Don't Be Ambitious, Be MOTIVATED!

Uploaded 5/14/2024, approx. 12 minute read

You are ambitious? Do you want to be Sam Vaknin when you grow up? No? Shame on you. You have just mortified me. What wrong have I done to you?

Today we are going to discuss ambition.

Ambition is distinct from motivation. And I propose ambition.

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, a former visiting professor of psychology, a current professor of psychology and business studies in CEAP's Commonwealth Institute for Advanced Professional Studies, Cambridge in Birmingham, United Kingdom, Ontario, Canada and the inevitable outreach campus in Lagos, Nigeria.

Hasn't this been fun? And yet now, shvan panim in shoshanim, we have to settle down into our daily learning moment or teaching moment.

Okay. If you have no ambition, no goals, no expectations and no mother-in-law, you can never fail. You can never let yourself down.

This is a simple fact that the foundation and basis of my nothingness approach to life.

But you can say, okay, but ambitions and goals and expectations are good for you. They drive you forward. They induce personal growth and development. It's all true, but we tend to confuse ambition with motivation.

And that's a bad thing.

Ambition is a form of internalized social control. It's a form of conditioning. It renders you just one more rat in the race, converts you into a slave, slave to money, slave to status, slave to social recognition, slave to relative positioning.

It conditions you. You are not your own master when you're ambitious.

Watch the video, how the narcissist conditions you.

A narcissistic culture and civilization are likely to inculcate in you and to encourage, egg on and foster ambition.

Ambition is a major way, especially in capitalistic societies, but not only, is a major way to make sure that you conform, that you don't stray, that you toe the line, that you're not defined and reckless and consummation, rejecting of authority, that you obey social norms and mores, because these are the rules of the game.

If you want to get ahead, you need to play the game.

I've read it in Robert Green's books and in Jordan Peterson's books, actually.

Okay, this social conformity is not such a bad thing if it is not taken to extreme.

Ambition, though, is a private case of what we call extrinsic motivation. We differentiate between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

Of course, extrinsic motivation is an external incentive to engage in a specific activity, especially motivation that arises out of the expectation of punishment or reward.

If you complete a disliked chore in exchange for payment, that's an example of extrinsic motivation. If you escalate your behavior online in order to garner attention and narcissistic supply, that's an example of an extrinsic motivation.

If you drive your life forward and you create a life plan, replete with goals and the methods to obtain these goals, just because you want to be appreciated by your peers or acquire a higher status or have more money in the bank, that's extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself or pleasure in accomplishing something. There is genuine interest in the subject studies rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained such as money, cost credits or whatever.

So this is extrinsic. That's what's intrinsic.

An ambition is 100% extrinsic.

Now that's a bad thing. A 100% extrinsic motivation is a really bad thing because it creates dependency on the environment, on the sources of reward, on society at large. It prevents or reduces independence, personal autonomy and agency.

Ambition has several elements which render it essentially a pathology.

First of all, ambition is counterfactual. The ambition says, if only I where, if only I succeeded, if only, it's a scenario of the future which at this stage has no connection to reality or to the facts and this is known in philosophy as a counterfactual.

So ambition is a close cousin of fantasy and fantasy is a defense mechanism.

Now daydreaming and fantasizing are not all bad. They are the foundation upon which we construct planning and projects and somehow get on with our lives.

But when fantasy is the core feature of your life, for example in narcissism, then it's a problem.

And in the case of ambition, fantasy is the driving force. There is what Freud used to call ego ideal. There's an image of yourself of how you should be, how you ought to be and then you mold yourself, you shape yourself in accordance with this image.

But this image is usually divorced from reality and sets you up for failure, frustration and ultimately aggression, self-directed aggression or other directed aggression.

The counterfactual element in ambition, the fantastic element in ambition, therefore the grandiose element in ambition is a major problem.

And remember we are talking about the differences between ambition and motivation.

We come to motivation in a bit.

Now ambition is also compulsive. When you are in the throes of ambition, when you are in the thrall of ambition, when you are a slave to ambition, there's nothing you can do about it. You are not in control of yourself. You are not in control of your impulses, your drives, your urges, your needs. Everything spins out of control.

So there's compulsivity here. The message in ambition is if only you were to get to the promised land, if only you were to shape yourself in accordance with the ideal image of yourself, if only you were to attain money, power, sex, whatever, if only you were to realize or actualize your goals, then your anxiety would vanish and you would live in harmony, a perfect life of bliss.

And this of course generates compulsion because the comparison between the fantasy embedded in the ambition and your dreary drab reality becomes intolerable. It generates what is known in psychology as a dissonance. And dissonance always results in anxiety.

To mitigate and ameliorate the anxiety, ambition drives you to become someone else, not you. Ambition is a betrayal of who you are, not self-actualization, not self-realization. Ambition is not about becoming a better you, it's about becoming not you. And it's compulsive. It's out of your control. You can't help it.

Of course ambition involves motivation and that's a source of confusion. People say I'm ambitious, that's a good thing because I'm motivated to accomplish things, I'm motivated to do things. Ambition results in motivation, but it is a background process. The motivation is evident and visible and recognizable and discernible and conscious. The ambition is the hidden text, the occult background, the psychodynamic processes which are somehow embedded in the background, although many of them are conscious.

So ambition and motivation go hand in hand, but you could have motivation without being ambitious. And by the way you could have an ambition without motivation. You could just daydream, you could just fantasize and never do anything about it.

Now ambition involves a conviction. Ambition is an ideology, it's a worldview, it's a theory about other people, theory of mind, theory about how the world works, a working model and it's a philosophy. It's a philosophy that says that happiness or at least contentment, egosyntony, they are conditioned on the attainment of accomplishments, but not just any accomplishment, socially recognized, socially condoned accomplishments, accomplishments that generate attention, approbation, status and so on.

So ambition is about society, not about you. Ambition is a way to position yourself in the hierarchy of society via your accomplishments. So it's a social construct.

That's a huge difference between ambition and motivation. That's why we say that ambition is an extrinsic motivation, motivation that comes from the outside, not from the inside.

Happiness is conditioned on and is the outcome of socially recognized accomplishments. Increasing one's possessions is one such accomplishment and it is the heart of capitalism of course.

So ambition is very often linked to consumerism, very often linked to wealth accumulation, very often linked to doing business. And more generally, ambition is connected to busyness, keeping busy. It's as if ambition distracts you from asking the really important questions.

Who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going?

Ambition provides you with an exoskeleton, an external agenda which fulfills your life to the brim and leaves you no time to contemplate.

So ambition is not only compulsive, it's all pervasive. It fulfills every niche and every nook and cranny of your existence. And it often translates into physical things, physical possessions, physical events, other people's presence, other people's appreciation and admiration, narcissistic supply.

Everything coming from the outside mediated via physical objects, some of them human, some of them not.

Motivation is internal, not external. Motivation is never compulsive. Motivation is not external reference point. You're happy when you're motivated. You're happy because you've accomplished something to yourself. You are your own judge, you're your own audience and the happiness stems from the inside. It's utterly independent of the opinions of other people or even the presence of other people. It's not connected to any possession or wealth or material goods.

Motivation is an internal dialogue between you and yourself, a form of self elevation, the euphoria that emanates from surmounting an obstacle, overcoming an impediment, making yourself better.

Motivation is to do about becoming more of you, a better you, while ambition is focused on becoming not you, becoming something that society can recognize, accept and reward you for.

Motivation is the impetus that gives purpose or direction to behavior. It operates in humans at a conscious or unconscious level. This is known as unconscious motivation.

Motives are either psychological, primary or organic motives such as hunger or thirst, the need to sleep.

As you see, these are not dependent on the opinions of other people, on societal approbation and so on and so forth.

Motivation could be personal, social, secondary motives such as affiliation, competition, individual interests and goals. In this case, this is where ambition may come in if it acquires a compulsive nature. And we should draw this important, I have to repeat this important distinction between internal motivating forces and external factors such as rewards or punishments that encourage or discourage certain behaviors. This is a crucial difference between ambition and motivation.

In conditioning, motivations are the variables that collectively alter the effectiveness of reinforces. This is known as an establishing operation. So motivation in conditioning are all kinds of things we can change. We can change the environment, we can change speech acts, we can kind of play with the parameters. In order to induce reinforcement or to render reinforcement more effective.

So a person's willingness to exert physical or mental effort in the pursuit of a goal or an outcome, that's the outward manifestation, the public facing manifestation, and proof, evidence of motivation, the act or process of encouraging others to exert themselves in the pursuit of a group or organizational goal is external motivation.

The ability to motivate followers is an important function of leadership, for example. But ambition is none of these things.

Ambition is an innate complex of processes coupled with internal voices, with introgents, usually compensatory. It's an attempt to compensate for a bad object, an attempt to compensate for the voices that keep telling you that you're inadequate and inefficient and would amount to nothing and you're a loser.

So ambition, most ambition, is compensatory. And it's intended to coerce people and the environment to confirm to you some kind of ego ideal, some kind of vision of yourself in the future, which is by social standards higher, better than your current version. It's self-improvement via societal constructs, via other people, via societies. It's as if you import your motivation from the outside, the feedback of the outside, input from the outside, restraints and constraints of the outside inhibitions that are imposed to you, on you, by society and so on.

So I would say that ambition is the outsourcing of motivation. And that's a bad thing. It's a bad thing because you become utterly dependent on society, on the environment, on other people. There is a compulsion to secure positive outcomes, favorable outcomes from the environment. There is a kind of malignant self-efficacy involved.

By the way, I mentioned unconscious motivation. In psychoanalytic theory, unconscious motivation are the wishes, impulses, aims and drives, which the self is not aware of. And so examples of behavior produced by unconscious motivation are some kinds of accidents, slips of the tongue, this is known as parapuaxis, fantasy, dreams that express and fulfill wishes and so on and so forth.

Ambition involves a lot of unconscious motivation, whereas typically motivation, healthy motivation, intrinsic motivation is usually conscious.

So we mentioned fantasy with a PH and object relations theory, especially the work of Melanie Klein. Fantasy, PH, is one of the unconscious constructions, wishes or impulses that are presumed to underlie all cognitions and all emotions.

And so this is not conscious daydreaming, it's like unconscious daydreaming.

And again, this is a crucial part of ambition. You're beginning to see that ambition involves a panoply of mental health pathologies. It can never therefore be a healthy thing.

Ambition is never a healthy thing. We in capitalist societies and especially in Western civilization, we elevated and deified and glorified ambition because it drives consumerism, it drives economic growth, it compels people and interpolates them to use to use Louis Althusser's phrase, it forces them, it coerces people to consume.

And this consumption drives the growth engine of Western economies, or actually all economies nowadays.

So there is a fetish of economic growth. And this fetish is linked to consumerism. There is no economic growth without consumerism. Consumerism is engendered by ambition. Ambition forces you to consume.

Now, consumerism has multiple guises, shall we say, you can consume physical goods and material goods, you can consume services, but you can also consume social status. You can also consume attention.

And so ambition is the motivation that is linked to consumption. Consumption itself has become a highly malignant and pathological process in modern civilization and modern economies.

Be motivated, never be ambitious.

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