Clips of President Obama giving a speech in Johannesburg have been doing the rounds and a phrase he used in it has stuck in my mind: “Poverty of Ambition.”
He uses it to refer to a crop of leaders who have only thought about themselves and amassed enormous wealth at the expense others. We definitely have no shortage of these leaders in Kenya. However, it got me thinking: Though many of us have not looted public coffers, so many of us suffer from poverty of ambition.
Maybe we need to challenge how we were conditioned to think about ambition. I recently spoke to someone whose version of ambition was making more money. He was not clear what money would enable him to do; he just wanted more money. In the same speech, Obama alluded to the fact that there are only so many house you can buy, trips you can take, etc. He is right. Even if you had all the money in the world, there is only so many cars that will please you, amount of food you can eat and at some point you will tire of the fake relationships that come your way because of the money.
Ambition, in the traditional way of thinking, is evidenced by progress. And it doesn’t stop there. If our goals only revolve around how great or comfortable our own lives become, then we have not really exploited the potential of our ambition as human beings. So apart from just being focused on money, how does poverty of ambition practically show up?
There are so many people getting up in the morning to go to jobs they hate. They have moaned about these jobs for years, but they will stay because of the money and the social identity it gives them. They will rationalise, time and again, why they cannot leave or change the situation.
Perhaps you run a business that is doing fairly well. It pays for your lifestyle consistently and comfortably. You don’t push the boundaries on what this business would be if you dared to rock the boat a bit. You think certain investments are too expensive yet you will easily spend similar amounts on entertaining yourself or a buying new car.
Maybe you have retired and you are doing nothing. Ambition is not supposed to end at retirement. You have accumulated expertise that can help somebody. You can teach, write, participate in boards or committees.
Maybe you are highly ambitious on all measures professionally but have neglected to teach your own kids the value of hard work. You just buy them things and wonder later how they became so entitled. These are just a few examples and once we broaden the scope of ambition, we can start seeing for ourselves where we may have placed limits on what we can achieve. I am definitely guilty of a few things and I’m now challenged to change.
At the end of the day, I believe true ambition leads to the answer to this question. Whose life have you changed? The vehicle may be different. It could through be running a home, a business, building a career, serving on a school committee etc. What changed because you were present? Even little things have a huge impact. Why would the organisation you work for remember you five years from now? Definitely not because you were gossiping about the boss at lunch time with other forgettable people.
Does the business you are running truly serve and will it be there beyond you? You won’t die with your money so what will you leave your money doing? Will it be left destroying families as they fight over it or will it educate a community? Having money, investments, business, careers, great lifestyles, degrees etc. doesn’t make you ambitious, successful or even interesting. What you do with the resources at your disposal does. So given what you have, do you suffer from Poverty of Ambition?