Vail Daily column: Redirecting the force of ambition
My mother recently bumped into an old acquaintance with whom I also had occasion to meet some 20 years ago. The woman, not able to recall my name, nonetheless remembered to inquire whether I was making any headway into my fervently expressed desire to become a justice on the United States Supreme Court. That this lofty goal survived two decades within an essential stranger’s mind is excellent proof of the depths of my ambition as an early teenager. When properly channeled, ambition is a critical ingredient to success. However, many of the legal system’s and the world’s most insidious problems were created or exacerbated by the machinations of the misguidedly ambitious.
Throughout my schooling and the early years of law practice, I was surrounded by an ambitious lot. This should not necessarily have a negative connotation. Most of the ambition was inspiring: many of my friends and colleagues were motivated to make a constructive societal impact. But there was a not insignificant amount of persons driven by ruthless ambition, which was both off-putting and terrifying. There is nothing scarier than an evil, smart person whose inner drive will not relent until their nefarious goal is met.
The ends and means of these species of ambition are vastly different. The positive sort is primarily outcome-based, whereas the type that I lament is status-based. One fueled by outcome-based ambition seeks things such as contentment, the ability to provide for one’s family, leaving the world a better place and other personal and altruistic objectives. To fulfill their mission, people of this stripe are more prone to employ truth, cooperation and charm. These are people that we all would like.
The aims of status-based ambition are largely superficial in nature: wealth, titles and recognition are prime examples. To hit these marks, every potential action is on the table, legal or illegal. One may employ subterfuge, undue pressure, torture, murder and the like. The latter examples are admittedly extreme, but not as rare as they should be. An associate at a large, metropolis-based law firm who wants nothing more than to make partner is not likely to resort to kidnapping or waterboarding to subdue their rivals. Nonetheless, the ambitious young lawyer is incentivized, financially and otherwise, to implement distasteful tactics to move into that corner office. Often, this means unethical litigation behavior such as “disappearing” documents or abusive motions practice. Even more fundamentally, it means taking on cases that are on their face insane simply because the client has deep pockets.
As a younger man, my single-minded focus dangerously bordered on status-based ambition. I wanted to be a famous jurist, adored by all, and rich beyond imagination. I worked tirelessly, built my resume and rarely slept. I am not sure I would have been friends with myself as a high school junior or perhaps even later. Please note that my parents are saints: the pressure to succeed was entirely self-imposed. I had and have an innate ambition that, despite its pitfalls, I never take for granted.
Once akin to the white-hot clear whiskey flowing straight from the still, I have since aged in charred oak, mellowing out and hopefully taking on more nuance and character. To a certain extent, the fire that burned within me in high school is responsible for the happy path on which I find myself today.
I knew my chosen profession from a young age and used the impetus of youth to pursue that dream. However, had I not quelled the intensity of my ambition, I would either be dead of a heart attack, friendless, spouseless, a jerk or a combination thereof. Balance is a principle readily applied in this context. Aimless and lazy is a combination that guarantees mediocrity, but constant striving at the expense of all else is no better and indeed may be much worse.
As I matured and had a better view of myself and my place in the world, I began to harness my ambition to live a life that gybed with what I found to be actually important: health, the love of a good woman, an excellent family dynamic, great friends and the opportunity to be outside and active.
Professionally, I was motivated to help people resolve their conflicts and to offer my legal skills to nonprofit organizations seeking to better the community and environment. Realizing that those who toiled mercilessly and “had it all” were often miserable was a massive awakening. Blinded by their ambition, they left failed relationships, bratty kids, poor health and the general scorn of their peers in their wake. A better cautionary tale could not be told.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril, LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, please contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.r kvlaw.com.