Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Rethinking Ambition

I’m guessing there is an ambitious streak that runs through you. Most of us have lived with our eyes on a challenge. A goal that gets us out of bed. A passion that fuels our lives.

Some may push back, assuming ambition is tantamount to being ruthless, cutthroat, and into power. But consider the alternative. A life absent of ambition is generally a life of drift—of sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency. This is how James Smith puts it in his, On the Road with Saint Augustine, a book I find myself coming back to again and again. 

Ambition. Tomorrow, the spotlight will be on a football field, filled with ambitious men. From their early years, most have been on a mission. But few have probably been more determined than Andy Reid, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Last year, Kent Babb of the Washington Post told his story. It’s hard to find a more driven man than Reid. To use the language of another writer, he has “taken a mob of appetites, organized them into an army of purposes,” and fine-tuned them into one defining objective—to win the Super Bowl. And win it at all costs.  

When Reid left Philadelphia to come to Kansas City in 2013, he was ready for a new chapter. But one thing remained the same—take his team to the Super Bowl and be victorious. He has wanted his moment. And like any large ambition, this one has had its costs. Reid has compared himself to successful coaches over his career, vowing to, as Babb put it, “work harder, scout smarter, and make more sacrifices.” If they came in at 5:00 am, he would come in at 4:00 am. If they left at midnight, he would leave at 1:00 am. If they took off once in a great while, he would take no days off.  

Over these past seven years, Reid has taken a 2-14 team and created a winning culture (something some of us Charger fans can only dream of). Kansas City hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since the days of Nixon (we feel the pain). Tomorrow Reid will go after this one thing that has eluded him—a super bowl ring. This has been his ambition, one that has kept him from ever dialing back. It’s hard not to root for him. 

Reading this article, I was awed by such tenacity, but it raises questions. Questions Augustine had to ask himself. What are the driving motives? What am I after? What do I love when I long for achievement?

If we’re honest, ambition often boils down to the desire to be noticed. The desire to win. Achieve fame. And this is the danger–these desires often lead to idolatry. As Smith puts it, “We are heaping infinite, immortal expectations on created things that will pass away.”

It is like falling in love with the boat rather than the destination. It’s overlooking the fact our hearts are built for another shore. This is why Super Bowl rings can become so empty. Merchandise to one day pawn off. 

Whoever gets the ring tomorrow, the hope here is that such ambitions run higher. As Smith notes, “The attention of others is fickle. Domination of others is always temporary. Attainment is a goddess who quickly turns a cold shoulder.” This applies to all of us. 

It’s not that ambition is wrong. “Resting in the love of God doesn’t squelch ambition; it fuels it with a different fire.” Aspiring to use our gifts for God—to be used for his glory—that’s true ambition. There’s no higher aim.


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