07 August 2006

Do we need ambition to succeed?

Do we need ambition to succeed?

I was asked soon after we decided on the question for next Sunday, what 'ambition' and 'success' have to do with philosophy? This reminded me of something I read a long time ago.

These two shoe manufacturers appointed a new salesman each to cover a territory that included a big island in the middle of no where. So Mr A, from company A, paid a visit to his new market. After two days on the island he cables his boss saying, "no market Stop people do not wear shoes Stop back friday Stop" Mr B, from company B, visited the place a few weeks later. In less than 48 hours he cables his boss saying, "great opportunities Stop people do not wear shoes Stop back in two weeks Stop"

Of course we don't have to spend two weeks to discuss 'ambition' and 'success' just because we can see a philosophical opportunity here. But we know what Mr B was on about! Fortunately, others have already covered this territory, so let's see how we fare.

The first set of cells that managed to replicate themselves, just because they thought it was a smart thing to do, might be regarded as the first success story on Earth. They might not have been too ambitious, but successful nevertheless. The same could be said of any living creature that has ever or will ever live on this planet. A success against all odds and a victory after a hazardous journey. Of course, success these days takes a different form. Having at least one member in a pub philosophy group must certainly count as a success!

Ambition, as Spinoza tells us, is something we have for the benefit of others. We are ambitions so that others can 'enjoy' the sight of us basking in the glory of our own success! And it seems that neither the law of diminishing returns nor the second law of thermodynamics apply to ambition that succeeds. On the other hand, fortune, and hence success, favours the young (men), who are impetuous, less cautious and more aggressive, because they command it with more audacity. Machiavelli never misses a trick when he is writing about these things.

Common sense morality also tells us that we have to ask ourselves, "success, at what price?" We might be ambitious and we might be successful, but are these the same if we exploit others on the way? Or, whether things would be different if we achieve success by mere hard work and our own merits? But if the latter does take place, what happened to causal determinism and evolutionary biology? And can we assume that our success is not someone else's failure? Moreover, are 'success' and 'ambition' win-win strategies or zero sum games?

Success must also be considered in a context. Not only do we need to say what we mean by success, but also whether success implies happiness. Is our success achieved at the price of making others unhappy? And is success a causal condition for happiness? We certainly know that success is not a sufficient condition for happiness. So what are the necessary conditions that would link ambition, success and happiness together?

Of course, we can always try to find the answer to these questions by applying some of our own medicine on ourselves and then evaluate the meeting to see whether it was a success on Sunday.

See you Sunday, Lawrence

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