On Ambition and Contentment

Years ago, during an Arabic literature class in high school, our educator engaged the class with a discussion about an arabic proverb that goes along these lines:

Contentment is a treasure that never perishes

I’m not sure the English translation preserves this proverbs’ poetic or phonetic justice, as the selection of the arabic wording gives it a riveting ‘umph’. Despite its esthetic appeal, I had a fundamental problem with this proverb. I made the mistake of thinking that contentment was equal to the lack of ambition.

Years later, I came to the realization that I was awfully wrong.

As a young teenager, swamped with the mood swings due to the fluctuating hormones levels and overwhelmed by the feelings of rebellion, rage and delusions of grandeur, I could not envision a life bound by external rules or circumstantial consequences or even self-set boundaries. I was not able to accept that satisfaction, sometimes, comes from acknowledging the fact that attaining ones goals takes time. A pause, or a short break to reflect and appreciate the now. I was not able to process the idea that life doesn’t have to be an endless sprint and that it does not need to be driven by a relentless hunger for more.

Contentment is not the lack of ambition. On the contrary, it is the fuel of perseverance. It is only with the appreciation of the now that one is able to think clearly, to rise to higher levels after stabilizing oneself on a temporary plateau. Some of us, are not lucky enough to reach the sky in a single jump. Most of us, need to ‘brew’ and plan carefully each step of the climb. Taking breaks along the way; for as long as is needed, simply, to enjoy the present. Quantifying these breaks is up to each one of us. Shorter or longer, only one can define what is ‘enough’.

Ambition is a pre-requisite for success (whatever or however that might be defined), without which we are not able to discover our upper bounds, the limits, beyond which we need to constantly push ourselves. Contentment is not an inhibitor of progress, it is a tool that allows us to take a breath, appreciate the progress, manage our expectations, be happy with the milestone achievements and provides the will necessary to proceed.

The key ingredient of success: Motivation? Creativity? Perfectionism? No.

Maybe the title is a bit vague and this specific topic has been used, abused and dwelt upon by so many. Nevertheless, I believe if the topic is to be treated from one’s personal experience and perspective value can be found.

Many claim that motivation, creativity, perfectionism, work life balance and many other hacks and shortcuts are keys to success or at least achievement. Articles keep pouring in the online streams with stories about leveraging different key ingredients of success. There’s a lot of truth in them, but a component is missing. Discipline.

Let’s ignore the negative connotation associated with discipline because here I’m talking about Self-Discipline: willpowerself motivation despite irregular emotional states, hard workpersistenceendurancecapacity augmentationperseveranceobjectivity, personal rectification of inadequate behavior. In short “The Hard Way”.

We keep looking for these magical shortcuts that promise life changing results submerging ourselves into an incapacitative state of mental numbness and non fruitful, never ending search for a non existing ultimate solution.

I have been writing code for a decade now, there simply are no shortcuts in this endeavor whatsoever! It’s a never-ending hardcore training journey that requires one to constantly keep pushing the boundaries over and over again. It has been and still is very daunting at times, boring at others and painful even (the countless overnights spent starring at the screen). If it weren’t for self-discipline enriching a goal oriented mindset I developed, I would have failed miserably. The same applies to many other aspects of my life: My projects, startups, research, implementation of ideas even writing this and other blog posts etc…

The only way for acquiring this skill, I call it a skill because you need to develop it, hone it, harness its power and keep pushing it without ever giving up or making exceptions, starts with a decision. It’s not a short path, it’s a long one so be prepared.

Step 1: Decision
It starts here. Start now, as soon as you finish reading this post, start immediately. Do not postpone, do not procrastinate.

Step 2: Trial and Error
It will never work out from the first trial. Keep that in mind. It takes time, keep iterating.

Step 3: Making no exception
We are emotional beings and we have this powerful instinct to protect and shield ourselves from whatever we deem is harmful or unpleasant. For you to reach advanced levels of self-discipline, you cannot make exceptions! Reduce them to a bare minimum. If you fail, go back to step 1 and start all over again quickly. Do not let it drag.

Step 4: Acknowledging the achievements and the failures
The sense of achievement is what keeps me going personally. Hard work that is rewarded (in so many different ways) is my positive reinforcement that I try to maximize as much as possible. Although the result is not always guaranteed and hiccups are due to occur, during these bad times, do not quit. Keep pushing.

I failed many times at reaching my self-set goals. I will fail more. However I succeeded in so many others and overachieved beyond my wildest imagination.