One of the keenest memories of my senior year in college was standing at night on the roof of a building on the north side of Chicago, surveying the twinkling lights of the skyline. It was a marvelous panorama, sparkling and vast, inviting and ominous at the same time. It represented for me the world after graduation in all its complexity.
The view was both alluring and frightening. I had a deep urge to accomplish something significant, to make a difference in the world. Yet I was also gripped by my own insignificance and unsure about my next steps. As I faced leaving the safe confines of college, I had a powerful urge to achieve, but no clue about what that meant.
I spent that night wrestling with my own ambition, and that is my subject for today: ambition. How do you think about your own future and what you want to achieve and how far you want to go? As you leave this place, is it right to give full throttle to your ambition, to strive for greatness? Or is that urge an unworthy siren song that would pull you away from your true self and from a calling to work for the common good?
Today, many of you may identify with the young Abraham Lincoln, whose early career, without much distinction, left him with more than his share of self-doubt. From his teenage years onward, Lincoln was keen to advance. His law partner William Herndon would say later that Lincoln’s ambition was “a little engine that knew no rest.” Yet in 1841, the melancholy Lincoln, doubting whether his life would amount to anything, confessed to a friend, “I would be more than willing to die, except that I have done nothing to make any human remember that I have lived.” All of us aspire to use our God-given talents to do something for which others will remember that we have lived.
Are we to nourish ambition as it wells up within our souls, or are we to kill it off? Does ambition constitute a virtue or a vice? Which of these American proverbs are we to heed: “Ride your ambitions to the skies,” or “Ambition destroys its possessor.” How are we to discriminate among ambitions that are proper and those that are not?
How do you relate the drive for achievement, to make a name for yourself, with the commitment to live for the common good — Wake Forest’s motto Pro Humanitate? How does one come to terms with these conflicting expectations: striving and serving?
This morning let me offer four words of advice.
First, don’t attempt to stifle ambition itself. Your finest hopes and dreams spring from the core of your very being. The process of suppressing ambition reminds me of Dorothy Sayers’ description of “trying to force a large and obstreperous cat into a small basket. As fast as you tuck in the head, the tail comes out; when you have at length confined the hind legs, the fore paws come out and scratch.” You shouldn’t restrain the force of your own person. The drive to accomplish is a good gift. The question is simply to what ends do we channel our ambition.
Second, recognize that the ambitious path is a dangerous one. Ambition is not evenly distributed, as Joseph Epstein has noted: “Some people burn with it, while others, apparently wrapped in metaphysical asbestos, never feel its heat.” For those of you, like Lincoln, whose ambition is a little engine that never rests, you will trod a path of great opportunity and of great peril.
One reason is that success rarely quenches ambition’s thirst. Benjamin Franklin, a deeply ambitious man, once noted that ambition never has the good fortune to satisfy us. Its appetite grows keener by indulgence. One achievement does not reduce the quest for the next. Two of the most famous people I know seemed to hunger for achievement and recognition after they had made it to the top. To me it seemed odd, and sad, that after all of their world-class achievements, they could not simply relax, look back, and revel in all that had been accomplished. Even in retirement, they were still hungry for more.
Third, in the short term, be patient. In this turbulent economy, many of you will not land the job of your dreams or the graduate or professional school of your dreams. You may have to earn your keep doing things unrelated to your college major or your own cherished aspirations. My advice is simple: work hard, hone your skills, learn about yourself, and about people different from you. Remain flexible, keep learning, seek out mentors, and be vigilant for opportunities.
Few people who have gone on to accomplish great things have done so without periods in their life when the way ahead seemed unclear, when circumstance was frustrating, and when one pressed on simply because it was the right thing to do. It is facing those difficulties and challenges that will refine your character that will steel you to become the kind of leader capable of achieving great things.
Finally, have the courage to be bold and unconventional in your ambitions. If in the short term you need patience, in the long term you need to be expansive in your thinking. Don’t settle for meager ambitions: the well-paying job, the nice home, the BMW in the driveway. Think more boldly about what you hope to become and to achieve.
Can you link your hopes and dreams to a larger purpose? In a world of daunting challenges, we need your ingenuity and drive to build institutions that we can be proud of: companies, schools, medical systems, law firms, houses of worship, relief agencies. We need to refresh our political institutions — local, state, and national. We need to recalibrate how media can serve society, how Western nations relate to the Islamic world, and how the United States and the world can develop sustainable energy platforms. In all areas of life, public and private, we need young people to rethink and recast our core institutions.
We live in challenging and uncertain times. They call for more ambition, not less. As you leave Wake Forest today, I call upon you to unleash all of your energy and ingenuity upon the challenges of our time. Find your passions and fix them upon large and important purposes. The powerful spirit of Pro Humanitate has animated Wake Forest for 175 years. I urge you, in its sway, to aim high, to make your plans so bold that they would stagger us. To that end, I bid you Godspeed.
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