So why did Macbeth have his hair all jacked up?
Why did he yield to that “horrid suggestion” and initiate an avalanche of terrible decisions that resulted in despair, self-hate, and rejection from his friends?
Many years ago, as an innocent, well perhaps calling myself innocent is taking it too far. But as a callow youth, I pondered my future when I finished my MBA at Kellogg in the windswept streets of Chicago. I had just spent years of self-flagellation and self-promotion to earn a degree and receive multiple job offers. The delights of graduation night were all around me that evening, as students giggled with relief and the overzealous drank themselves insensate. Yet I remember feeling as if the night had been knocked askew. The air was damper than usual. And the light felt unnatural as well. The moon was only a sliver, but it cast a silver glow over the usually colorful school grounds and turned the water of Lake Michigan into liquid metal. And I thought, so what comes next? I have just spent the last three years being told in a vague yet confident manner how sunshine-bright my future will be.
I was sitting there alone, and instead of basking in my achievements and gurgling down some hootch, I was anxious about my next successful step. I looked across time, and I imagined a metaphorical oasis. It was glorious, with lush palms and emerald-green fronds lapping at turquoise waters. It was an oasis of success. An oasis that I felt I richly deserved and would attain, given my education and genuine belief in my worthiness. Since childhood, I was taught that excellence was mine by right and gift. Nothing less was even thinkable.
But even then, I understood that to reach my oasis; a trial would need to be endured and won. Nothing in this life is for free. My baroque Catholicism surged in delight at the thought of hot-blooded sacrifice and the pain that would have to be endured. My great Aunt Señorita Maria Antonia Librada de Todos Los Santos Delgadillo y Herrera would have roared at me to endure whatever stood between me and my oasis of success. I could see her in my mind’s eye, veiled in transparent black silk to hide her sinful tresses from the Holy Father and wearing an ebony embroidered dress down to her ankles; my aunt would have demanded that my success be gained through virtuous hard work.
On the other hand, I looked at that potentially painful trip to success and thought ..,. How do I get out of this?
But Ambition called, and I answered. In my opinion, without ambition, you don’t have direction. If you desire to achieve something extraordinary or unique, history shows us that one must have focus, determination, and be willing to work hard. Is it contemptible to work longer hours to achieve your goals? To focus on productivity and not guzzling down champagne with scantily clad escorts? The problem is that most people do not want to sacrifice; they only desire glory. Thus, ambition is readily looked at as negative by those who are lazy or jealous, which is simply not the case.
When I first started my career as a management consultant, the oasis was represented by a coveted appointment as a firm partner. I was willing to endure the whispered pain and open humiliation to bask in the shade of a palm frond one day. As time progressed and the years went by, I began to suspect that the original oasis I had seen might be a mirage. Like a virgin defiled, I could not possibly rid myself of the scourge to which I knowingly submitted. My ambition strengthened me, and it toughened me. That was both good and bad. Nonetheless, today I wish there was a pumice stone for the soul; I would scrub myself raw. There isn’t.
My work was deceptively simple; I was part of a larger team whose job was to advise companies on their growth and operational strategies. In plain English, I helped ruthless capitalists figure out how to make more money or, barring that, how to cut costs. The management consultant was, in many ways, a companion to the company’s highest executives, and the relationship between business leaders and a consultant could span an entire career. At the start, it was a cozy little world with sumptuous food, opulent hotels, and travel spanning across the globe. Almost weekly, consulting partners guided their clients to private rooms at Michelin-star restaurants conversing about their hopes and dreams, which usually included the crushing of their enemies, seeing them driven before them in a panic, and hearing the lamentation of their families. This civilized conversation was conducted all while sipping a lovely 1989 Petrus, munching on truffled olives, and sitting in deeply cushioned leather club chairs under a soft golden light.
The earlier version of me from business school would have been horrified at the perceived greed and exclusivity of such a scene. But as I continued to intertwine myself into consulting, the slithery, thorny tentacles of desire and avarice grabbed me and started to embed themselves. I can see myself back then; there was a clear point of delineation in time before which I was a somewhat normal, functioning member of civilized society and after which some might have considered me grotesque.
It was a hellish late evening, and after twenty straight hours of consolidating financial savings forecasts from other teams, I heard a squeak. Although by this point, I should have known better and continued on with my tasks, still, I slowly turned. A fellow consultant was standing in total terror as the managing partner stood in front of him, turning redder and redder. “How stupid are you?!? How fucking dare you show me this crap. What school did you graduate from?!?” The hair upon my neck rose in total horror, and instead of coming to the aid of my friend, I turned and sighed in relief that I was not in the crosshairs. Even worse later, I quickly reviewed the analysis that caused the hysteria and fixed it, taking full credit, of course. This was a competition, and at that moment, I thought no one, no one, would get in my way to promotion.
Much to my shame, much of my work was as accurate as the prophecies of Delphi, which were mysterious, vague, and utilized to enact great harm. I believed that I would create the Magna Carta, the masterpiece that would bring in the big deal, and that my work would move mountains, convert heathens, and generate enormous fees. I now realize that my work was an unholy creation, a mixture of three-week-old, tinned meat and smelly cottage cheese with just enough curry powder added to cover the latent rottenness. Consulting advice is rarely original. It’s three sections from one of five other reports mashed together with a new overview in the front.
As the years went by, I yielded to that Macbethian suggestion more and more. I wanted to win and lead. And I was good at it, but it became harder and harder as I moved up. And eventually, with ambition urging me on, I made deeper plunges into shameful acts. I started to break the rules, lie, and manipulate. My inner voice sibilantly said, “Do it. No one will ever know! You will be admired!” Granted, my success was usually at some other poor idiot’s expense. In retrospect, it is clear to me now that once you take that misbegotten step, life will start to warp. The blindly ambitious are some of the loneliest people on the planet. It’s the curse of paranoia and fear – a fugitive from the truth driven to hide their misdeeds from place to place. I parted company with the rest of polite society the moment I sold my ethics and good sense to the highest bidder, and the man standing in the mirror staring at me was no longer my friend or colleague. He was empty.
The dream. Was it worth it? Was prestige the goal, or should I have been faithful to myself? Couldn’t I have had both and still be a success? You can be prosperous at thirty, forty, or fifty, but you can’t recapture your virtue. You can’t buy time, and you can’t buy happiness. Time marches on. My leaders kept telling me to have fun, succeed, and prosper. Yet, I never achieved all three at the same time. During most of my career, I still dreamt of that oasis, and I didn’t stop at any time and take notice of the sorry state of my existence. I didn’t realize that I no longer had a life at or outside work. All had become one. At some point, though, as the numbing years of toil rolled on, my views began to change. The change was gradual for me—a nagging periodic sense that I was missing something, something wasn’t right. My life had deteriorated, which became apparent through my increasing nervous ticks, lousy humor, and loneliness.
My negative feelings, only occasional at first, began recurring with increasing frequency until the dull buzz couldn’t be ignored any longer. I still had a high opinion of myself, but as the years wore on, the slavish devotion to success was starting to dim. I was everything that I didn’t want to be. I had lost the one thing that I needed most. I had lost my pride.
It took a final broken rule and looks of disgust from my coworkers to break through my shield. I remember sitting alone in the dim light of another lost evening and glancing at a photo of my mother, Marina, who had passed away from a vicious form of cancer two years earlier. She was a brilliant soul who was selfless and kind. Marina never judged me, although she guessed at the compromises I had made and the trust I had broken, all in the name of ambition. She would have been deeply saddened for me and grieved for the person I should have been. It was a breathless, painful thought to know I wasn’t the man I wanted to be. I only had one thought: “Fuck this. No more.”
So I changed? Yes, but it was not fast nor straightforward. It took almost two years to smooth out the years of abuse to my psyche. Slowly and with minor relapses, I returned to the person I was. That tentative return journey is another tale. But to my benefit, I realized the beauty and ugliness of ambition.
I think that ambition should be spoken of in the same breath as hope. Hope is the desire for something better to happen, and ambition is the desire to achieve that hope combined with the willingness to work towards it. In many people’s eyes, ambition is seen as an evil that, by tying us down to worldly pursuits, keeps us away from the spiritual life and its fruits of virtue, wisdom, and tranquility.
Aristotle had a more nuanced take on ambition; he defines virtue as a disposition to aim at the intermediate between excess and deficiency. Achieving that balance is a form of success. After all, please think of the person who runs headlong into every danger; it is a dangerous and rash existence. At the same time, those who flee from every danger are cowards. Instead, courage which is a balance between recklessness and cowardice, should be our goal. And thus, ambition is absolutely something we should strive for but never in excess; otherwise, like Lucifer, we fall from grace.
In reflection, once not so long ago, I thought my life had achieved a sullied, grimy sunset. It was a roller coaster of promise, avarice, shame, and, yes, success. Nonetheless, I have realized there is still time to enjoy this renewed view of myself. I can still have ambition, but the goals are different, more rational, and infinitely more enjoyable.