Real Leaders

Vain Ambition

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

The reason that nothing gets done in Washington D.C. is vain ambition. It’s a lesson for all of us in the downside of vanity. Have you read “This Town?” It’s written by the chief national corresponded for the New York Times Magazine. He rather proudly says that he is a part of the political -media- lobbyists’ club that runs America for us.

He calls Washington D.C. “suck up city” and compares it to high school… one where the students never graduate. It’s a surreal town where cheerleaders put on endless parties and jocks play politics. You see the deal is, whenever you get to Washington, you never want to leave. The sense of power, fame and specialness is just simply too intoxicating.

Like high school, the main motivation is personal vanity. 

People want to be popular and will do anything to go to the right parties, have the right friends, and have plenty of money to do what popular kids do. Imagine waking up every morning wondering who has said what to whom about you. Imagine being obsessed with whose news program you’re going to be interviewed on and whose sound bite might make the 24-hour news cycle.

Imagine having your mind constantly churning about what gossip you can create to make yourself more important and more popular right now. Imagine worrying about whether you’re going to get the invitation to a state dinner or the right party. Yes, it’s just like perpetual high school. Sure, when people first get elected they might come to Washington on a mission to serve the rest of us. They may even be sincere about their current convictions.

But convictions don’t run our political system… money does. 

And there is plenty of money and lots of lobbying jobs in Washington to go around for anyone who’s had a ticket to the party. That’s why no one leaves. It may sound awful at first, but psychologically, it’s pretty darn addictive… especially for the vain part of us. The addictive force of vanity is not limited to Washington. In my 35 years of helping high achieving leaders to fulfill their dreams, I’ve witnessed the push and pull between vain ambition and moral ambition.

It’s no secret that lots of high achievers are driven by an inner voice that spurs them to do whatever it takes to please their unpleasable or absent father. And there are others that are striving to fulfill the high expectations of adoring and supportive mothers. When this is the case, there is an unquenchable thirst for recognition.

But no achievement, no fame, and no amount of money can fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom of it.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop people from spending their whole lives trying. The problem is vanity is a powerful motivator but a lousy conscience. That’s why we so often see talented people work like dogs in the pursuit of things that have no intrinsic significance… of things that don’t create any real human value. Too often they sacrifice their health, their relationships, and their lifestyle for “success” that doesn’t really matter. It’s hard to see things clearly, I grant you that.

Our whole modern media world where everyone can try to build a personal brand and create personal fame by blogging, podcasting, videos, and tweeting has made us all a little crazy. Me included. The voice of vanity is never fully silenced. I think the only way to stay grounded is daily reflection.

I’ve developed a morning ritual in which I consciously think of what I’m really grateful for and the most important things I can do for others that day. 

I am never grateful for the things driven by vanity but rather for all of the things that neither money nor fame can buy. I am very fortunate. The years have taught me how important a psychologically healthy lifestyle is. It causes me to think daily about what’s most important to make sure that I create the time to attend to those things.

If there is one practie that has guided my life it is that… and I needed it. 

When I graduated from high school, my ambition was to be governor of California. Not because I had some unique agenda, but because it sounded good. It was my vanity speaking. Somehow, with the help of wise parents, humble teachers, and suffering at just the right moments, I traveled a better path. I am so glad I graduated from high school… if only our leaders would.


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