“Ambition is the immoderate desire of power”
Ambition is generally thought of as a positive trait. After all, our society needs people to be ambitious so they can continue to generate wealth for the elites within our society. In reality, however, ambition is simply powered by desires, and if those desires are fulfilled we experience pleasure, at least for a while, and if they are not we experience pain. Underneath all of this is the will-to-life, as Schopenhauer calls it, or simply the survival instinct.
Most people associate power with money, and for others it is fame. But either way, the primary driver is to survive in the most powerful way possible. And so people happily identify with something that will increase their power, and they go chasing after it. In the business world, it is quite common to see people putting everything on the line for a promotion and/or pay increase. In academia, it is very common to find academics seeking to promote their own work and undermine that of others. Writers, artists, actors and many involved in the arts are desperate for recognition and will do almost anything to get it.
Ambition is always a state of pain since desires are always a state of want. To suggest that people should not be ambitious would be considered a blasphemy, although it’s a fact that modest people, with modest ambitions, generally seem to be happiest.
Ambition also shows its face in many everyday situations. People often display ambition when talking about quite ordinary things- the house they live in, the school their kids go to, the holiday they just had – and it is quite common to see one person trying to outdo the other. Even in so called spiritual matters ambition often appears. If someone is following an ascetic regime they may crave to have greater power over their appetites, which is of course just another appetite, and a desire for power – this time over themselves.
The only person that is immune to ambition is the person who has lost or at least minimized their desires. I’ll give the last word to the Tao te Ching:
Empty of desire, perceive mystery,
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.