Drive, Ambition, Zeal

I have been thinking about drive because I’ve lost some. Not that I’ve ever been a very driven character. I know people who are. And when I read biographies of famous people I’m often struck by their obsessive qualities. Some of those qualities are obviously problematic. Norman Mailer was driven to write but also to attract attention and to take women to bed. Vincent Van Gogh was driven to paint but also to quarrel.

More positively, though, obsession and ambition create focus and motivate work. Some people are born with talent, but very few successful careers are built on just talent. You have to work at it. Driven people work at it long after other people have taken a break, gone out to dinner, or gone to bed. I have no doubt I would be a better writer if I were more driven.

I don’t think I have it in me. At any rate I’ve never wanted to be like that, never saw it as a good thing. My father-in-law, a successful surgeon, sometimes cited three factors that made a recipe for success: ambition, participation, and hard work. I wasn’t fond of the first of those. I saw ambition as selfish. It meant thinking too much about yourself and how you could advance yourself. It went with self-importance.

With the benefit of a few years I have revised my views. I now see that ambition does not have to be selfish. I have little doubt that Mother Teresa was driven. So for Augustine, Luther, Francis. The Bible word is “zeal.” Jesus had zeal. So did Paul.

I don’t know many people who would put themselves in that category, though. Can you make yourself zealous? Can you manufacture drive? To a limited extent, I think you can. You can determine that your goals demand a certain level of intensity, and you can bind yourself to that intensity. However, I think most driven people are born that way, or maybe made that way by a certain kind of ambitious parent. Driven people don’t usually choose to be obsessive, it’s just the way they see the world. They can’t help themselves.

Here’s where it gets a little subtler, though. We usually think of drive and ambition relating to the public world–to politics, business, the arts, to fame and achievement. But I know mothers who have little interest in the public world, yet will drive themselves to the limit as mothers. In fact, I myself never had to decide to pour myself into fatherhood. It was simply the most engrossing thing I knew, and nothing would stand in my way. I was more driven to fatherhood than I ever was to my writing, to judge by my willingness to go on when exhausted.

Something of the idea of “calling” comes into play here. Someone who finds a “calling” just naturally devotes himself to the work–whether it is gardening, bird watching, coaching basketball, or fixing cars. Nobody has to remind him or her to work at it. The hard thing is to get such people to stop.

As I review my own life, I see that I had such a calling to write. I loved it, I never got enough of it, I was ever eager to do more and I was zealous to write well. The same with parenting. Yes, other people were more driven than I. But it’s relative, and I suppose my ambitions in those areas would rank fairly high.

I’m now in my sixties, and I can feel quite clearly that I do not have the drive I once did. I’m pretty sure it’s related to hormones. But it’s also related to circumstances. My kids are grown and married. It feels as though I’ve found my level as a writer–I’m probably not going to be published in The New Yorker or win the National Book Award. If I were a more driven character this might drive me to ever-greater efforts to transcend, but instead it leaves me just content to keep doing what I do and love to do. I don’t have much ambition any more. And I miss it.

I miss it like a gap in my teeth that my tongue keeps finding. A force in myself that I relied on–I just had to write–isn’t really there any more. It’s as though you sat down to breakfast one morning and found you didn’t have much of a taste for food. You still eat. But it’s something you choose to do, not something that comes automatically.

My mother, who had lots of sayings we repeat fondly, used to say that when you are young, your great temptation is sex; when you are middle-aged, your great temptation is money; and when you are old, your great temptation is grumbling. I’m thinking that grumbling comes in because life isn’t providing built-in gusto for you; you miss it, and you tend to think someone or something must be to blame.

If God is behind the aging process, as I think he must be, then he pays us a great compliment, disguised as a challenge. We have reached the stage of maturity–or should have–when we must provide our own motivation. We don’t find ourselves seized by a vocation. We aren’t driven any more. Not the longing for sex, nor money, nor fame, nor achievement, nor love makes us live and breathe. We have to decide what is worth pursuing, and do it.



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10 Responses to “Drive, Ambition, Zeal”

  1. Karen Kalinski Says:

    Warm hug to Popie. I think you and she were in my dreams last night – Stanford reunion that wasn’t going very well. Anyway, I would have to guess that you have quite a lot of drive, based on the drive I see in your grown chidden. Seems to me that they all wanted to excel in their own way, past the drive of most people. Very admirable, although thinking about running a marathon makes me feel tired. As for old age, I don’t know. I’m finding that it is a chance for me to explore my creativity and artistry, and I’m still curious about almost everything. So I would guess that God has further enlargement and enrichment in store for you, but in what way I would have no idea. Your bucket list? Grandfather? Going back for a PhD?
    Love, Karen

    • timstafford Says:

      Drive is different for everyone, isn’t it? I’m so glad you are exploring creativity and artistry. Marathons make you tired? Bucket lists make me tired. And definitely going back for a PhD doesn’t appeal… I know too much about the suffering involved, and I don’t have that much drive any more. Grandchildren I am definitely interested in.

      But motivation is different at 60, I’m sure of that. One can respond in the wrong way, by focusing on the loss, or griping. I like the attitude you betray.
      “God has further enlargement and enrichment in store for you.” Amen and amen.

  2. Bill Williamson Says:

    Joe, after our time this morning, I read tis and thought you might find it helpful or at least thoughtful. No answers to our “boredom”, but perhaps a peak at where we are in life.

  3. Pastor Jun Gonzaga Says:

    Thanks Tim for giving me a handle in what I am going through right now. I have just turned 60 and I am still working with a very zealous, if not driven, organization. Thus, most often I find myself “tired”. Even before, I find words like drive, ambition, and Zeal, with their usual unintended effect on people, hard to square with the description of Jesus’ ministry– “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” (Matt. 12:20). It is in this light that I really appreciate Ajith Fernando’s book, “Jesus Driven Ministry.” God bless.

    • timstafford Says:

      Interesting point about Jesus. He was unquestionably very zealous himself, and he unquestionably demanded a lot of the twelve. On the other hand, he was very gentle with the crowds who followed him, with the sick and afflicted and desperate. It was not one size fits all. Unfortunately, our organizations and societies are not so flexible. I agree with you that Ajith’s *Jesus Driven Ministry* is wonderfully helpful, as it gets to these questions very realistically yet without losing any idealism.

  4. Bill Reichert Says:

    Yes, we grow a bit tired, Tim. But I’ve found that my kids keep me on my toes. I’m not sure if that’s drive, ambition, or zeal, but my daughter keeps me keen on religious and social issues, and my son on economic and political points. If I relax, I slip in to irrelevance! So, onward…

  5. Jason Jones Says:

    Great thoughts, Tim. Much to think about.

  6. Mark Cowper-Smith Says:

    I am 62 years old. Most of my peers who had ambition and drive were people I didn’t enjoy having as friends. I never trusted ambition in myself when I found it rising up. At this age I have fulfilled all my personal need for significance and there is no drive or ambition left in me yet I continue to give myself to my calling. A few years ago I was officiating the wedding of my godson. Many old friends I have not seen for many years were there. I was sitting with one of them who had amassed a fortune and was planning his retirement. His wife asked me when I was going to retire. I thought about it and said, “never”. This came as a surprise to them and they asked why not. The answer that came out of my mouth surprised me. I said, “I am doing what I was made for, why would I stop?” My wealthy friend looked at me and said, “I wish I could say that.” I think you are right, when we find our calling [what we were made for] we do it because it is nothing more than who we are. Calling does not require ambition and drive. True godly zeal comes with the calling. When God calls us to something He provides the motivation as long as in the doing we stay close to Him.

  7. fred prudek Says:

    Tim, I can think of an example of zeal without personal ambition. That is the early Irish monks, peregrini as they were called e.g. St. Columba of Iona, St. Columbanus or St. Gall. They left their homeland and felt called to risk their lives for the Scots or the Angles or to the heathen on the Continent. They would leave Ireland, never to return, with 11 others in search of following the Wild Goose/Holy Spirit. They took only the tunic on their backs and a staff and some Holy writings of Scripture. They did not seek any personal fame or fortune, but rather to “find a lonely spot to pray and to win some souls for Christ.” They were the “Light of the Western World” for a number of centuries, 6th-9th, to whom we are much indebted today.

  8. Carrie Bare Says:

    I am also in my 60’s now and find I resonate with much of this. It seems to come and go. I still have passion–for Jesus and the gospel, for family and my love of them, for certain creative endeavors or wonderful ideas that come up in the university world, for friends that I love and make a good dinner party happen…but yeah, some things in the work life and in the world of achievement are never going to happen. And feelings of enthusiasm and the energy to plan new things and go for it seem to go up and down. The body is tired and sometimes the mind is also tired!

    Also, I do wonder a lot about calling at our age. What does that look like, in faithfulness? I think it has to do with passing on The Blessing, so to speak and a good test of maturity would be: can we muster passion for passing on something to someone else so they can go on their own heroic journey?! I don’t know…needs more reflection, I guess. But you are so very good at getting us to think about things that matter. Thank you!

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