For the past seven years, I’ve spoken in a class at the University of Colorado called the “Ethics of Ambition”, taught by Dr. Paul Strom. In the past I’ve written about my talks about ambition and ethics.
Below are various definitions of ambition.
Wikipedia’s came up first on Google:
Ambition is the desire for personal achievement. It provides the motivation and determination necessary to help give direction to life. Ambitious people seek to be the best at what they choose to do for attainment, power, or superiority.
and Dictionary.com gives us:
an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.
Ethical questions arise when we must decide what we are willing to do to accomplish those goals.
Time magazine discusses the science of ambition in their story, Ambition: Why Some People Are Most Likely to Succeed . Scientists at Washington University used brain imaging to investigate persistence, the ability to focus on a task until complete, which may be critical for ambition. They found that students scoring highest in persistence had the greatest activity in the brain’s limbic region. “The correlation was .8 [or 80%],” says professor of psychiatry Robert Cloninger, one of the investigators. “That’s as good as you can get.”
The authors conclude that “Ambition is an expensive impulse, one that requires an enormous investment of emotional capital,” which in principal concurs with my estimate that for climbing, extreme ambition demands limitless egotism and selfishness.
In careers and politics, the ambitious pay the price of striving with their health, their family life, and their social life. Mountaineers and alpine climbers (on snow and ice) risk a higher price: many who fail ultimately pay with their life.
Alison Hargreaves died on K2. She was described as “an outspoken mother who unlike her male colleagues was often criticized for leaving her children at home while she risked her life on big mountains.”
One student asked me: “Why, after my climbing partner died, did I continue climbing?”
I replied that I love to climb, and that climbing provides the greatest source of joy in my life. Now that I’m older, I can no longer be the best, or climb hard new routes, but I can still challenge myself. I continue to train, to work at improving my climbing, in the hopes of climbing routes that I personally have not climbed yet. My ambition has become more personal - I strive to achieve goals within my limits. I may not achieve “power, honor, fame, or wealth” with my climbs, but I attain happiness.
I left the students with some questions to ponder.
Should women with young children take less risks and be more careful than men with small children, especially when deciding whether to go on Himalayan expeditions?
How far, and how long, should parents push their children to compete in sports?
On K2, Diemberger and his partner abandoned several climbers, at a high camp, to die in the storm. When do we decide to leave behind our sick or injured climbing partners to die, and save ourselves?
An article in Time magazine discuses a gene for persistence, or ambition, and scientists claim to have found a “daredevil” gene, that encourages people to take risks. If risk-taking is genetic, should that change our attitude towards people who take risks?