“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly” – Radiohead
Imagine you are at a funeral. A close friend of the deceased steps up to the pulpit and proceeds with the following eulogy:
He was a hard worker… highly organized and independent, a skilled communicator who could work well with others, detail oriented, and was able to work efficiently in a fast-paced environment.
He was a wise man… never received a grade lower than an A-, balanced a full course-load with extracurricular activities, and maintained a full scholarship throughout college.
He was a loving man… he loved the sweet taste of victory every time he closed a deal.
He was a committed man… always committed to the bottom line, he could consistently increase profits by 30% every quarter.
You would be startled by this friend who completely neglected the things that actually matter. Rather than a eulogy, it would look as if the friend were speaking on behalf of the deceased for a postmortem job interview. But if these things don’t actually matter, why do we spend the majority of our time focused on building these resume virtues while neglecting the eulogy virtues?
In The Road to Character, David Brooks illustrates how we are living in an age increasingly dominated by the resume virtues. He argues that our increased focus on building our resumes has distracted us from deeper virtues. These deeper virtues include a deep an abiding philosophy of life, the ability to love compassionately, and the ability to commit oneself to the discipline of service to a larger moral cause.
So what’s wrong with “ambition,” and the desire to get ahead? Nothing is wrong with having ambitions; the problem is having an unbalanced level of ambition associated with the resume virtues, while completely neglecting the eulogy virtues.
Consider a person who goes to professional conferences for the sole purpose of building their resume and promoting their “personal brand”. They pass from person to person, handing out their business card, trying to weasel into conversions with prestigious figures. They operate on an autopilot “what can I get” mentality, spamming everyone who is deemed useful. A thin veneer of self-importance masks their inner-fragility, but no one is fooled. Like Radeohead said in Paranoid Android, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.”
As a lecturer in sociology at Eastern Michigan University, I have seen this resume-focused culture among students who feel crushed by the pressure to constantly preform to the point where anything lower than an A seems like a failing grade. Many students have come to view their education as an obstacle to overcome so they can look impressive on paper in order to attain high paying jobs. But this is not necessarily their fault. The impersonal bureaucratized education system uses GPAs and standardized tests to sort through the large number of applicants.
This system produces grade-obsession, overshadowing self-cultivation and character development. Simply memorizing a set of factual bullet-points for the exam has become the main goal for many students. This type of ambition is neither in the best interest of students or the broader society.
The real world does not want someone who simply knows a lot of facts; we have google for that. The real world wants people who understand how to use knowledge to solve problems. In order to solve the world’s problems, we need people who are self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and have a disciplined sense of commitment to serving a larger cause. These are the characteristics associated with the eulogy virtues. These are the characteristics that will save us from ugliness.
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