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.