Ambition, Envy, and the Infinite Game

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Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.

James 3:16

“I hear you’re a man of faith, do you mind if I say a prayer before we eat?” So began a recent breakfast meeting. I had never met him before, but our conversation went in many directions: business, family, politics, COVID, healthcare, faith, success. Many directions. His reference to me as a “man of faith” centered on our shared Christian beliefs but caused me to think about what “faith” means in a somewhat different sense.

Broadly speaking, faith is complete trust in someone or something. It is a belief in someone behaving in a certain way or in a certain outcome. It is trusting that your past has brought you where you are supposed to be. It is looking to the future and trusting that things will be ok. Yes, I am a man of faith.

A point of confusion we often have around faith comes from what we think “everything will be ok” means. For us, the outcome we want is usually different from what others might define as an “ok” result. Here we enter the zone of ambition, a place where we aim for a certain result which we identify as success. My breakfast companion shared that he is a competitor and always wants to win. Isn’t that the truth? We all want to win. The thrill of victory drives us in so many ways.

Of course, wanting to win is not bad. The ambition to succeed is not evil, we must aspire. We are made to strive. In most cases, we will be disappointed with an “everything will be ok” result. Such aspirations, such ambition, drives us to some healthy behaviors: hard work, planning, delayed gratification, focus, practice, etc. Our ambitions can also drive us to unhealthy behaviors: cheating, lying, deception, exaggeration, using others, etc. Our noble aspiration can quickly become selfish-ambition when we attach ourselves so firmly to the results we so desperately desire.

If ambition looks to the future, its close cousin, envy, looks to the past. i recently heard envy defined as “irrational anger at the success of another.” Envy rears its ugly head in many ways: gossip, calumny, lying, deception, exaggeration, etc. Jealousy is the fear of someone else getting ahead of us. It looks at what others have, who they are, or how they are perceived and compares it to what we have, who we are, or how we think others perceive us. Yes, envy springs from many of the darker tendencies revealed in our selfish ambitions. Envy is afraid that the other will get the results we aspire to before us or possibly at our expense.

At a recent conference, I was reminded of the ugliness of ambition and envy when I overhead a competitor disparaging me and my company. The desire to win and the fear of losing not only moved this individual to sow seeds of doubt about our capabilities, but also to disparage me personally. Perhaps it will work. But at what cost?

We all fall victim to our ambitions and our envy, we cannot escape it. Whether we are competing in business, on a court, for a job, for a mate, for a friend, or for our own sense of self, what we want or what we fear will push us toward many of our worst inclinations. In most cases, they are small things: little slights, small exaggerations, tiny slanders, white lies. Alas, each is also a little tear in our moral fabric, a small dent weakening the armor of our integrity.

What do we fear? Our lessening. Our loss. Not getting what we want. We become attached to the outcomes we desire and to fall short or retreat from them becomes intolerable. Such is the danger of our ambitions as they tilt toward the selfish, self-gratifying, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately, self-absorbed.

During my breakfast, my new friend mentioned Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game. I haven’t read Sinek’s book but was introduced to the concept by Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception. For Godin, the ultimate purpose of our endeavors and aspirations is not to win but to earn the opportunity to keep playing. A very real danger of our ambition and our envy is that they both cause us to sacrifice our joy in the present for what we see in the future or the past. When we attach ourselves so firmly to something that happened or to something we want to happen, we risk losing the possibilities of the now.

When we lose ourselves to the joy of the moment, abandon ourselves to the satisfaction of the journey, and focus on the immediacy of being rather than living in the cramped world of grasping, criticizing, lamenting, or worrying, we begin to approach our best possible existence. Our highest selves thrive in the process and find satisfaction in the doing and the being, rather than in what we are not, what we did not, or what we might not.

By all means, aim for great heights. Please, compete at your highest level. Delay gratification, practice, plan, hope and dream. Learn from your mistakes. Watch what others do. Emulate what works and avoid what doesn’t. But don’t let your desires, or your fears, steal today’s joy. Don’t lose the possibility of becoming more, or thriving, by getting lost in someone else’s success or your potential for failure. You are enough, regardless of the other person. Now is enough, regardless of what happened yesterday or what tomorrow might be. Your best self, your peak moments, are possible right now. Don’t waste a second thinking otherwise.

And have faith. Everything will be ok.

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