Gratitude and Ambition

As we approach Thanksgiving (perhaps you’re even reading this post on Thanksgiving) I want to take a few minutes to address something that has been on my mind for a long time. It’s the pervasive idea that gratitude and ambition are mutually exclusive virtues. In my experience, society places a high value on gratitude but bristles at the idea of an ambitious individual.

As children we are taught to be polite and to always be thankful for the kindness of others. We are to be ever grateful for the good things that happen in our lives. Before I go on I want to say that I believe teaching gratitude is a very important thing to do. We don’t live on this planet in isolation and it’s important to acknowledge who and what helps us along our journey. Ungratefulness is an ugly trait in a human and our society is not designed to appreciate that. Thank goodness!

There is, however, a risk to over-engaging in gratitude. It’s the point in which you start to frame your life in terms of the things that happen to you. You start to cede the control of your life to other people, or “uncontrollable” events. This path can become self-destructive if you’re not aware of where to draw the line. It’s easy to become unhappy with your life but feel powerless to improve your situation. Or even worse, to feel guilty for not being more grateful for what you already have. One of the most powerful tools to combat this potential downward spiral is the virtue of being ambitious. This allows you to take back the control and make positive changes to your life. If you are ambitious enough it also allows you to improve the lives of others in ways that gratitude alone will never be able to.

Ambition, however, is not usually seen in the positive light. Often times ambition is seen as aggression. Being ambitious is commonly synonymous with being controlling or overpowering. You’re seen as someone who rocks the boat and people don’t usually like that having that type of person around, especially in the workplace. Showing an interest in growing and improving your life and the lives around you is met with either skepticism or even downright negativity. The ambitious individual is chided and asked why their life isn’t already good enough. “Why aren’t you grateful for the things you have? All your blessings aren’t  enough?What more do you need?”

So therein lies the rub. At least for me. Growth is uncomfortable and downright difficult. People who want to improve themselves, and especially people who want to improve situations for others, should be applauded, not reprimanded. Wanting to make the world a better place (even just your small corner of the world) does not mean you are forsaking all of the greatness already in it. It’s not apathy that pushes someone to dedicate themselves to a goal or to strive for success. An ambitious person needs to believe that his/her struggles are worth the fight. In essence, there needs to be something worth fighting for. Without gratitude for what we already have, there would be no point in fighting to make things even better.

This year as Tony and I sit down for our Thanksgiving meal we will take a moment to share those events and people we have been grateful for over the past year – our thanks, our gratitude. When we raise our glasses we will not only be toasting to show our thanks, but we will also be toasting to the future. We will be reaffirming our intentions to build on the greatness we have experienced because, you see, gratitude is only the beautiful beginning.

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