

Whatever your view on the virtues (or otherwise) of ambition, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the conditions of our lives and external environment at any given time have the power to boost or crush it. And we are currently living through perhaps the greatest global crisis in living memory. So how can we prevent our ambitions, plans and goals from being obliterated in this pandemic tsunami? Consider the following paragraphs.

Hope and Ambition are Bedfellows

Ambition is often talked about together with hope. We can have all the ambition in the world, but without some hope of the right circumstances arising for it to flourish, it is largely a theoretical exercise. Hope is a desire for things to change for the better, an anticipation of a positive outcome. It’s a critical element in resilience. What it is not, is a passive wishing exercise, some kind of wishy-washy concept based in woo-thinking. Hope is an active approach to life.

Research shows that hope helps us cope with adversity and pushes us to keep going. Even if the things you seek seem very far away right now, the possibility of a better future is a powerful motivator. Holding onto hope is therefore a key factor in managing your ambitions during a time of crisis. This does not mean surrendering to blind faith because hope is not a state of delusion or denial. It does not disregard the real challenges that evolve during times of exceptional hardship – lost jobs, positive diagnoses, dwindling finances. Hoping is not pretending, it is acknowledging the truth of a situation and working out the best way to get through it. Sometimes your next few moves will be Hobson’s choice but hope shows us that further along, the possibility of real alternatives will start to emerge. Hope requires a certain degree of optimism. But what if you’re simply not wired that way, or circumstances have got too much and you’ve lost sight of it? Here are three small but powerful ways that you can use to find it:

Reframe your setbacks. That ice cream sabotaged your healthy lifestyle goals anyway.

(Image by Heather Barnes at Unsplash).

  1. Acknowledge setbacks, then reframe them. This pandemic has thrown up all manner of significant and sometimes life-altering setbacks. Take some time to acknowledge them and then pay attention to what they offer you – a growth opportunity, a chance to learn something new, to hone your problem-solving skills. This reframing of the situation from a threat to an opportunity can be helpful. Note; it’s not always easy but then lots of worthwhile things aren’t.
  2. Clarify your goals. It’s hard to aim for something when the target isn’t clear. What are you living your life for? What are your deeper values? Knowing what you want can help you prevail despite the obstacles that life throws in your path.
  3. Seek out awe. This sounds quite obscure at first but bear with me. Awe is a sense of inspiration and wonder. Scientific research has shown that awe experiences contribute to feelings of hope. How do you find awe? Look for things bigger than us, for vastness. The ocean, the clouds, the night sky.

No Ambition without Adaptation in Times of Extreme Change

Bear in mind that times of change require flexibility. Uncertainty goes hand-in-hand with change and that is never more true than currently. The status of the Covid-19 virus and its social, political and economic impacts change, seemingly by the hour. Today, we might be healthy, tomorrow, infected and next week, in hospital. When the bedrock of our lives is threatened, our mental and physical health, our loved ones, our safety and security, then keeping hold of our ambitions can seem impossible and even futile.

As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, if we can’t change our situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. We need to recognise our spheres of influence and control. Adaptation is the key here, if we don’t want to abandon our ambitions for the future. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.

What might adaptation look like for you? On a personal level, this shift may take many forms. The first thing may simply be realising that your ambitions have to take a backseat for a while, as you deal with other more pressing issues of health and survival. Maybe the industry you’re in has taken a hit and you need to reskill or update your network. Perhaps you can use your skills for alternative purposes right now – joining a hackathon to generate solutions for global issues or participating in a community action group. Maybe adaptation is more radical and involves downsizing your house, moving to a cheaper place or committing to buying less stuff in order to keep you buoyant through difficult times. Maybe it means leaning on others and admitting vulnerability.

Above all else, we need to include compassion in this process of change – for ourselves and for others and acknowledge that the situation is hard. These are exceptional times we’re living in now – history in the making. It’s natural and normal to feel fearful. It’s ok to worry about negative possibilities and the idea of unfulfilled ambitions. But don’t go down a rabbit hole here. Keep in mind the power of hope and how to cultivate it. Be ready to adapt, even radically if necessary. Look for the silver lining. Maybe it’s not actually silver but dirty grey. Look for it anyway because with a bit (or maybe a lot) of polishing, it will reveal itself eventually. Courage!

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