When ambition becomes ambiguous

Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” profiles the political brilliance of Abraham Lincoln. In the book she references a French aristocrat who visited a burgeoning America in 1831.

Alexis de Tocqueville was sent on a royal mission to examine America’s prisons. But after touring the United States for two years, he published a broader work in 1835 entitled “Democracy in America.” Its insights are timeless and its warnings are timely.

As Goodwin notes, Tocqueville captures the spirit of the age in which Lincoln and his contemporaries rose to leadership. As children of the American experiment, these men recognized the experiment’s distinction from European aristocracy and its value for social mobility.

Tocqueville writes:

“When both the privileges and the disqualifications of class have been abolished and men have shattered the bonds which once held them immobile, the idea of progress comes naturally into each man’s mind.

“Ambition becomes a universal feeling… Every American is eaten up with a longing to rise.”

Lurching forward 175 years: Is ambition a universal feeling in America today? Does every American have a longing to rise?

A handful of factors makes me think not.

First, the post-modern culture ridicules ambition. Take the latest McDonald’s commercial in which a high school freshman scans extra-curricular options: debate team, math team, chess team and then this innovation: “The Chill Out with a McCafe Iced Coffee Team.”

Two less-than-eager team members lure recruits by leaning coolly back in their chairs and sipping on sugary, caffeinated bevs.

Second, the consumer culture levies high finance costs. Consumer lusts leverage future income and limit financial flexibility. Committing tomorrow’s money today makes the present look brighter than the future. It’s tough to see the way up when one is paying the minimum $86 payment on a $8,000 credit card balance.

Third, government benefits neutralize ambition. When taxing authorities provide more and more goods and services, people get complacent. When basics are met apart from a person’s hard work and determination, it zaps his/her drive to ascend. Poor decisions then beget poor decisions.

Fourth, government regulation postpones or eliminates the rewards of ambition. When a business owner has to spend more time complying with laws and regs, the payoff of risk-taking makes less sense. Heavy government intrusion squelches the drivers of growth and mobility, namely, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Fifth, relational inadequacies are growing. In Lincoln’s day, young people served as apprentices and proteges. They built the trust of older generations. They needed these connections in order to survive and they wanted them in order to advance.

Today, TV, movies, video games and Internet browsing often interrupt relationship-building. They can diminish ambition. Very little of modern media is productive or creative. Most is consumptive and reactive.

Not everyone is made to be an entrepreneur. However, everyone is made to create in some way. Media consumption crowds out creativity, and, without creativity, there is no ambition.

Elsewhere in “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville warns against a democracy of unambitious citizens.

In their ignorance and materialism, they are susceptible to a despotic government that “does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.”


Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star. Follow him online at www.kwt.info.

1 Response to “When ambition becomes ambiguous”

  1. 1 mrdonnigeria July 1, 2014 at 06:47

    This so good. I wanted to print it and take it to school but the printer would not do it. Is there sometime of setting?


    We are enjoying Lipccomb’s Summer celebration .It was only Sunday thru Tuesday this year. I am studying hard on my 5th module, with digestion, nutrient ion, minor surgical asst., medication, phlebotomy, injections ( parenteral, topical and alimentary) , microbiology and imaging, orthopedics, respiratory, radiology prescriptions and abbre. muscular , skeletal ,pulmonary function, physical rehab., patient positioning, patient education and sterilization . In the last module it was pharmacy and it’s math ,hematology, integumentary, endocrine, vital signs, asst. with physicals and medical specialties, eyes and ears, electrocardiography, nervous system and cardiac and circulatory systems. Immune and lymphatic systems. Plus we have to learn how to get a job, laws, billing and coding , and writing . These kill me. I sure hope that I can stay on the Dean’s list with my final test at the end of two more weeks. I have been around a lot of these things for three times, now. Repetition is the name of the game. We still have pediatrics mental health, medical emergencies ( I have already learned my CPR card) , geriatrists , clinical lab analyzing, feces, urinalysis, and blood and human reproduction. Whew!!!

    Then, my last one is Front Office with its coding ,billing, insurance ,patient complaint, professionism, etc. I will not like that one much. All this seems overwhelming and it is . They do teach you ways of learning that helps like relating unknown things to things that you do know in everyday life. We just keep at it. Some drop out and I even thought about it. But I signed up and as you know ,we finish what we start. My 17 trip surgical experience helps me some.

    Again, I loved this article. It is right on tract


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