We’ve been working over the years on an idea “The Alphabet of Achievement.” 26 topics, one for each letter of the alphabet that offer areas to focus upon that may help us get better at the things we care about. We’ll be introducing one every two weeks in 2024 starting this week with the letter A.
A: Ambition, achievement, and aspiration: for each of these have admiration.
Setting goals, striving, and seeking improvement aren’t things to shy away from or be embarrassed about. These are essential elements of a well-lived life. They become a source of satisfaction. By striving, we thrive. Fulfillment is found in aiming high and working hard.
This mindset looks and sounds like, “I want to set my sights on great heights. I have goals. I dare to dream. I desire to aspire. Regardless of what I accomplish, I will continue to aim higher. There are things I want to do, to accomplish. I want to get better and am willing to work to improve.”
Unfortunately, competence isn’t always celebrated. Dedication can be denigrated, and ambition assaulted. Have you ever had a job where you enthusiastically worked to perform well only to be told by a more “experienced” colleague to “cool your jets, hot shot, you’re making the rest of us look bad?” There’s a predominant mindset where those that seek to step out and showcase excellence aren’t met with appreciation but derision.
The crab effect suggests that the masses seek to pullback or sabotage the efforts of exemplars just like when several crabs are put in a bucket the one that is on the verge of succeeding in scrambling to freedom is pulled back into the bucket by others. A definition of the effect is where “members of a group will attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others.”
Henry David Thoreau gave us the quote, “Envy is the tax which all distinctions must pay.” In other words, when we stand out as being good at something, we’re putting a target on our back. As Robert Greene wrote, “The higher the monkey climbs on the pole, the more you can see its ass.” It’s an unflattering way to suggest that we aren’t inclined to feel warm and fuzzy towards those that climb the ladder of life above us. The idea of tall poppy syndrome comes from the UK and Australia and represents the idea that those that stand out from the crowd are more likely to draw criticism than celebration. In yet other places, the phrase the nail that sticks out gets hammered hardest captures the same sentiment.
Outliers representing excellence aren’t necessarily aspirational in groups or cultures that would rather emphasize egalitarianism. Choosing the path of ambition, achievement, and aspiration won’t necessarily win you friends. It’s the path of performance and not conforming. It can be uncomfortable sticking out. A is not for Attacking.
Separately, excellence has been watered down through social media. We confuse wishing with working. Dreaming is deeply different from doing. Power lies in producing not in posturing. Ideas are insolence. Excellence lies in execution. Social media is the Stevia of success. It showcases the artificial sweetener, the false fruit of easy outcomes. There’s a vast gulf between the photoshopped strutting of a peacock and the patient pursuit of a lion after its prey. Do you want to invest in an illusion or exert effort developing excellence? Will you opt to make noise or develop poise? Will you do the work or play the part? Are you chasing likes or legacy? A is not for Acting.
Even if we’ve escaped the veneer of excellence presented as posing on social media, excellence earned through effort has somewhere along the way, become something we look at with a little less enthusiasm. We’ve assaulted ambition as a virtue and replaced it with a quest for victimhood. We’ve abandoned agency in favor of fighting about layers of oppression. If we’re not successful, it’s not our fault, it’s the structure of society. Others have conspired to keep us away from what we’re due. We’ve traded effort for entitlement. A is not for Activist. It’s not about complaining. Nor is A for apathy. It’s not about giving up.
Our As are about action. Progress is achieved by those with a bias to act. Doers are hungry to get to the meat of the matter. They are inspired by impatience. Developing a bias for action goes a long way to compensating for an absence of resources or skills. Doing beats thinking. Acting beats strategizing. We can deliberate and dither while our will withers. All talk and no action lead to noise and no traction. The decision is in the do. Acting in the face of uncertainty is the only way to build certainty. Our type As are infused with restless energy. They are imbued with a get up and go. A sense of urgency drives our type A’s. The ambitious embrace the idea that life’s too short to sit around waiting to be told what to do. Having too little time is less of a problem than believing that we have tons of time.
When we act, we communicate to ourselves and the world that we’re intentional and serious. Others gravitate to our orbit and want to help. Additionally, once we begin to act, we begin to learn. We can adapt on the fly much better than when standing still. Once we get going, we’re like a snowball rolling downhill. Momentum becomes our friend. Moreover, action is embedded in satisfaction. Developing a bias for action isn’t just productive, it’s good for the soul.
We’re creating our own form of Type A personality. Yes, we’re go-getters with a bias for action. Make BFA your BFF… Achievers want to act. They believe in their own agency. Initiative oozes out of them as they intend to make things happen. They’re anything but passive. They have the aim of an archer. They’re purposeful and focused.
If victory we want to see, then our best we must aspire to be. Admiring ambition, achievement, and aspiration is honoring the ancient Greek concept of Arete. Originating more than 3,000 years ago, Arete was synonymous with personal excellence. It was held up as the principal point of life. Its pursuit was seen as noble and necessary. It was about becoming the best version of yourself and encompassed every aspect of life. To explore Arete was to seek to realize personal potential. Arete is excellence as expressed as effectiveness. It involves physical capabilities like strength and endurance. It involves mental capabilities like knowledge and quick thinking. It also involves character virtues like courage and self-restraint. Arete, like excellence, could mean different things to different people. Its common characteristic was that it was a positive attribute and one that involved deep effort and focus to achieve.
Additionally, Arete reflects capability. Arete is the idea that success reflects prowess. Our responsibility is to seek to create competence and capability across as many areas of our lives as possible. We must work to develop ourselves to be useful to the world around us. The effort to develop our personal excellence is fulfilling and provides meaning to our life regardless of what we ultimately end up doing.
In the New Testament book of Philippians, verse 4:8, Paul offers support for the idea of Arete as excellence and aspirational, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (arete) and if there is anything worthy of praise, think of these things.” Arete is seen as a high good, something worthy of appreciation and aspiration. It’s also considered as a mark of quality. All to suggest that Arete is a solid idea upon which to bet.
A story that captures the compelling calling of Arete comes from Socrates over 2,000 years ago. Socrates called the story “The Choice of Hercules.” As a young man, Hercules finds himself at the proverbial “fork in the road.” He pauses to ponder his future wondering which path to pursue. He’s faced with two options each populated by a gorgeous gal, each no less than a Goddess. On one path Hercules meets Kakia. Kakia bounds forward to intercept Hercules before he can consider the other direction. Kakia introduces herself telling Hercules that her friends call her Happiness. She giddily offers that if Hercules comes her way, she’ll show him a life of luxury and ease that is beyond his wildest dreams. The direction of Kakia’s will be pleasant, easy, and filled with happiness. After Kakia makes her pitch, Hercules is approached by the second Goddess. She presents as a more natural beauty whose name is Arete. Arete communicates that her name represents excellence which is earned through struggle and sacrifice. Arete presents as less striking and flamboyant. She is softer spoken and offers the opposite message of Kakia. Arete’s path presents no ease and no shortcuts. Going with Arete will be a journey that is long, hard, and dangerous. Should Hercules go down this road, he will be tested more than he can imagine. There will be challenges, loss, and suffering. Arete tells Hercules, “Nothing that is really good and admirable is granted by the Gods to men without some effort and application.” By choosing Arete’s path, though difficult, Hercules is told he will have the chance to learn self-discipline and courage. He will earn what Arete offers as true, lasting happiness from facing challenges. After being presented with the two paths, Hercules chooses that offered by Arete and encounters the Twelve Labours that forge him into the legend he’s destined to become.
Hercules had the wisdom to realize that fulfillment lies on a road paved with effort. Comfort and ease aren’t the objectives. Challenge forges our capabilities. It’s like Tim Gallwey writes in The Inner Game of Tennis, “The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents. He values the obstacles the wave puts between him and his goal of riding the wave to the beach. Why? Because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort.” The wave is the way. The wave isn’t something to avoid. The challenge is to be sought and embraced. Our surfer surfs as Gallwey writes, “He is not out to show himself or the world how great he is, but is simply involved in the exploration of his latent capacities.” To Gallwey to win is to overcome obstacles enroute to an objective. The value of the win becomes proportional to the size of the challenge. Achievement is about accomplishing things through one’s own efforts. It’s about giving in order to get. We sacrifice, struggle, and suffer to earn self-satisfaction, pride, and purpose.
Philosopher, Terry Patten, wrote A New Republic of the Heart. In it, Patten suggests that our satisfaction in life increases as we shift from “seeker” to “practitioner.” To Patten, seekers want a particular lifestyle whereas practitioners are interested in living it. They want the process more than the outcome. Success isn’t a style we can simply put on. Success stems from sacrifice, struggle, and suffering. Strivers are willing to work and happy to hurt. They recognize that achievement comes with a price. A price they are willing to pay in terms of personal effort. Embed ambition in your mission. Be willing to perspire for what you aspire. Take time to conceive of what you aim to achieve. Ambition, achievement, and aspiration are for those willing to earn everything. It’s for those that recognize that the only way to create credibility is to consistently contribute competence. Give high grades to this kind of Type A. Having an aim makes life a more fun game.
It’s cool to care. It’s rare to dare. At other’s efforts seek to stare and plot a path to get there. Mark Twain wisely observed, “To live a fulfilled life, we need to keep creating the ‘what is next’, of our lives. Without dreams and goals there is no living, only merely existing, and that is not why we are here.” Ambition, Achievement, and Aspiration lift us from the mundane of our days and sets our sights on a higher calling.
Some questions to consider developing an admiration for ambition, achievement, and aspiration:
- Am I willing to make a bet on Arete?
- What are my goals?
- Where do I see myself: (in one year, five years, and ten years)
- In my work life,
- In my relationships,
- In my learning/education,
- In my hobbies?
- At what am I aiming?
- Of what am I capable?
- What things am I pretty good at?
- Are there skills or subjects that I would like to become an expert at?
- How far can I go?
- How good can I get?
- What kind of character do I want to create for myself?
- Do I have a sense of urgency about my direction?
- Am I eager to get going on a project?
- What action can I take right now to get clear about my goals?
A is NOT for Attacking, Acting, or Apathy.
A is for Action.
A is for Arete which is seeking personal excellence.
A is for Ambition, Achievement, and Aspiration.