Understanding what’s behind our ambition is a critical pursuit for driven personalities. In There Will be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis portrays a ruthless oil man named Daniel Plainview. In one scene, he has a heartfelt conversation with a man pretending to be his long lost brother. The conversation gets real.
Daniel Plainview: Are you an angry man, Henry?”
Henry Brands: About what?
Henry Plainview: Are you envious? Do you get envious?
Henry Brands: I don't think so. No.
Plainview: I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.
You can watch the clip and pick up the rest of this conversation here.
My editor says her favorite chapter in my new book, Ambition: Leading with Gratitude, is Chapter 4, Entrepreneurs in Danger. I begin that chapter with the powerful moment I came face to face with something that was driving me...
I recall during one particularly tough season in my business and family life, I called my friend Dave to get some perspective and emotional support. I felt caught in a cycle of failure. Nothing was working, but I was determined to keep grinding. Somewhere in the conversation, the topic of ambition came up and Dave shared a lesson he had learned that rocked my core. “When I was in seminary, Dr. Hendricks taught us that every positive character trait has a corresponding negative trait on another side of the coin”. I encouraged him to go on. “If we take ambition, for instance, the other side of that very same coin is often envy.” Arghh. I was busted.
Like Daniel Plainview the oil man, I realized much of what had motivated me had been a sense of competition. I had a very hard time cheering for the success of others. Coming face to face with the truth stings, but if we have the courage to pursue truth, there's comfort on the other side. I happen to be one of those people who believe people really can change…when they want to.
America is currently in love with Hamilton the musical. The show won 11 Tony awards and it’s creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, won a Pulitzer Prize.
My wife, Helen, and I were fortunate enough to enjoy seeing the show last year before it went into the ubersphere of pop culture. Can you believe I didn't know the show would be delivered with a hip-hop flair? Imagine my surprise! I loved the modern twist on a truly American success story.
Aside from the brilliant lyrics, music, and choreography, what really grabbed me about this musical was the recurring presence of Hamilton’s ambition.
Hamilton’s own opening line reveals a lot. “My name is Alexander Hamilton. And there's a million things I haven't done, but just wait, just you wait…”
As Huffington Post noted there’s even a song entirely devoted to the theme of Hamilton working non-stop, called, appropriately, “Non-Stop.” “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?” asks Aaron Burr. To which the ensemble answers: “Every day you fight like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time. Are you running out of time?”
Growing up an orphan, a love of country, a desire to make a name for himself…these are themes that emerge as the motivations of Hamilton’s ambition. As his ambition runs off the rails, the consequences catch up with him. Eventually, he steps from the limelight to rebuild himself and the reputation he tarnished. It's a beautiful story.
Often ambitious people aren’t able to see what’s driving us because we’re not willing to be introspective about our true feelings and motivations. Like Curly in this short Three Stooges video, sometimes we’re claiming blindness while all along we’ve got our eyes tightly closed.
Understanding, and in some cases, confronting our motivations is a recurring challenge for anyone who wants to have lasting leadership impact. And that starts with asking tough questions. Of ourselves.
Have you thought much about what's driving you? I would love to hear what you've learned.
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