“Getting ahead,” “racing to the front,” or “rising to the top.” The very language of success in our industrialized societies implies normative values of competition and winning, often at the expense of others. Many of us confess to being fed up with this “rat race” that infects our working lives with a winner-takes-all culture, yet most of us also admit that we really do want to be appreciated for our professional ambition. The banker eagerly anticipates promotion, the novelist thirsts for a favorable review, and the Olympian dreams of standing on the podium and being presented with a gold medal.
While ambition is not an ill in itself, and it would be unrealistic to ask people to suppress it completely, especially when it forms such an integral part of our professional lives, its potential excesses are many. They can take the form of inordinate greed for social capital, a sense of arrogance and entitlement in the way we treat others, or an endless search for approval that can never be satiated. The central question is whether it is possible to do well for oneself while also doing good for one’s workplace or the broader community.
Buddhism has traditionally had two approaches to worldly ambition. First is the patrician position, invoked via canonical characters that enjoyed significant social recognition and influence (typically, these tended to be the same people as those with great wealth or power). Celebratory stories about Anathapiṇḍada, the banker (setthi) who donated Jeta Grove to the Buddha, or Amrapali, the socialite and royal courtesan (nagarvadhu), portray a certain relaxedness about socially well-connected figures and the wealthy upper classes, implying that people who had the drive to enter those circles were not condemned, and in some cases celebrated, if they were Buddhist disciples.
This contrasts strongly with the second strain of thought in Buddhism, which regards the hunger for social and material capital much more suspiciously. There is a historical undercurrent or “aesthetic” of retreat from corrupting worldly affairs, such as retiring into the mountains or forests in contemplative strains of Chan (Zen). This tradition continues to provide a lively voice to the debate about whether ambition can be compatible with Buddhism at all. Both approaches have their virtues but should be approached with a degree of intellectual sharpening, since the nature of ambition is seldom so binary or simple a matter in contemporary society.
Businessman and environmentalist David Yeung advocates a middle ground between the uncritical embrace of ambition and a wholehearted rejection of it. He hopes his example will demonstrate that the will to achieve and the urge to do good are by no means irreconcilable. Sharing his father’s entrepreneurial and generous spirit, he is the founder of Green Monday, a social venture that puts sustainable eating and green consumption at the heart of contemporary living to meet the challenges of climate change, food insecurity, animal welfare, and other critical issues.
Green Monday’s successful establishment in Hong Kong has won it several awards and attracted the praise of influential movers and shakers such as Richard Branson. It might seem easy or tempting for David to rest on his laurels with such high-profile recognition, but he keeps a laser-sharp focus on his organization’s worldwide objective of making a positive difference, regardless of his or his staff’s ambition for personal recognition.
“While we should do good, we can’t forget that the conventional world exists, nor should we assume that everyone has the same moral standards as we do. You can’t forget that people have their own struggles every day,” he told Buddhistdoor. The reality is that people desire appreciation. Recognizing an employee’s contributions can also motivate the employee to feel loyalty and commitment to an organization. “The question is: how do we unite the idealistic and realistic worlds?”
David suggests that it is unrealistic to swing from one extreme, purely materialistic ambition, to the other extreme of a monk-like state of being. Common ground needs to be teased out if one seeks to do well and do good: a catchphrase used by David to capture a healthy ambition for one’s own goals that is not in disharmony with contributing to one’s community or the world. “Particularly if your ultimate goal is to not just be enlightened individually but to create social change or, in Buddhist terms, collective enlightenment, you’d better be a part of society. You can’t be detached from it.”
It is certainly true that certain motivations, secular ambition among them, can lack ethics or even be unethical. “But even if your argument against someone is right, your approach might be wrong,” he qualified. “Your strategy might create disharmony or animosity. Before you solve one problem you create 10 new problems.” Negotiating with people as individuals with their own sets of values, strengths, and weaknesses is therefore critical to teasing out this middle ground. Negotiating what is “ethical ambition” will often depend on one’s industry, company, and even one’s character and the personalities of people sharing the workplace.
But how do we know if we’ve discovered a middle ground at all? Andrew Fung, a Pure Land Buddhist and executive director and head of global banking and markets at Hang Seng Bank, highlighted in a Buddhistdoor interview* about how he practiced compassion in the workplace: “I can tell you that many stereotypes about banking are true. As a junior in the workplace, you have no choice but to weather office politics or layoffs. . . . But now that I’m in a position of authority, I try to create a better environment so those under me can enjoy a kinder, gentler workplace than the one I experienced. I’m not aiming for Utopia or a Pure Land, just a better place than when I first joined the banking community.”
Perhaps compassion for others is already the middle ground between doing well and doing good, and it’s up to each of us to allow the practice of compassion to moderate our own desire for recognition and sense of ambition.