Humans are driven to act by two primary sources of motivation: fear and desire. We avoid what is harmful, what is painful, what has the capacity to damage us. We strive for what is beneficial, what is pleasant, what has the capacity to fulfill our hopes and dreams.
The late 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow famously divided these motivations into his lower and upper hierarchy of needs.
At the lower-level, he covered our basic needs for food and shelter, the need to feel safe and secure and out of harm’s way, and the need to be loved and to feel a sense of belonging. At the higher-level, he placed our need for self-esteem and confidence, as well as our ultimate desire to self-actualize — to reach our full potential in becoming who we can be.
The idea was relatively simple: Before we can strive for our higher-level needs, we need to first do the work to ensure that the lower-level needs are met. We can talk about potential all day, but if there is no food on the table, or if there is an imminent threat of war, whatever potential you have simply has to take a backseat to more immediate, survival-related concerns.
But needs that have to do with food, shelter, and safety are obvious and apparent. They are the physical needs of the body. Very few of us feel any confusion about where to draw the line there. You are either starving or not. In the case of a dangerous attack on your livelihood, you will die sometime soon or be harmed or live to see another day.
As we move up the hierarchy, however, things start to get more nebulous. The needs become emotional rather than physical. It’s one thing to know that we all crave love and belonging, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually know what they are, how we experience these needs, and what is enough. With things like self-esteem, respect, and confidence, things become even hazier — there is no easy way to even define what they are.
Nonetheless, once we move past the physical needs at the lower rungs of the hierarchy, one of the first questions we face is the question of ambition. Indeed, the final level is about self-actualization — the grandest ambition of all. The question we have to face is: Should we be ambitious or not?
If we look at the world around us, some of the most insidious and damaging things are caused by ambition. People hunger for power and for status and for money, without any regard for others. These things aren’t necessarily bad in themselves. They are simply tools. But many of the people who wield these tools end up causing more harm than good if they are judged on any reasonable moral scale — whether that be a scale of virtue, utilitarianism, deontology, mere compassion, or some other philosophical or religious ethic that guides our collective compass.
Of course, many ambitious people also do great things. But there is an inherent paradox involved in deciding to use ambition as a means to do good in the world. Who are you to decide what is good? Or what is wrong? Generally, anyone who makes themselves the judge of good and evil at the expense of some other side is probably not the best person to make that judgment. While some people cause harm in the world for inherently selfish reasons, many seemingly good people often indirectly cause damage with their ambitions because they think they know better than others. It’s a different kind of arrogance and selfishness but none the less dangerous.
But there is a thread here: Both of these kinds of ambition come down to insecurity. They are unfulfilled versions of our need for love, belonging, and self-esteem that we then project out into the world so that we can get something from it rather than do the work to look inside. The problem is that most people immediately go from the level of survival to the level of self-actualization, without considering the emotions in between.
There is a big but subtle difference between ambition driven by insecurity and ambition driven by the desire to self-actualize. The former is born out of not feeling enough — its source is either self-hate, or self-disrespect, or a combination. The latter, however, is simply an affirmation of life — it an attempt to do the most that one can do with the body one has been given. It doesn’t compete with others but with itself. It doesn’t project its own hate and moralizing onto the world because it has already dealt with them internally.
We all have various insecurities that take form in different ways. Growing up around other people who are different from us naturally does that to us. Some people want to look better. Others wish they were smarter according to some general standard or test. We compare ourselves to supermodels and billionaires, hoping to mold our image according to theirs.
But here’s the thing: Anytime you go on to compare your natural body and its kinks to that of a Victoria’s Secret model, you are engaging in an unconscious act of self-hate, fueling a seed placed in you by a culture that has conditioned you from birth. Anytime you make it your goal to make as much money as someone like Bill Gates, you are disrespecting yourself and your individuality, unconsciously telling yourself that you, yourself, are not a person worthy of respect, so you must seek it by imitating others.
Of course, it’s one thing to use that supermodel as inspiration to be healthier or to be inspired by what someone like Bill Gates has done and pick up on some of his ways of thinking, but that’s generally not how most of us act. Deep down, we imitate and we envy on our road to ambition because we haven’t done the work to sort out our need for love and our need for respect. And because these things unconsciously guide us, we act out of fear. We act as if we would if our very survival is on the line. And so, our ambitions lead us down paths that end up causing harm to ourselves and others, even if we end up materially successful by any and all standards.
The problem here, however, isn’t ambition. Ambition is and can be a beautiful thing. It is the ultimate act of both self-love and self-respect. It accepts the responsibility of whatever body that it occupies, and it does what it can to ensure that its potential isn’t wasted — not for others, not for money or status or power, but because that’s what it means to live a full life. And in doing so, in caring for itself in that way, it generally ends up doing more good than harm in a way that most of us can appreciate.
As a young boy, Maslow was no stranger to something like prejudice. His parents were first-generation Jewish immigrants who had moved to New York City to escape persecution under the old Russian Empire.
Though he was raised in a fairly diverse neighborhood there, antisemitism wasn’t uncommon at the time, and he would experience his fair share of discrimination — being targeted in his own neighborhood, gangs throwing rocks at him. Even in his own household, his mother held racist views against others that would later draw him away from her.
As Maslow began studying the workings of the human mind and body, however, he turned his vision in a different direction. Psychology had traditionally focused on the negative. And sure, traumas and problems and repressions matter. But he envisioned a more humanistic approach — one that reaches further; idealistic sure but also realistic. One that focused on the lesser aspects of being human — things he had direct experience with in his own life — but one that ultimately went beyond them.
Ambition is our attempt to go beyond ourselves, and true ambition is beyond insecurity. It’s not about being better than this person or that person, or accumulating this thing or that thing, or even forcing this kind of moral high-ground or another, but it’s about experiencing the full spectrum of what a human body can be and do. It acts out of pure desire rather than an abstracted away fear we have about not feeling enough.
To experience this full spectrum, to go beyond insecurity, however, requires the emotional labor that most people forgo. It requires looking at oneself as one is, accepting that and respecting it. Rather than suppression or self-delusion, it’s a call for expression and self-awareness. Before we can go out into the world and ask for more, we have to first be internally full.
People often see a paradox in achievement — that to strive for more somehow cheapens what is. In the case of achievement driven by insecurity, that is generally true. But true achievement, or ambition, isn’t really about better or worse, more or less, but it’s about becoming different. It’s about novelty and interestingness and growth — all of which are nonlinear. But in the timeless words of the philosopher Eric Hoffer: “To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are.”
What we are is often flawed, in various complex ways, in ways that make us insecure. And if we build our ambitions on this kind of foundation, our ambitions, too, will be flawed. If we deny these insecurities, they will come back with a vengeance when we least expect them to.
True courage in life isn’t born when we face whatever monsters hide in the external world. It’s born when we face ourselves. And it’s this courage that ultimately inspires us to reach our potential.
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