Living the Sweet Life: Aristotle’s 12 Virtues, the Third of Which is Ambition

This year marks my 15th anniversary writing my column Living the Sweet Life. This year also marks my 50th birthday. As a way of reflection and remembrance, this year’s Sweet Life will be a continuous study of Aristotle’s 12 Virtues and how they are applied to my life.

By Alisa Murray
Nationally recognized
portrait artist and award-
winning columnist.

Ambition is defined as “a strong desire to achieve something typically requiring determination and hard work.” In my naive youth, I used to think that everyone was born with the same amount of ambition, and now, having lived some, it is easy to see that is simply not the case. Experience has revealed to me that there is a direct correlation between a person’s ambition, actions taken toward achieving a goal and as a result, the level of success achieved in an individual’s life. For some, the virtue of ambition can be so strong that it causes great angst, and there’s a never-ending lack of a feeling of accomplishment. For others, a lack of ambition can mean a life not lived fully and a loss of desire to accomplish anything whatsoever. Of all of the virtues, I believe ambition, at least in my own life, has been both a blessing and a curse.

We all know people who have been given great potential, yet they have never seemed too bothered by just getting by. These are folks who showed up late or only on the last days of school asking for the first row students’ notes, never seem to have the correct change and could care less if they drove a bike or a car to work. Some might not even feel it necessary to work at all. My father-in-law once said, “The people who have less drive are the happiest. They don’t feel deep inside a desire to accomplish and don’t drive themselves crazy doing things to reach self-imposed goals at standards that can never really be achieved.” I would roll my eyes, and he knew what I was thinking. Pure laziness! How can you not want to achieve everything that you were meant to become?

Having ambition will make you successful; however, you have to balance that drive and spend time with those you love! Alisa Murray with James Edward and Victoria Ann.

For the record, I fall into the overtly ambitious category. Yes, I know many of my friends and readers are saying “really?” At the start of each school year, I was that kiddo who made lists of things I needed to accomplish that year, right alongside of a string of sports and extracurricular activities. I was the child who threw up beside my desk right before a test so many times that the teachers were instructed to not use that “test” word. I was the child who would cry if I was not first chair in band, front stage in ballet and winning ribbons at every swim meet. As a college student, I once turned in an exam and received a 98. I stormed into the professor’s office demanding to know where on earth the other two points were, and he smiled and sat back in his chair and said, “Ms. Alisa, that’s my point. An A is an A is an A, and you have made one, just like you always do. It does not matter what I have done with those two points. My dear I gave you 98 to teach you that it’s still and always will be an A.”

In my thirties and forties, I thought I needed to be everyone’s photographer, and everyone should absolutely like me and maybe even love me. In my mindset, ambition was synonymous with “Alisa.” Years of successful businesses and goals accomplished have been great, but there is always a cost – sometimes seen in reflection as a curse. Thankfully I realized that sometimes not being so driven is actually quite a blessing. It has taken years to finally learn this lesson.

These days my desire to be everything to everyone has certainly changed. I will always be “high strung and strong willed” as those character traits have served me well. I will always want to be the best and drive myself to create amazing images, leave others better for having known me and make my mark.

Learning the lesson of balance as Aristotle intended in his teachings of the virtues takes many forms. For some it’s learning to recognize the need to find oneself doing something that is meaningful and taking action. For others it’s learning that taking time to just rest is not lazy; it’s necessary. Spending an afternoon chatting with a friend is more important than working seven days a week. For me, learning to kick ambition to the curb even for just a few hours each week has been a journey. Coming to terms with what is really important is our friendships, our family and stopping occasionally to enjoy them has been enlightening. Ambition for me is akin to taming a very wild and cantankerous tiger and has been, as I am sure it will always be, one of my biggest challenges.

Take care of you!