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January 17, 2008
In The Village
Sorting out the right and wrong of ambition
by Orson Scott Card

Ambition can be a good thing, when it's channeled the right way.

The desire to become more than we now are -- we all feel it. We teach it to our children, when we expect them to "amount to something."

The problems arise when we start deciding what the "something" we're supposed to "amount to" should be.

Regardless of my opinions of the candidates running for President right now, I have to be in awe at the strength of their ambition. Look what they put up with! The schedules they keep, the way they have to beg for money, the necessity of watching every word they say, so that they make their potential voters feel good without annoying anybody too much.

I imagine myself in their position, and I don't think I'd last three days before I said, "This is crazy, I'm going to speak my mind, sleep in till ten, and I'm not going to suck up to rich idiots in order to get their money."

Of course, within a week I'd be out of the race, so it would be easier just to announce I was no longer a candidate.

Fortunately, though, I already know this about myself: I'm just not ambitious enough.

Well, that's not true. I'm extremely ambitious. Just not to be President.

That's how we find out what our true ambitions are, isn't it? We see what we want to accomplish so badly that we'll do what it takes to achieve it.

Our innate hunger to grow, to be greater, to achieve something -- it starts out as an inchoate longing, a sort of restlessness. Until somebody tells us a story that we want to fulfil.

As a kid, I remember latching on to dream after dream. I read a book about the history of medicine, and I wanted to be a doctor. I read Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac and I was going to go to West Point and become a general. I read Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki and Aku Aku and I was going to be an archaeologist.

The trouble was that once I found out what it took to pursue any of these dreams, I realized I didn't have enough ambition to do the required work. Instead, I did the things that came easily to me: performing, directing, writing. I even got paid for doing the last one, and voila: I had a career.

But none of these was my real ambition. The focus of my ambition had been formed early on. In my parents' home, where I was raised with the sure knowledge that the outside world was where you had to go to earn a living, but your true life's work was in the Church.

My parents both worked, and worked hard. But the joy of their lives, the work that put their whole heart and soul into, seemed to me to be their church service.

They magnified every calling they had, going the extra mile, throwing in extra service, spending all their extra time on it. The message to me was clear: This is worth doing. This is what matters: what we do for the Lord's people, in the Lord's name.

But only certain kinds of ambition are right for the Church. And some are hopelessly wrong.

Competitive Ambition, for instance. This is the kind of ambition that makes you focus on a rival; success consists of doing better than the other guy.

This can work in athletics, during a single race or a struggle to catch -- or intercept -- a pass, or snag a rebound. Beat the other guy.

But what does it have to do with the gospel? There is no place in the gospel where we rise by beating somebody else. Competitiveness is the enemy of godly ambition.

Dragon Ambition doesn't work for Christians, either. This is the desire to keep gathering to yourself all the symbols of success -- money, power, followers -- long after you've achieved enough. In fact, dragons don't have any concept of "enough."

But in the Church, we have a calling only as long as we have it. When we're released, we let it go.

Others have Career Ambition. They see their church callings as a constantly rising line, so that any "lesser" calling is regarded as a setback.

They set their sights on a lofty Church office, forgetting that whoever would be greatest should be the servant of all.

Then, when they reach an age where it's clear they will never have the calling that meant "success" to them, they are bitterly disappointed and feel like they've failed. But if they served well in all their callings, however humble, they certainly did not fail the Lord!

When I became a deacon, I was called to be quorum secretary. I brought a notebook to every quorum meeting and kept a record of what was discussed and decided, what lessons were taught, who passed the sacrament at Sunday school and sacrament meeting.

I was doing what I had seen my parents do with their callings.

After six months of this, it was clear to me that the adult leaders had no idea what to do with me. I would show them my work product, and they tried to pretend they cared, but I realized that nobody ever did the job the way I was doing it.

Of course that only encouraged me to do it more. I was the best! (Yes, that would be Competitive Ambition.)

Then the quorum presidency was reorganized, and a bishopric member actually took me aside to explain that I wasn't being made president -- indeed, I wasn't in the presidency at all -- because the other boys thought I was weird and they had to call as "leaders" people that the other boys would "follow."

I couldn't understand why I was so hurt and angry. Unaware of my own Career Ambition, I had unconsciously expected to be called to a "higher" office because of my good service. I remember complaining to my parents about how ridiculous it was for the adults to choose, not the best examples, but the most popular kids to lead.

Calling aren't given as rewards, my dad said. The people in authority are simply doing their best to fill positions with the right people, and sometimes they're inspired and sometimes they're not, but it's their stewardship to make those callings to those who they think will do well with them.

Sometimes it's you. Usually it isn't.

It took years, but I finally understood. My ambition should be for the Church to grow stronger and better and larger, not for me to grow stronger and better and larger within it. It wasn't about me, it was about the Kingdom of God.

To which many readers are saying, Duh. Well, of course I knew the words when I was young. It took all those years to tame my heart enough to realize how those words applied in my life.

Righteous Ambition is to be an active part of something greater than yourself, a community of good people doing good.

To be anxiously engaged in a good cause.

It's all there, in plain English. OK, sometimes not so plain, but it's there.

The world rewards selfish ambition -- the Competitors, the Dragons, the Careerists. But the Lord honors the ambitious Stewards, the ones who take what they are given and magnify it, with the goal of returning it to the Lord with thanks.

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