Is Ambition Enough?

What’s the difference between drive, ambition and motivation; and why it matters.

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

–Rudyard Kipling


What is it that “drives” us to do anything? Why do you work? Why do you eat Oreos? Why do you start businesses? Why do you buy a lottery ticket? The answers to these questions may seem self-evident, but in fact, are actually quite complex. For they come into existence from within that same complex organism that can destroy this earth.

It’s been my life study for some odd reason, which requires analysis itself (I’ll save that for my journal). I’ve always wanted to know why. Economics, philosophy, religion, psychology have all been my friends on this strange journey of… why?

Surprisingly, biology has recently arrived in my den of contemplation with a beaker full of coffee to teach me some more answers to all my whys. It seems as if the old Zen master was right when he said that the world was within us. I just didn’t think so much of it had to do with our… bodies.

Yet, to convey my insights, my lessons, I know that words are necessary. Accurate words. Meaningful words. Words understood by you, the reader. And then the insight fairy has to tap your understanding to transform it into knowledge, or if it all lines up just right, into Wisdom. Words suck. It just doesn’t happen that way. There are breakdowns in transference. Always.

So, by God, let’s play with some words and figure out why you do what you do, you know, like launch a Facebook Ads campaign, or drink scotch. One thing is sure, we all do a lot of weird things, or so my dog’s face tells me sometimes.

I had a business mentor once teach me that being “driven” is not a choice and therefore undesirable. He said that instead, we can choose to be “ambitious”. For ambition is a desire for success, merged with cognitive action (thought) and physical action to produce desired outcomes.

“Well said!” said I. I liked that definition, accepted it as my truth for years and went on to do pretty well in the entrepreneurial spheres for a while. Ambition works as a paradigm, a framework, a mindset in this world of striving. It also takes an incredible amount of willpower, and the self-discipline of a celibate monk in Las Vegas. That doesn’t mean its not possible, but there is a reason the top 10% of US society make $400k or more annually, and the rest do not. What is it really that separate the top 10% from the other 90%? Lack of ambition? Lack of knowledge? Lack of opportunity? The wrong kind of genes?

So, as an entrepreneur, I hung out with other entrepreneurs. I did the masterminds, the strategy programs, and even got an M.B.A. As a questioner and an observer, I noticed a few things that shook my foundations of ambition. My primary observation was that everyone in business had ambition. Sure, there were lots of variations of it. Some were full of knowledge, some full of experience. Others had neither but whatever they touched turned to gold! It was the weirdest thing to be friends with so many business owners and still not figure out why some crushed it and others floundered. Yet, they all had an ambition to be successful. Again, why the difference in outcomes?

Enter biology. “No way!” says my learned mind. We all have the same biology, right? Mostly? It turns out that indeed, all of these biological systems that are encased in that hairy skin wrapper called our body make us “do”. Chemicals cause. Electrical sparks entice. Neural pathways note, and ponder. Innervations interpret. You get the literal idea; our bodies make us think and act.

Yet there is one piece of this biological soup that is the “master” causer, if that’s a word; it’s our genes! Really. Try this. “Why” are you right (or left) handed? You chose it? Nope. Maybe, but if you did choose, you overrode your genetic instructions. Now for the kicker. Would you believe that two (that we know of) little genes are suspected of being the key causes of what you call “drive”?

Let’s linguistically clarify that term, drive. Just like my business mentor used to say, drive is not a choice. I just never really thought about that. Where he was wrong, though, was that it was not “desired”. (Well, technically he is correct, but that’s another article.) For those of us who want to start their own business, create new value in the marketplace, innovate, create, produce art, or break records we all want this so-called drive. Drive in pseudo-psychological terms is simply a strong dissatisfaction in either the present or construed future; such that is causes us to DO something about it. The dissatisfaction may be reality-based or fantasy-based, but it’s real to your body. The body’s desire to MOVE is real. Drive exits in our bodies, either in our minds, nervous systems or our physical bodies but often it’s all three!

Recent genetic research leads us suspect that the two guilty parties of our drive come from the DrD2 and the DrD4–7r allele genes. Allele is a fancy scientific term for mutation. “I knew it! We’re all X-men!” you say. Well kind of. Wolverine? No. Doctor Xavier? Maybe. Some of us humans have done some amazing things. We will do more amazing things once we really learn to use the gifts those two genes give us.

There is also a very interesting correlation in the preceding paragraphs too. Remember the top 10% of income earners in the US? It turns out that only about 10–15% of the US population have either of these genetic alleles; these so-called “drive genes”. “Fascinating”, as Spock would say. Ready for the really interesting adjunct to this info? Those two genes, the DrD2 and the DrD4–7 alleles are what doctors, researchers and psychologists attribute Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADD/ADHD) symptoms to.

Funny how that works out. A little too much like the X-men narrative in my book. Mutants are untrusted, unloved, and scary to the rest of the population in the movies. So is Elon Musk. Richard Branson. Thomas Edison (or he was). So was Steve Jobs. The point is that those of us with these genetic traits are dissatisfied with what is, or will be, and we work like crazy to change it! Unfortunately, the other 90% of the population without these traits aren’t too fond of so much rapid change, so there exists an inherent battle between these two forces. Thom Hartmann (@Thom_Hartmann), in his book The Edison Gene, calls these two groups in this conflict Hunters and Farmers. Take a guess whom is whom.

So for thousands of years these “hunters”, often talked about by anthropologists as hunter/gatherers, spent all their time living by their wits, in tune with nature and were part of a supporting tribe. Back then, the “drive” genes used to be dominant! Until the agricultural revolution, that is. This then led to a decline in the hunter genetic pool while the farmers increased in population percentage. That’s the short version.The amazing book Sapiens elaborates on the impact of the agricultural revolution, showing how the world has changed and our genes are slow to keep up!

Nowadays, those “driven” genes are expressed in modern-day hunters, like entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, salespeople, athletes, warriors, and international businesspeople. Farmers still manage the world while hunters push the limits, due to their drive. Add to it a dose of ambition, which indicates self-disciplined thought and action, and you have the top 5% of wealth producers in the world. Crazy, because of some genes…

What about motivation? Can’t anyone just get motivated and learn to crush it? That’s what “motivational speakers” do, right? It’s well known that motivation is simply a state of mind based on visualization or neuro-linguistic programming (which are fancy words for narrative brainwashing), and we also know that states of mind don’t last. There is a disconnect somewhere. If your genes don’t make you discontented at the deepest level, do you think changing a temporary state of mind will be enough for you to live and die at the altar of your startup 18 hours a day? For years? In my book, motivation is what you need to storm a beach, not conduct a war!

If you are truly considering the “hunter’s life”, by starting your own business, for example, then take a look at your history. Have you always been that “hunter”? If so, then it’s just a case of coupling the right knowledge with a healthy dose of ambition (including the requisite self-discipline), and get motivated to start. If you’re not one of those hunters, wait until the hunter builds it, then step in and manage it for us, so we can move on to the next adventure!

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