Ambition Re-Examined

I’ve touched before on how ambition is a natural driving force in living things. When I speak of ambition I am not restricting it to wanting to progress a career, I am talking about the desire of all living things to improve their lot in life.

I think it is worth breaking down the phenomenon of ambition even further as it gives further insights into addiction.

Whether you believe we were created by a supreme being, or are a process of natural selection, or a mixture of the two, the fact is that the species that are driven to improve their lives, and the lives of their families, are the species that are most likely to survive and thrive. If you are a hunter gatherer, living on stony soil with very little to hunt or gather, and you see a few miles distant a land of milk and honey, you have to have that driving force to move to that other land.

Ambition isn’t just about wanting something better, it is far more intricate than that. It is made up of two separate tendencies; the tendencies to look for fault in what we already have, and to glorify and idealise what we don’t have. It is these two tendencies together that make up the phenomenon that we think of as ‘ambition’. It is a normal, natural motivating force for all living creatures, and promotes improvement for the individual, the family, and the species.

In fact this phenomenon can be seen in all aspects of human life. How many times have you wanted that perfect job, got it, been ecstatic, then been looking for the next job within a year or two? Or moved heaven and earth to move house, and then eventually found yourself much as unhappy with the new place as you were with the old? How many times have you fought to get that perfect partner, then found you can’t get away from them quick enough. Or on the other end, how many times have you chased after someone again and again only to be rejected, then given up on them and left them alone, only for them to then show an interest? They don’t want you while you’re available, and only when you become unavailable do they suddenly want you. Ever looked at the billionaire and wondered why they were still working and trying to make even more money? They are as susceptible to this tendency as any of us.

Familiarity breeds contempt, the temptation of the forbidden fruit, the end of the honeymoon period. All these common phrases essentially describe the same process; that natural tendency to pick holes in what we do have, and glorify what we don’t have. This is the key concept; if something falls into the ‘I have it’ category then we view it harshly, we criticise it, and look to find fault with it. If something falls into the ‘I don’t have it’ category then we glorify it, idolise it, and desire it.

This is a natural and healthy tendency. It drives us to improve. The problem is the way in which this tendency interacts with drugs and contributes to addiction. Let’s look at it in relation to drinking.

While we’re drinking, our drinking falls into the ‘I have it’ category. We tend towards finding fault with it and, frankly, that is all too easy to do. The insomnia, the exhaustion, the anxiety, the blackouts, the arguments, the cost in terms of finances and strain it puts on our personal relationships, and all for the dubious ‘pleasure’ of drinking a sticky poisonous mess that dulls, for a few brief moments, all the exhaustion and anxiety it caused in the first place. Well there’s an obvious solution to that problem, the solution is staring us in the face; quit! So we stop drinking, we have a few days of physical withdrawal, and after that we’re feeling better than we ever did when we were drinking. But the problem is that having quit, alcohol has now moved from the ‘I have it’ category, into the ‘I don’t have it’ category. So we stop thinking of it critically and start idolising it. The insomnia, the exhaustion, the anxiety, the blackouts, the arguments, and all the downside of our drinking is forgotten. Now we are thinking only of those drinks we really enjoyed. If you do this honestly you’ll realise how nonsensical this thinking is. How many drinks have you drunk over the course of your life? How many fall into that category of really enjoyable? Isn’t the case that the vast majority of them were drunk without your even being fully aware of them, or even that you were drinking them wishing you weren’t? Those truly enjoyable drinks are few and far between, and it is usually actually the situation we are in, rather than the drink itself, that is the enjoyable part of it. The only other drinks we tend to ‘really enjoy’ are the ones we drink when we are suffering most from the previous drinking; those days when we’ve woken up with a shocking hangover, been forced to work all day and suffer all the exhaustion and anxiety, and finally sit down of an evening and can finally set to work anaesthetising all that unpleasantness caused by our previous drinking.

So we forget the bad, we idolise, we fantasise, we select from our memory those very few occasions where we really ‘enjoyed’ that drink, we ignore that the enjoyment was really anaesthetising the unpleasant feelings caused by all the previous drinks, and we forget the vast majority of drinks that we were scarcely aware we were even drinking. We want something we won’t let ourselves have, something we now view as highly desirable, so we become miserable. And all because we stopped drinking. But that again is all too easy to remedy, we just start drinking again.

The problem is that when we start again, we return to the reality of drinking, not the idolised fantasy. What we return to is not the paradise we’ve been pining for, but the living hell we wanted to escape from in the first place. The fantasy evaporates and reality comes crashing back in. Our drinking moves from the “I don’t have it’ into the ‘I have it’ category. All this may happen while drinking that first drink, or it may take a few hours, or even a few days, but it will happen. Pretty soon we are with back to where we started, which is doing something we hate and desperately looking for a way to quit. And so the process continues.

This is the central frustration of the addict; what they miss and keep returning to never existed to begin it. It is pure fantasy that exists only in their mind. It is essentially the shift in perception between how we see something that we have, and how we see something that we have quit.

This is a very powerful force to keep us drinking but fortunately, like many similar aspects, just being aware of it can largely negate it. When we understand it we can factor it in and account for it. One of the things that differentiates humans from other lifeforms on this planet is our ability to rationalise, to override instinct and base our decisions on logic rather than instinct. We can direct our thinking, and include all relevant factors, not just those factors our instinctive brain is putting into our minds. It takes effort; it’s always easier to allow our minds to drift where they will, and wallow in self-pity. But it’s far more productive in the long run to take control of our minds and to direct them.

Just remember, if drinking was as good as you remember it being after you’ve stopped, you’d never have stopped in the first place.

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7 Responses

  1. I have read a bit about this, the forward effect bias is very relevant when it comes to addiction, as you said, the whole fantasy that we create once the nasty hangover wears off is very powerful. I got it licked through studying all the aspects of alcohol addiction, the physical, physiological and emotional aspects of it. Plus the determination to quit (even when I thought quitting was pie in the sky and I could NEVER do it). As I have said before, your book is my bible and I keep it by my bedside with several chapters bookmarked. I have now been alcohol free since June of this year, and your book and these posts are some of the most powerful tools in my box for recovery. Thank you x

  2. I have read millions of word on addiction related issues and you really do have exceptional insights..thank u sooo much.
    Pla do keep it up..everu blog comment is in this vein of unique takes on this v complicated area of addictions

  3. Wow. This is a great article. Very relatable and it really put into words the silent battle that goes on in your head when you quit drinking. Thank you so much!

    1. Your last paragraph is particularly poignant: does anyone ever think: “I’m glad i got really drunk last night”?
      No, we don’t. Yet we go back and do it over and over again, as soon as the hangover wears off.
      Every morning, after the standard post-work bottle of wine after a stressful day (aren’t they all stressful): we don’t think: “I’m glad i drank all that wine last night, as I feel really calm and ready to face the day now”
      Alcohol has never been a friend.
      So I DON’T go back and do it over again: not anymore.

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William Porter

William wrote Alcohol Explained to share his approach on recovering from alcohol dependency.

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