On Persistence of Ambition.

Our neighbor, up the street and around the corner, has a huge tree stump smack in the middle of their front yard. It’s the kind of stump that you can’t help but notice. They’re taking it out the hard way. Instead of outsourcing to an expensive stump removal business, they’re digging it out by hand using shovels and a handsaw to cut away exposed roots as they dig. 

This is an ambitious project.

It will take them many months to complete it, probably about the same amount of time it would take to write a book. I should mention, the couple is an older couple, maybe in their late 60s. They seem to live simply, and they take great pride in their modest yard.

We have a funny relationship with ambition in our culture. It’s both frowned upon ‘his ambition makes him greedy’and celebrated ‘she’s an ambitious young woman.’Ambition is especially suspect when it gets out of control and transforms into selfishness or greed. However, the persistence it takes to achieve our ambitions is often under-rewarded, mainly because we’re an outcome driven society. We measure and reward results, not the persistence that it takes to get them.

We also have a peculiar relationship with persistence.

In the marketing world, persistence is often aligned with the nagging tenacity of win-the-sale-at-all-costs marketers, spammers, or brands that relentlessly push unwanted products down people’s throats. This form of persistence, sometimes called advertising, gives well-meaning persistence a bad rap.

Ultimately, persistence is the only way to get the hard and valuable work done. It’s the only way to realize our ambitions. All valuable work is hard work, as such, it requires persistence to get to the end. 

Perhaps it’s not ambition or persistence that’s the problem, but rather, our disconnected views of our relationship of them? We aspire mostly to the ambition of outcome. We want the things we want, but often overlook, ignore, or aren’t willing to do the difficult work it takes to achieve them. Worthy ambitions are inseparable from persistence. 

Ambition without persistence can take the form of passive hope or ravenous greed. Persistence without ambition can take the form of shoddy marketing or busyness-syndrome with an undefined outcome.

As we go about setting out sights on our goals, resolutions, or however we define success, be sure to ask yourself or your team: what sustained and persistent effort it’s going to take to attain our ambitions? And, are our current ambitions worth the sustained persistence it will take to achieve them?

If we’re going to realize our potential, follow our calling, do valuable work, live fulfilled and meaningful lives, we need a more ambitious definition of success. And, perhaps we need to shift the reward centers away from ambition and move them more deeply into persistence.

My invitation to you:

Have ambitions that are worthy of your persistence. Be ambitious to the impact of your goals. Be ambitious about how you apply your energy to the world. Be ambitious for the purpose your serve. Be persistent in your work and life to serve your purpose. Keep digging away to expose the roots of your ambitions. And, be courageous in defining what success looks like, for you, for your work, for your precious time on this lovely planet. 

The late, great poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?
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