Something made me think about ambition recently. Did I feel it was a good or bad thing in people, especially my friends? The answer is complicated.
On initial thinking, I tended to feel that ambition, when not taken to extremes, is a good thing.
It doesn’t matter whether a person’s aim is to be the best composer of the age or to reach the top job of his or her company (or the country, for that matter).
It makes us work harder at what we do and put real thought into how to do It better.
Indeed, although I lack appropriate evidence, ambition of one kind or another is probably responsible for most forms of human progress.
We seek to get there, so we seek new solutions. We often find new problems as we do so and seek solutions for them. And so forth and so on.
Progress gets made.
But there are also unintended consequences of ambition. It drives us on, but it also drives us to neglect other aspects of our lives. Not in every case, but often.
Hence, the large number of unhappy wives – or, I hasten to add, husbands – and neglected children. Not to mention the good friends never made.
It is all well known. You have heard it all before.
Ambition also tends to drive us to want to be seen as successful.
Of course, there are people everywhere who quietly succeed in their endeavours without any need to blow their own trumpet. But that is not the most common pattern.
And this makes for a heightened emotional atmosphere much of the time.
It is not simply a quiet barbecue among friends – it is a chance for each successful person to let the others know about the triumphs in their lives. The same goes on at dinner parties or down at the pub. It is human nature to let others know.
Again, you have heard it all before.
As Ambition Comes to a Natural End
But what happens when ambition dries up or simply comes to a natural end?
You composed that amazing symphony or made it to the top of the greasy pole. Perhaps there is another symphony to be written or another pole to climb.
But eventually, whether satisfied or not, you reach the point where you slow down or stop altogether. You look around and start to think about other things and other people.
And, alongside such changes, you probably become nicer.
It was my mother who noticed it first, years ago. She and my father had moved into a new retirement home and, after a suitable interval, I asked what the other people were like.
She said old people tended to be very nice, especially men, because they no longer had so much ambition. I can’t remember whether she elaborated hugely on the comment, but it made me think.
Niceness is an under-rated virtue. The very word somehow implies something innocuous and uninteresting. We value it in our friends, of course, but it is rarely on the top of the attributes we commend in people.
We tend to note their talents or their achievements and niceness is seen as an add-on, something that comes along with other attributes.
But the older I get, the more I see the importance of this quality – it represents thoughtfulness, kindness and a willingness to go the extra mile.
It does not bring any kudos, but it makes the world a so much more agreeable place.
My parents’ retirement home was full of professional people. There were said to be 17 former doctors, including three or four brain surgeons.
There were former journalists, former teachers and, surprisingly, quite a few moderately successful artists. But the emphasis was on the word ‘former’.
Yes, some of the writers were still writing and some of the artists were still painting, but on the whole, they had moved on.
And in the course of doing so, they had become just ‘people’.
Once ambition is removed from a person’s thinking, the landscape changes. Other people are not some form of competition, but just someone with whom to complain about the terrible weather.
You share a beer or a glass of wine and talk about football or the book you are reading. Even when you talk about more contentious issues, such as politics, it is other people’s success or failure you are talking about.
It is a big change!
The Joys of Growing Older
So, one of the real joys of growing older is the diminishing ambition of everyone you meet.
Yes, people still complain. Yes, people still talk about themselves, whether their own latest health crisis or their excitement over a new grandchild.
But it is so restful when the matter of status has been removed.
A version of this article has been published in my book, The Granny Who Stands on her Head: Reflections on Growing Older
This article was first published on SixtyandMe.com