Ambition and Success

Chapter VI

Make Your Life Count

Everywhere we see men and women doing the lower, the commoner things, seemingly satisfied to do them all their lives, when they have the ability to do the higher.

Many people do not start out with ambition enough to spur them to do big things. They make a large career practically impossible at the very outset, because they expect so little of themselves. They have a narrow, stingy view of life and of themselves which limits their ambition to a little, rutty, poverty-stricken groove.

If I could give the American youth but one word of advice, it would be that which Michael Angelo wrote under a diminutive figure on a canvas in Raphael’s studio, when he called and found the great artist out, “Amplius,” meaning “larger.” Raphael needed no more. This word meant volumes to him. I advise every youth to frame this motto, hang it, up in his room, in his store, in his office, in the factory where he works, where it will stare him in the face. Constant contemplation of it will make his life broader and deeper.

A fine ambition is a splendid life steadier. It holds us to our task; keeps us from yielding to the hundred temptations that might ruin us.

What chaos there would be but for man’s ambition to get up and get on in the world and to improve his condition.

Nothing so strengthens the mind and enlarges the horizon of manhood as a constant effort to measure up to a worthy ambition. It stretches the thought, as it were, to a larger measure, and touches the life to finer issues.

“I am determined to make my life count,” said a poor young immigrant with whom I was talking not long ago. Now, there is a resolution that is worth while, because it is backed by a high ambition, the determined purpose to be a man, to make his life one of service to humanity.

This young fellow works hard during the day, studying in a night school, and improving himself in every possible way in his odds and ends of time.

This is the sort of dead-in-earnestness that wins. This is the sort of material that has made America distinctive among all the nations of the earth. This is the sort of determination that gave us a Lincoln, an Andrew Jackson, an Edison, a John Muir–all our great men, native born or adopted sons.

Could any one have a nobler ambition than this–to make his life count? One cannot imagine its failure, backed up by dead-in-earnestness.

The quality of the ambitions of a people at any time locates them in the scale of civilization. The ideals of an individual or a nation measure the actual condition and the future possibilities and probabilities.

The trouble with many youths is they start out with no definite plan, no one unwavering aim, for success, no worth while goal in view. They just look for a job. It may fit them or it may not, and they plod along, doing their work indifferently, with no spirit or ambition to push them towards the heights.

John Muir

It is astonishing how many people there are who have no definite aim or ambition, but just exist from one day to another with no well-defined life plan. Although the great world war has done much to bring our youth to a realization of their responsibilities and raised their ideals to a lofty height we still see all about us on the ocean of life young men and women aimlessly drifting without rudder or port, throwing away time, without serious purpose or method in anything they do. They simply drift with the tide. If you ask one of them what he is going to do, what his ambition is, he will tell you he does not exactly know yet what he will do. He is simply waiting for a chance to take up something.

“Between the great things that we cannot do and the small things we will not do, the danger is that we shall do nothing,” says Adolphe Monod.

It is not enough for success to have ability, education, health. Hundreds of thousands have all these and still fail, or live in mediocrity, because they do not put themselves in an attitude or condition for achievement. Their ability is placed at a disadvantage by the lack of a big motive, the stimulus of a worthy ambition.

“The important things in life is to have a great aim and to possess the aptitude and perseverance to attain it,” says Goethe.

Of course, many people are hindered in the race through no fault of their own, but the vast majority of those who cease to climb and give up (often right in sight of their goal), do so from some weakness or defect. Many of them lack continuity of purpose or persistency; others lack courage or determination. Many of these unfortunates would attain to at least something of real success by merely sticking to their tasks.

If the motive is big enough the ability to match it is usually forthcoming. There is not one of you, my friends, who could not be more alert, more original, more ingenious, more resourceful, more careful, more thorough, more level-headed; not one of you who could not use a little better judgment a little more forethought, a little more discrimination, if you saw a tempting prize ahead of you as a reward.

“Whatever may be your ambition, play fair with yourself. Quit the side issues.” Cut out the diversions. Live with and for your big ambition. Drop all else to attain your end and you will win–you will be and you will have what you want.

“Take a lesson in pruning and lop off the useless branches which consume vitality and obscure the sunshine.” That card club that interferes with early rising; that light reading that takes your mind off preparation for bigger things, and all other wasteful habits. Have you cut them off? If you have not it is because you don’t want the “big thing” hard enough to deserve it, and you won’t get it unless you prune off the useless habits that are diverting your energy and keeping you away from the main chance.

“Success in life is a process of selection and elimination–a choosing between the worthless and the worth while. To get time for things that count you must save time by eliminating all else. Copy the athlete at the training table, feed on that which builds you up and keeps you fit for the struggle.”

Unless you are inspired by a great purpose, a resolute determination to make your life count, you will not make much of an impression upon the world about you. The difference in the quantity and quality of success is largely one of ambition and determination. If you lack these you must cultivate them vigorously, persistently, or you will be a nobody. I have never known any one to make a place for himself in the world, who did not keep his purpose alive by the constant struggle to reach his goal. The moment ambition sags, we lose the force that propels us; and once our propelling power is gone we drift with the tide of circumstances.

“The youth who does not look up will look down, and the spirit that does not soar is destined to grovel.”

A young stenographer said to me once that if she felt sure she had the ability to become an expert literary stenographer, she would go to evening school and would study nights and holidays, and improve herself in every possible way; but if she was convinced that she could never attain very great speed, she would simply prepare herself for ordinary letter dictation, and let it go at that.

She did not seem to think that making the most possible of what ability she had would give her a correspondingly good position, or that the best possible training she could give herself would be the best possible investment she could make, and would give her infinite satisfaction.

The less ability you have, my young friend, the more important it is that you make the most possible out of it. If you are obliged to get your living, and, some of you, to support a family and make a home with one talent, you certainly need to make the most possible out of it, and to put forth much greater effort than if you had been given ten talents.

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