To Find Ambition

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Ambition is a finicky thing.

I’ve written about my struggles with ambition, here and here. To summarize, I used to have ambition. As I grew older, I lost that ambition. And now, I’m trying to find my way back.

This is my third installment around the vague topic of careers and ambition. I’m back to talk about my journey of rediscovering ambition. I can’t say that I’ve gotten it right this time, but the process of thinking, trying, and writing has given me a deeper appreciation of what it means to have ambition.

What is ambition?

Ambition is the decision to reach a certain outcome regardless of cost.

Unfortunately, this description is too amorphous. Yesterday morning, I decided to get an extra hour of sleep, even though it threw my workout schedule out of whack. This morning, I found the energy to run a 10k. It hurt, and I hated almost every second of it, but I did it. I also did a personal best. 48 minutes baby! Both are technically a decision toward a specific outcome. But they’re not ambition.

So before we can tackle the idea of finding ambition, let’s start with a detour on what exactly ambition is.

If I say the word, “golf”, what comes to mind? A small white ball? Lush greens? A heavy metal stick? What about Tiger Woods? And now if I say “Tennis?” If you’re older, Andre Agassi. Basketball? Michael Jordan.

All sports are defined by the athletes they produce. There’s a good reason for this. Athletes are the physical representation of ambition. Every time they step onto their field, they transform from humans to demigods. The worst player in the NBA is far better than the average joe. In the words of Brian Scalabrine, “I’m closer to LeBron than you are to me.”

Every professional athlete is the product of talent and hard work. They spend years training their body, practicing specific motions, keeping track of their diet, and staying in the right mental shape. They commit to a lifestyle that’s borderline monkish.

That’s just table stakes. I haven’t even gotten to the athletes who are at the pinnacle of each sport. Their experiences are more akin to psychological warfare than anything else.

Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls at three. In an interview, he recounted a conversation with his dad, “Pops used to say ‘once you’re wet you’re wet deal with it. You only get wet once.’ But I used to say, ‘well there’s different degrees right? I mean you just get just a little bit drop or you get soaked.’ He says ‘no.’ Okay, that’s why you’re Special Forces right? So you know just that mentality.”

Andre Agassi, one of the most dominant Tennis players, had this quote about his dad, “My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I’ll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I’ll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.”

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. He took that to heart. By the end of his high school career, he was recruited to UNC. Jordan told UNC assistant coach Roy Williams, “I’m going to show you. Nobody will ever work as hard as I work.”

So the question now comes, what drives them to go to such lengths? Why are they working so hard to be the world’s best at hitting golf balls, smashing tennis balls, or shooting basketballs?

If we take a step back, being the best at manipulating a ball a certain way doesn’t exactly have a higher purpose. It’s not like science, dedicated to expanding humanity’s collective knowledge. It’s also not like business, focused on conjuring things that aren’t real yet to help people.

Sports does something that no other field can emulate; the search for new human experiences.

Scientists discover a new fact. Entrepreneurs create a new product. Athletes feel a new human experience.

More than any other discipline, sports is black and white. A ball is either in or out. A finish is either first or second. A game is either won or lost. [0]

There’s very little room for ambiguity. For lack of a better word, sports are pure. The athlete that wins is confident that their success isn’t the result of luck. Usain Bolt didn’t run faster because he was lucky. He ran faster because he was willing to sacrifice more than anyone else.

Every time an athlete walks onto the field, they’re risking a part of themselves. In something as stark as sports, it’s no longer enough to be good. Athletes either finish a match as the winner or as the loser. When they lose, they’re letting the world see that their best is not good enough. When they win, they’re showing the culmination of practice and desire.

As a society, we celebrate the idea that athletes feel something that mortals don’t. Reporters mob the players right after a game, as if afraid that athletes will turn back human once they step off the court. They don’t want the calculated PR answer, they want raw emotions. For losing athletes, reporters poke and stab at the loss, trying to capture a sliver of the pain that the athlete is feeling. From the winners, the reporters share in the elation and exuberance, digging for some hidden truth that the athlete now knows.

In sports, the highs are so high. The lows so low.

In search of that new human experience, athletes are willing to sacrifice themselves to physical and mental torture. They’re trying to find a new reality. For themselves, for their supporters, for all of us.

And that’s ambition. It’s not a decision done to suffer a bit of pain on a single morning. It’s the continued pursuit of a new reality.

Malcolm X

Now, you might say, “ambition doesn’t sound super healthy”. In which case, I would respond with, “you’re right, it’s not. Pizzas aren’t also great for health, but I’ll fight anyone that gets between me and good pizzas.”

That being said, ambition doesn’t need to be all-consuming, like in the case of professional athletes. Dreaming of a house with a white picket fence is a perfectly good ambition. Millions of Americans had that ambition, and together, they propelled the country forward in the 20th century.

Every so often, a person doesn’t just think of a new reality for themselves. They think of a new reality large enough to encompass a whole nation.

I’m talking about Malcolm X.

To me, Malcolm X is the definition of ambition. In the span of two decades, he went from street hustler, incarcerated felon, sub-leader of a religion [0], to finally, a major figure in civil rights. The full spectrum of the human experience. Unlike the athletes, this wasn’t a single-minded pursuit of new human experience, this was a byproduct of his true ambition - to lift an entire race upwards.

What truly makes Malcolm X different from other figures in the civil rights movement, and broadly, other leaders in the same era, is his honesty.

Intuitively, honesty feels at odds with ambition. Most of the time, ambition is associated with the willingness to submerge moral and ethical values. That’s actually ambitiousness. Ambitious people grasp at any chance for advancement.

More specifically, ambitiousness is around concepts. Maybe that’s more money, more beauty, or more influence in the world. The problem is around the word, “more.” You can always make a bit more money or become a bit more influential. There’s an old Chinese saying, “all medicine has one part poison.” That’s what ambitiousness is. In moderation, ambitiousness is good. In excess, ambitiousness leads to some dark paths.

On the other hand, the cost of ambition is mostly internal. It’s the sacrifice of self. We’ll talk about this more later.

Within ambition, I’ve been exploring three questions. First, how do you find ambition? Second, what happens when you lose ambition and want to find it again? And third, is ambition good or bad?

With these thoughts in mind, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley. I had previously read the book as a counterweight to the infamous Altas Shrugged. Both of these books are great - even better when read together. This time, I wanted to really learn about Malcolm X as a person rather than the ideas we now associate with him. And when I finished the book, the idea for this essay was born.

To Find Ambition

Malcolm X had a hard childhood. Almost half of his autobiography (153 out of 389 pages) is dedicated to his experience growing up. He straddled the line between poverty and stability. He’d lean into things that he was good at, hustling, dancing, and finding friends. He’d avoid things that he was bad at, fighting, settling down, or holding a job.

Yet, what’s notable is that he couldn’t leave good alone. When he started to fit in with his high school, he let a single slight separate him from academics. When he found a job, albeit as a shoeshine boy, he quit because he wanted to dance. When he made instant friends (and good money) with the passengers on railway trains, he left to join the fast-paced hustling scene in New York City. It’s a story of impatience, of jumping without looking, and of searching for something true.

I don’t think I’m Malcolm X. I can barely dance and have a 100% success rate in stuttering when I try to give a speech. But his false starts feel quite similar to what I’ve done in the past few years. Things are fun at the start, then slowly become boring, and I jump away to the next adventure. I can’t leave a good thing alone. I tell myself that I’m searching for happiness, but the process makes me more miserable than before.

So, how did Malcolm X find ambition?

Well, he got himself incarcerated.

In some ways, this is Malcolm X at the lowest low. He sunk to the bottom of society and can go no further.

At the same time, this was the optimal environment for Malcolm X to find ambition. He could pause. He could think. And he was open to new ideas. It was in prison that he restarted his education. And it was then that he discovered the Nation of Islam, a religion that his brothers and sisters that already joined. Like a drowning man grasping at straws, he quickly became a preacher of the religion among his fellow inmates.

It’s easy to connect the dots backwards. Malcolm X’s previous experiences learning, hustling, and connecting with others made him the perfect preacher. He had seen enough to truly empathize with the struggle of the African American. The surface oppression in the South, as well as the hidden oppression happening in the North.

He found his ambition: to unite African Americans by converting them to the National of Islams.

Malcolm X’s biography only dedicates around 100 pages to his rise within the Nation of Islam. This part of his story of grit, passion, and genius. In theory, what he did in these days is why we know of him. But, Malcolm X didn’t think much of this period. What was important to him was his journey of finding ambition.

To find ambition, Malcolm X moved (not by choice) into an environment where he could think. Once he could think, he became open to ideas that he would have previously dismissed without a second thought. And once he started listening to new ideas, he caught one that changed his life.

“In the hectic pace of the world today, there is no time for meditation, or for deep thought. A prisoner has time that he can put to good use. I’d put prison second to college as the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking. If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life.”

Malcolm X, p. 398

To Find a New Ambition

In March 1964, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam. A religion is only as strong as its strongest believers. Malcolm X was the strongest acolyte, and his faith was tested, beaten, and torn. That started the slow but steady decline of the Nation of Islam, going from over 600,000 members in the 1960s to 50,000 members in 2007.

But I digress. Malcolm X, after leaving the Nation of Islam, was a man in conflict. His past few years building the Nation of Islam had its costs. He had been demonized as an angry Black Muslim extremist, ostracized by other civil rights leaders, and given an identity synonymous with hate and violence.

When he was pursuing his ambition, he could have ignored these costs. After all, he was creating a new reality where African Americans could hold their head highs. Now, cast out by the organization that he had helped build and had invested everything into, he was lost once again. His ambition, building the Nation of Islam to empower African Americans, was gone.

He still had his brilliance. In April 1964, one month after leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X gave a speech titled, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” [1] It’s one of the top ten speeches of the century. It’s more than that, it’s a knife. It cuts into the racial threads plaguing African Americans, showing where each problem begins and ends. It elevates the struggle of African Americans from civil rights to human rights.

But he was still lost. He then performed Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. In Saudi Arabia, Malcolm X found data entirely contrary to his beliefs. He was a has-been. No influence, no authority, no power. And yet, other Muslims greeted him as one of their own. More importantly, some of these Muslims were white. Blue eyes, blond hair, white.

After his Hajj, Malcolm X then went to Ghana, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France, and England. He started to question the fundamental assumptions that had fueled his past ambition, including the idea of Black separatism, Black capitalism, and even his slogan, “white people are devils.”

He came back to America a new person. His ambition wasn’t fully fleshed out yet, but his speech in August 1964 included, “Ignorance of each other is what has made unity impossible in the past. Therefore, we need enlightenment. We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity. Once we have more knowledge (light) about each other, we will stop condemning each other and a United front will be brought about.”

Malcolm X’s journey to rediscover ambition runs parallel to his first encounter with ambition.

He was stripped of his identity. Before, this came in the form of prison. Now, it came from excommunication with the Nation of Islam.

He accepted new ideas. In prison, he could learn once again, starting a correspondence and even copying the dictionary. Without the burdens of leading the Nation of Islam, he could perform Hajj and see the broader international perspective.

He acted on these new ideas. With his newfound reading skills, he devoured books on the history of the black man and entered into the prison colony’s debating program. After Hajj, he preached a new perspective of love and unity.

To find a new ambition, Malcolm X didn’t just leap into a new field like he had when he was younger. He stayed. He went back to his past. He dug into his previous ambition, questioning everything, discarding some assumptions and salvaging others. There, he found the kernels that blossomed into his new ambition.

Before he could go further, Malcolm X was assassinated. February 1965.

“Before they carted my mother off to a mental hospital and tore our family apart, she kept telling us that without an education we’d be like people blindfolded in a forest pockmarked with quicksand. I strayed from those teachings of hers for years, but I came back, didn’t I?”

Malcolm X, Ghosts in Our Blood, p. 89-90 (a couple weeks before he was assassinated)

Is Ambition Good or Bad?

Even with hindsight, it’s hard to judge the impact of Malcolm X. If Malcolm X never existed, would civil rights have progressed further? Or would it have stalled out in the 60s? If Malcolm X was more successful in Black separation, what world would we live in today?

We’ll never know. Could we say that Malcolm X’s ambition of uniting African Americans under the Nation of Islam was bad? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. At the end of the day, it’s hard to truly know if an ambition is good or bad for the world.

I previously built a small publishing company. It was successful enough that readers from around the world spent approximately 2,767,000 hours per month on our website. The content was 2% informative, 98% entertainment. Was that good for the world? I don’t know.

But if we localize ambition to the individual level, we can get a better picture.

Ambition extracts the largest toll on its owner. Malcolm X’s life was anything but peaceful. He was a constant bundle of anger, rage, and fight. He worked 18 hours every day. He had few true friends. He spent much of his life in constant turmoil with many regrets.

His ambition also spilled into those around him. He spent little time with his kids. His death left his family without much in the way of savings. He had to borrow money from his half-sister to perform Hajj, delaying her trip.

For all of this sacrifice, he played a part in lifting his entire race and establishing a new reality. That counts for something. Right?

It’s hard to say if ambition is good or bad. All that we can say is that the pursuit of ambition, to reach for a new reality, is a noble human effort. And we should celebrate that.

“There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain —‌ and we will smile. Many will say turn away —‌ away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the Black man —‌ and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate —‌ a fanatic, a racist —‌ who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him…. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.”

Ossie Davis, at Malcolm X’s funeral


Special thanks to Y. J. for reading an early draft of this piece.

[0] Reaching a tie in most sports is extremely rare. It happens, but is more of a statistical anomaly rather than an intended function of the game.

[1] It’s incredibly hard to find speeches by Malcolm X. He’s one of the greatest orators of the civil rights era, yet the NAACP website doesn’t even mention Malcolm X. Below is a copy of Malcolm X’s The Ballot or the Bullet speech. I’ve bolded parts that I found impactful.

The Ballot or the Bullet

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