Contentment Drives Ambition

5 mins read
Published on Mar 6, 2024

In the pursuit of a fulfilling life, understanding the intricate relationship between contentment and ambition is paramount. From young, we’re conditioned by the unforgiving expectations of society to strive for the highest excellence that permeates every aspect of life, so much so that 9/10 people in Singapore are stressed. On the other hand, contentment is often misconstrued as passive acceptance, the lazy man’s shortcut, and is seen as the devil’s advocate in any successful person’s book. 

This mentality is deeply ingrained and for some, contentment should not even exist.  I remember a conversation with a friend while hiking the Fort Canning Park and we were debating about ambition versus contentment and could not come to an agreement. Eventually, she ended with,  “Why be content? We only have one life, why settle for the present when there could be so much more the world could offer? If I were content, I wouldn’t be doing anything useful.”

Perhaps we need to dig into the highly misunderstood term “contentment.”

According to Search Inside Yourself Founder, Tan Chade Meng, who shared on our podcast  that contentment is not a behavior. It is a state of mind characterized by inner peace and gratitude, irrespective of external conditions. Meaning, contentment does not mean doing nothing. Doing nothing is a behavior. Instead, as a state of mind, whether you do a lot or whether you do nothing, you can be content. You have the same state of mind. 

The bizarre thing is, Meng even observes that the most content people, such as enlightened teachers he knows (and he knows alot of cool people), are the busiest people! There’s a lot of active effort to serve the community, to relieve suffering of others. 

Contentment holds the delicate balance of accepting this moment as being perfect, just as it is; And yet, seeing the potential to do a lot more, and then, having saint-like wisdom, to not grasp at the outcome, because this moment is perfect, just as it is! That is right contentment.

Sounds complicated eh?

But to understand this, contentment cannot be simply viewed as an intellectual exercise. But rather, let me take you to a moment where you’re feeling happy, content and peaceful, chilling on some beach with a nice book on hand, don’t you just have the natural tendency to smile at people, be nice, help others and wish for them to thrive? 

When individuals feel content with their own lives, they are more likely to have a positive outlook and be emotionally stable, which allows them to focus on the needs of others. Contentment reduces feelings of envy, competition, and insecurity, which are often barriers to serving others selflessly. Additionally, content individuals are more likely to appreciate the value of giving back to their communities and derive fulfillment from contributing to the well-being of others. This sense of fulfillment reinforces their contentment, creating a positive feedback loop that motivates them to continue serving others. 

So, imagine THAT state of mind being the default? Wouldn’t we have a much happier nation and less burnout individuals? 

Now, how can we apply that to ambition? Can the two interlink? Ambition clearly can be a force that motivates action and change that brings fulfilment, however the problem is most of us in the rat race only learnt to pursue it as a relentless quest – without ever achieving a state of satisfaction. 

See also  Ep 15: Abundance vs Scarcity Mindset from a Buddhist Lens (Ft Daylon Soh)

We probably have been familiar with the anger, frustration and stress when things don’t go our way, and we cannot achieve our ambitions and when things suddenly don’t go our ways, the inability to accept anything other than our goals can even make one spiteful. All this for the sake of ambition. What if there is an alternative?

Meng shares this relationship between contentment and ambition that I think can be a key to happy success:

“If you have the right kind of contentment, then you’ll be successful. It grows your ambition. If you have the right type of ambition, you will grow your contentment. The right kind of contentment is contentment based on Samadhi. And the right kind of ambition is the ambition for all things wholesome. These two work together, to reinforce each other.”

To truly grasp the dynamic relationship between contentment and ambition, let’s examine real-world examples and we begin with the legend, Mr Siddharta Gautama, or better known as the Buddha. 

As Buddha embarked on his quest for enlightenment, he sought contentment not in material possessions or worldly pursuits but in inner peace and spiritual fulfilment. Through meditation and introspection, he cultivated a profound sense of contentment with the present moment, transcending the fluctuations of desire and aversion. This inner contentment provided him with the clarity and resilience to navigate the challenges and obstacles on his path towards enlightenment.

At the same time, Buddha was driven by a profound ambition to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. His ambition was not rooted in personal gain or glory but in a genuine desire to understand the nature of suffering and to offer a path to liberation. This ambition fuelled his tireless efforts to attain enlightenment and to share his teachings with others, setting up the fourfold monastics despite facing numerous obstacles and even enemies along the way.

Therefore, while the Buddha was undeniably ambitious in his quest for enlightenment and the alleviation of suffering, his ambition was grounded in a deep sense of contentment with the present moment and a profound understanding of the nature of reality. His profound understanding of the present moment enabled him to pursue his ambitious goal of enlightenment with unwavering determination and compassion, ultimately benefiting countless beings through his teachings and example.

Fast forward 2500 years later, this book “Good To Great” explores the traits of exceptional leaders and organisations, focusing on the concept of Level 5 Leadership. These class of exceptional leaders possess great ambition coupled with personal humility, aspiring for the greater good rather than personal glory. They’re not ambitious for their own glory, they’re ambitious to do something big for this organisation, for the world, and so on, whatever is greater than themselves.The book highlights that Level 5 Leaders are more effective precisely because their genuine dedication to a larger purpose inspires others to follow them willingly.

See also  Ep 0: The start of an imperfect but beautiful journey

We don’t have to be the Buddha or Level 5 Leaders (YET!), but we can take a leaf out of their book on how to define our ambitions. Instead of pursuing goals solely for personal gain or recognition, we can aspire to make meaningful contributions to our communities, organisation, or the world at large. Sure, it’s ok to want to become a CEO or a billionaire, but take a step deeper to understand why and what it means to your values and motivations to achieve them. By defining our ambitions in alignment with a greater purpose and appreciating the present moment with contentment, we can contribute meaningfully to our communities and the world at large.

For me personally, simplicity defines ambition. I want to earn enough to be able to contribute significant time and money to causes that I find are inspirational, and do great work in lifting people up and enriching them spiritually, psychologically and mentally! Contentment fuels this ambition by recognising the perfection of the present moment, appreciating the joys of doing what I can with what I have, and building momentum, one step at a time. And while I know the road ahead has a huge potential, success is already a flavour tasted right now, regardless of how much more there is to do.

What about you? How does contentment fuel your ambition?

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