Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Difference between Ambition and Drive

I had an opportunity the other day to engage in a conversation where I found myself compelled to make a semantic distinction between ambition and drive. The last time I really thought about the lexeme 'ambition' was when Gladiator came out, the summer of 2000. That summer I was at university, teaching a summer course on the nuances of the German language as opposed to heading to Germany with my then significant other for the Summer. But, I stayed put. My inner sense of 'drive' I suppose dictated that I stay behind and zero in on words every day. I stayed in a scorching hot Utah, agreeing to teach a Summer Course on German Existentialism instead. But I just digressed again. I reckon, it's context.

Anyway, the film Gladiator came out in 2000 and to escape the unbearable heat, which I cannot stand by the way which is why I always privilege colder places as a result, we would go to the movies. The extreme AC felt good. I remember going to see Gladiator repeatedly with my friends and the word I fixated upon was "ambition." The quote that stood out to me was the one where Commodus gives his take on ambition to his father whose affection and attention were happily placed on someone else.

Commodus notes: "You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but... there are many forms of courage."

I remember consulting the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) then to get to the core of the noun 'ambition.' And I hung on to the definition. Plus, I have this curse of a memory that doesn't let me forget what I read quite so easily. And the word ambition is coming up with more frequency now, for some reason.

I never quite knew how to verbalize where I stood on the ambition/drive scale, till I mentioned in passing conversation that some people, I suppose myself as well, are driven by way of how they are genetically wired. One cannot help but be motion-centric, driven. And while ambition is defined by specificity in goals, drive is a general force that compels one to propel one's self forward, to always be on-the-go. Because movement is the only option or rather the raison d'être of one. And lack of movement goes against nature, thus the two cannot co-exist.

Also, as I was reviewing Cheryl Sandberg book again this week, Lean In, especially as it pertains to her discussion on ambition. Sanderg 'genders' her take on ambition and, prior to entering the business field and in the days when I was a pure theoretician in higher academia as I kept pontificating on gender, I would have disagreed with her take. I actually would have dismissed it. But I can see now what she means when she says that: "ambition is perceived as a negative quality in a woman when it would be positive in a man."

It is actually amusing to me that I find myself hearing the word 'ambition' with the frequency that I'm hearing it. And in every case I automatically go to the other lexeme: drive. To me, drive encapsulates things better than ambition. So, I suppose, Sandberg is sort-of-right. Even though semantically there's nothing problematic or 'negative' about the word ambition, when affiliated with a woman it sort of, kind of comes across as, well, not so positive. 

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