… is the name of an excellent book by Daniel Pink about what motivates us. It is also what Michael Jordan did so masterfully in the way he played basketball. And it’s also the engine that motivated him to be one of the best players ever in the game.
Why is this on my mind? Because I’m watching the excellent 12-part series titled “The Last Dance” about the Chicago Bulls remarkable championship wins in the 1990’s. And Jordan is the main focus, as he often was in those actual games.
So let’s talk about ambition. I’ll never forget a story a good friend told about her 9-year old son playing in a soccer game. He and someone from the opposing team were going after a ball and the other player got it away from him. His Mom later said to her son, “You should have had that ball. Why did you let him get it from you?” and he replied, “But, Mom, he wanted it more!”
And there you have it. Two athletes or musicians or political candidates have similar talents, opportunities, training, but it’s the one who’s more deeply driven, more obsessively determined, the one who wants it more, who gets it. The one who stays after practice and shoots free throws for another hour or puts in the extra two hours on the piano after eight hours of practice or adds another couple of stops to the campaign trail. It’s not guaranteed that this alone will make the difference, but it often does.
At one point in the film, Jordan is questioned about whether he has a gambling problem. He admits he likes to gamble, but doesn’t feel it as a problem. Instead, he says, “I have a competition problem.” His teammates concur that whether playing cards, golf or having an argument, this guy is driven to win. But it’s a “problem” that made him a legend and one of the world’s most recognizable icons. Psychologically, you could call it a problem—“What’s wrong with him that he always has to win!” but in his field, it lays the path to a grandeur and greatness that we all hunger for and admire.
The soccer player mentioned has an uncle who is a renowned Buddhist teacher and his brother told me how as a kid, he was ruthlessly competitive in all games. Rather than disown this near obsessive drive, he turned it inward toward the practice of meditation and self-mastery and I can speak from experience that if you’re going to put in the time to strive for enlightenment and sit with pained legs for 4 to 8 hours a day in austere monastery conditions, you’re going to need some driving motivation to keep you going. (My “experience” is that I spent some time in the meditation hall doing just that, but ultimately chose a different ambition, putting in the hours fooling around with kids on the music room floor.)
The word “ambit” means the limits or boundary of a place. Ambition is to go beyond the accepted boundary, to move toward the exceptional. It comes with a high price—self-sacrifice, too much adoration from those who want you to do it for them or are jealous or waiting for you to fall, giving up other parts of yourself. All of which happened for Jordan.
Kamala Harris is being critique for her “ambition” as if it was a dirty word. Well, it is for the macho males who praise it in themselves, but can’t deal with it in women. But whether a man or a woman, ambition can be a virtue or a vice depending on whether it is meant to serve the world or just oneself.
So check out The Last Dance on Netflix. And thank Michael Jordan for his efforts. When he has that ball in his hand, it is a wonder to behold.