Whenever my self-doubt overpowers my confidence, I try to remember a quote that is commonly attributed to the philosopher Confucius: “The man who says he can, and the man who says he cannot are both correct.”
Although simple, this quote has given me the strength to tackle everything from chemistry tests to track meets. It’s a testament to the power each of us holds. We can achieve anything as long as we choose to do so.
But this ambitious quote has a dark side.
To say that you “can” is to aim for future success. You acknowledge that what you have, or what you are, constantly requires improvement.
To say that you “cannot,” on the other hand, is to reject any improvement. It promotes the idea that you cannot grow and are as good as you will ever be.
Neither extreme is healthy, but where does the line of moderation lie? Can we learn to balance our ambition with acceptance, and vice versa?
To understand how we can best marry ambition and acceptance, we must first understand their importance as standalone values.
Ambition is central to American culture, and for good reason. Hard work has been proven, time and time again, to be the key to success. But, hard work alone doesn’t cut it — ambition provides direction to the work, making it impactful and important.
Grit and perseverance, although necessary for success, mean nothing without a specific goal in mind. Ambition provides that aim, creating a destination to work toward. In fact, the agenda ambition sets is what fuels grit.
Success is not the only advantage of ambition — it also keeps us mentally stable and happy. Many people find fulfillment in their work and goals. Conversely, a major characteristic of depression is a lack of ambition.
Ambition has its drawbacks, though. When we aspire to unrealistic, lofty goals and don’t reach them, it can adversely affect our mental health. The harrowing reality of failure — especially as an overachiever — is hard to face and can discourage us from future attempts.
Even worse, overambition can lead to a fixation on the future and an inability to enjoy the present. Constantly striving toward a goal can be taxing, so when we forget to enjoy ourselves, we risk burning out.
To combat overexerting ourselves, we can turn to acceptance.
Acceptance is an acknowledgment of how situations are, not an attempt to change them. Although seemingly bleak, acceptance teaches us to be happy with what we have instead of relying on an elusive future.
Interestingly, acceptance increases productivity. Ambition can be overwhelming and create endless goals that are always out of reach. Acceptance, on the other hand, allows us to put ourselves before our careers and work on what we’re passionate about, rather than what might be traditionally successful.
The freedom acceptance provides can also impact our individual wellness. One Buddhist teaching says: “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
Meditation is a practice of acceptance, and the positive physical and mental effects of it are well known.
Unfortunately, acceptance comes with its own crop of issues. For starters, new research shows that meditation can have some surprisingly negative effects, such as hallucinations and headaches.
Furthermore, acceptance can quickly become complacency in the fight against injustice and inequality. To live with the current state of the world is to stay silent about society’s wrongdoings, which poses an obvious problem if we hope to continue progressing socially.
Here, we are left with a much more nuanced understanding of acceptance and ambition. Luckily, there may be a way to incorporate both of them in our lives.
If we practice a form of ambitious gratitude, we may be able to have our cake and eat it, too.
Ambitious gratitude can be individualized depending on your personal preferences. However, the basic idea is this: we can recognize imperfections, strive for improvement and be thankful for the goodness that already exists.
Wanting better and enjoying what we have are not mutually exclusive. Often, the two can complement each other. For example, in terms of academics, we can work toward taking hard classes and earning good grades while being thankful for what we have accomplished.
Ambitious gratitude is a promise to the future, based on the relative goodness of the present.