31 causes of failure #3: lack of ambition

This is a continuation of my series on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich that began with this post.

The Third Cause of Failure: Lack of ambition to aim above mediocrity

I was a high school athlete. I was a varsity tennis player, and I had my moments; I was a varsity member of the #4 team in my state my junior year, and I won a lot of critical matches both as a doubles and singles player. I received a few offers for college scholarships (for smaller schools) and I thought of myself as a “serious” player. I expected to be taken seriously as a player and as a competitor. But the truth of it was that I was never willing to spend time like my teammates did at paid summer tennis camps. I enjoyed playing but I hated practice and drills. If I had a conflict between practice and school events, I would skip practice. I had no real ambition to be anything other than a mediocre tennis player, and the result was that I put down my racket in college and have almost never played tennis again.

If you want to fail, plan to do “just enough to get by.” Sometimes that may work for a long time before you fail. You may be able to skate by in school, in work, in relationships, in health, in managing your money. But the simple truth is that in seeking to reach a goal only one of two things will happen eventually: you will succeed and achieve your goal, or you will not. Sometimes you may strive your whole life to achieve your goal and fall short. Sometimes you may not make any effort, but still you manage to tread water or even slowly float forward towards your goal. But you will fail or succeed eventually. If you have no ambition to become more than mediocre, you will automatically become mediocre. You must WANT to rise above mediocrity.

“We offer no hope for the person who is so indifferent as not to want to get ahead in life, and who is not willing to pay the price,” says Hill. He offers no further analysis, and this line says it all. If you do not want to get ahead, there is no point in hoping that someone else will help you. You may hope for the lottery, or a rich spouse, or some other grand stroke of luck but the simple fact is that if YOU do not have an ambition to succeed, nobody else will do it for you. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

What does success mean to you? A TV and a chair to watch it from? A Social Security check and a steady diet of strained peas? What are you willing to do today to have what you want tomorrow? What are you willing to do to help others now so that you will succeed in the future? Does the thought of being mediocre bother you, and if not, why not? Do you want to succeed or just pass the days until you are shipped off to a nursing home? What is stopping you from succeeding – is it you?

A moment most of us have had is the moment when we give up. We inwardly admit we won’t be the smartest, the funniest, the prettiest, the strongest, the happiest, the healthiest. And we think well, that’s OK. That’s the moment when you start living life on your knees. I rationalize it to myself as saying it’s learning to be happy with what you have, but that’s not what it is – it’s giving up. You have to want to excel, to succeed. Admitting your interests have changed is fine, but putting years of your life into a sport you are not crazy about just to pass the time is being mediocre. If you are engaged in an activity, be “in it to win it” – or get out and find something you CAN win at.

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  • Dana

    Well, if you substitute any other major goal in your life for “getting rich,” it’s still pretty sound advice. And you don’t have to be a jerk to focus hard on a goal, although you might still come across as one sometimes depending on the circumstances. Like, a workaholic trying to advance his career might not intentionally act like a jerk but come off as one anyway because he works so much he never sees his kids. But that’s the only way to do your absolute best in some lines of work, or at least that’s how the conventional wisdom goes.

  • http://plonkee.com/ plonkee

    I’ll preface this by saying that until I met up with some pfbloggers in DC a few months ago, I’d never heard of Napoleon Hill and I still know nothing about this book.

    I disagree. I’m not sure that there’s anything I’m in to win. I’m certainly passionate about my blogs, and my work, and many other things.

    I act on that passion, but at the end of the day I don’t need to have the biggest blog in the world (for example) to make me happy. In fact, trying to win in that way is likely to make me unhappier in the long run.

    Maybe I’m missing something?

  • http://www.guinness416.com guinness416

    I may be misremembering, I usually am, but in regard to Plonkee’s point isn’t Hill’s book literally all about getting wealthy, rather than goals in general? In other words, all his potential causes of failure are “potential causes of you failing to accumulate huge amounts of money”. Because I think wanting to be in “something” to win it (and remembering his mentor’s obsess on money with a white hot passion advice) can really make you crazy. Or at least unpleasant to be around.

    I realized I’m sounding negative on all your TAGR posts, so I should probably say at this point that I didn’t much like it.

  • http://www.bripblap.com Steve (Brip Blap)

    @plonkee: I think the way I look at it is that winning means doing it the best you can. I don’t think being the biggest blog in the world, for example, would mean you’re the best. Winning is just about making sure you’re 100% engaged in everything you do. I would say being passionate about something means you want to win, even if the only competition is your own expectations.

    @guinness416: I think “getting rich” and “getting wealthy” – at least to me – are two different things. I’m approaching his list of causes of failures more from a goal/life perspective, and that’s the way I chose to interpret the book – but I don’t discount the “rich” part. Hill puts a substantial emphasis on getting rich but almost the very first point he makes in the book is that if you get rich without an intention to give something in return then you are just a heartless machine. He even asserts that without a specific purpose built around giving back you won’t manage to become rich in the first place.

    Hill and Wallace Wattles (who wrote The Science of Getting Rich, a predecessor of TAGR) both were emphatic that the purpose of wealth was to free up your life to achieve your purpose, and your purpose was to give back to the world in terms of charity or your talents or your knowledge. The failure to emphasize “giving back” is one of the reasons I am not as fond of new Law of Attraction works like The Secret. My idea of getting rich is so that I can become a better person, contribute more to the world and help others with my wealth – all while being happier with myself and a better provider for my family.

    I like the idea of thinking as every action I do as something I can win. I can fight the battle to be more intelligent, or smarter about saving money, or become more successful at business, etc. I don’t think it makes me unpleasant – it’s not like I’m challenging people to arm wrestle me all the time! Sorry you don’t like the posts, though…

    @Dana: Great point on the “career man” – but I’ll take that further and say that the problem there isn’t working hard and not seeing your kids. I think it’s failing to understand that there are multiple battles to win, and none are exclusive. You can’t work 18 hours a day and neglect your family to be rich. You can’t be the best stay-at-home parent in history if your spouse stays home, too – somebody has to earn money. This goes back again to the idea of being rich. I have several very specific reasons I want to be rich, but one of the first and foremost is that I want to be a full-time dad. I don’t see any way to do that without getting rich enough to not need to work (a lot). But someone who works a lot is not winning, in my opinion, they are losing. The trick is to work smart, not hard. Bill Gates is a good example – until recently the richest man in the world, he’s given $29 billion to charity, has three kids under 10 years old and is retiring early at the age of 53 later this year. That’s much more effective than someone who works hard, buys a Lexus and retires at 65 once his kids are gone from home.

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  • Dana

    What I was getting at was not so much the getting rich angle as the being-the-best-in-your-field angle. Because of the way “being best in your field” is so often defined by others, you may find yourself becoming a workaholic to the point that you miss your kids growing up. Lots of career folk have fallen into this trap, men especially.

    You’re absolutely right, though, that it’s better to work smart rather than work hard (although you always need some degree of working hard–you just want more in the beginning and less later, ideally) if you want to amass wealth.

  • Boz

    It's not good enough to blame people for their shortcomings. Educate them to rise above themsleves. Your thinnly veiled sneers are the height of laziness and reveal your fear. You can't hide behind N.Hill like a caged lame parrot. Find the methods to build the world you say you want. Find the answers to the problems that are holding those “unambitious” people back. Or is it that you don't want everyone to succeed? Is that it – you're hypocrite? Do you have a scarity complex? Whatever it is, rise above your mediocrity.

  • http://www.buckleandmcgrath.com/ Wirral cosmetic dentists

    Good list of information but there are numerous reasons for failure.

  • Listesso

    Hi,
    Please, excuse English is not perfect, and not my native language.
    I enjoy reading everyone’s comments and some very good advice, but one must not become disillusioned with unrealistic goals we all have limitations. I have spent many years traveling and studying many different cultures and religions. The second sentence in the last topic (That is the moment when you start living life on your knees. I rationalize it to myself as saying it’s learning to be happy with what you have, but that’s not what it is – it’s giving up), to me one of the most misleading and misinformed (ignorant) statements I have ever heard. However, I may truly be the ignorant one, for I thought it was general knowledge (101), that one who has truly found their place and can say well, that’s OK – and is 100% truly happy is no doubt the richest person in the world, even if all they have is a TV and a chair to watch it from. A Social Security check and a steady diet of strained peas, but this person I have yet to meet. ( ????-Maybe Gondi – who truly knows). I am just trying to say do not set yourself up against unrealistic goals, know your limitations or the ramifications of failure can become devastating.
    And yes, it is good to (have to want to excel, to succeed) but at want cost and are your motives for the good of all.
    What does success mean to you? Exactly!!!! This is all that matters.
    Thank You,
    L’istesso

  • Listesso

    Hi,
    Please, excuse English is not perfect, and not my native language.
    I enjoy reading everyone’s comments and some very good advice, but one must not become disillusioned with unrealistic goals we all have limitations. I have spent many years traveling and studying many different cultures and religions. The second sentence in the last topic (That is the moment when you start living life on your knees. I rationalize it to myself as saying it’s learning to be happy with what you have, but that’s not what it is – it’s giving up), to me one of the most misleading and misinformed (ignorant) statements I have ever heard. However, I may truly be the ignorant one, for I thought it was general knowledge (101), that one who has truly found their place and can say well, that’s OK – and is 100% truly happy is no doubt the richest person in the world, even if all they have is a TV and a chair to watch it from. A Social Security check and a steady diet of strained peas, but this person I have yet to meet. ( ????-Maybe Gondi – who truly knows). I am just trying to say do not set yourself up against unrealistic goals, know your limitations or the ramifications of failure can become devastating.
    And yes, it is good to (have to want to excel, to succeed) but at want cost and are your motives for the good of all. What does success mean to you, is most important, and understanding the full ramifications of you achievements and is it good for all of mankind ( I know – I know , it cannot be perfectly , but to the best of you ability. Exactly!!!! This is all that matters.
    Thank You,
    L’istesso