What makes a person decide to do something - or not do something? Why do some people climb mountains and others find the tasks so overwhelming they can't fathom the idea? Some thoughts and reflections by Steve Scher on the idea of ambition.
Steven Scher Steven Scher
UW professor & former KUOW radio host
March 14, 2017

Two people, standing in a valley staring up at the mountaintop, can offer up two very different reactions. 

The first person says, “I am going to the summit if it kills me!”

The second says, “I’m good right here.”

There isn’t really a halfway with ambition. It’s like pregnancy. You are or you aren’t.  You can be settled and satisfied with the path ahead, or gnawed at from the inside out. 

Ambition is a nattering companion. It whispers in your ear all the time, trying to get you to do things that just might not be in your own best interests. Ask Macbeth.

But then again, they might. 

Ambition gets you started up the mountain slope, even if it takes training, strength and a little luck to get you to the top.

Ambition alone, well, it won’t do. 

I have had the life-long experience of hearing that little pipsqueak in my ear, telling me I want this or that — garner success as a novelist, rise to the top of journalism, be an award-winning director, live like a comic book superhero.

But ambition never really tells me how. Ambition never quiets down enough to let the other thinkers that also live in my head actually make a plan. I mean, just how do I go about gaining superpowers? I am not from another planet, I don’t have the resources of a millionaire, and I am not in contact with any radioactive spiders.

Ambition can be the voice of desire without direction. Ambition can be all dessert and no vegetables.

It doesn’t have to be, of course. 

Ambition properly fueled up by studiously researched goals and well-designed strategies — like following #radioactivespiderbites
on twitter — is the rocket to the top.

If you can learn what steps to take, who to ask for help, when to listen, and when to act, you might be able to turn your ambition into a bright star. 

Otherwise, ambition is just the well-lubricated guy in the bar shouting about his amazing, simply amazing brilliance, while everyone else is slowly edging towards the door. 

It took me way too long a time — really, truly an excessive amount of time — to stop telling myself, “It’s going happen. I’m going to be a great writer. My books will be the talk of the town.” 

It has only been in these hoary decades of mine that I’ve come to a smidgen of maturity. I can finally hear the more sober voice that says, “You know, you really should just start the work. Shut up about all that other stuff.”

Charlie Brown, that wonderful, hapless, chap found himself in a deep funk one strip. He recounts a dream where he’s an old man, onstage, being introduced “as the former great.” He wakes up before he finds out what he was great at! 

Some folks feel Charlie’s a loser. Not me. I get him. He is ambitious. He just doesn’t know how to take the first step. That voice is too loud. 

But he sees the mountaintop. One step at a time, Charlie Brown, even if it is just another step towards Lucy and the football you will never quite kick. 

This article originally appeared in our Sept/Oct 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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