Is Contentment the Enemy of Ambition?

“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.” (Eccl. 2:24)
Is Contentment the Enemy of Ambition?
In: Column, Happiness

May 17, 2011

Are you content? To be content means to have peace of mind, a state of mental or emotional satisfaction about the way things are. But we Americans are hard-wired to continuously improve, to reach for the stars, to build—bigger, better, faster! This creates constant tension.

Mary and I recently returned from a brief, much-needed vacation in Las Vegas. I hadn’t been there in 30 years and wondered if I would like it. We actually had a very nice time—it is a city where you can pick your poison or avoid it. We contributed about $150 for Casino maintenance and to help finance the next big winner. We lazed around the pool, saw a show, window shopped, ate very well, and mainly gawked in amazement at the monstrous, sprawling, ornate, themed Casino properties along the famed strip. The concentration of wealth along a couple of miles of desert highway is staggering—decadent, actually.

To say that conceiving, designing, planning, building, and managing a property that has its own Eiffel Tower or indoor canals or pyramid or lavish fountain show takes ambition is an understatement. Could a person who is content build the Bellagio? Is contentment the antithesis of ambition?

Wise King Solomon, arguably the wealthiest person ever in relative terms, made an observation after purposefully living a life of accomplishment and excess: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.” (Eccl. 2:24) I think the meaning is personal and relative. Let me give you an example based on Prince Charles’ home. I was surprised to learn we had so much in common.

His official residence is Clarence House, a multi-story London mansion built in 1827 by William IV. The official website announces: “Visitors are guided around the five ground-floor rooms where The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall undertake official engagements and receive guests from around the world.”

The McNeely House, constructed in 1979 by local artisans, has five ground-floor rooms.

“Clarence House displays much of Queen Elizabeth's famous art collection, including outstanding 20th-century paintings such as important works by John Piper, Graham Sutherland, WS Sickert and Augustus John. Superb examples of Fabergé, English porcelain and silver, particularly pieces relating to the Bowes-Lyon family are also on display.”

McNeely House displays outstanding collectibles, including mystery pieces made by their children in kindergarten, family photos from every vacation since 1978, and select artwork put on clearance by K-Mart during a blue-light special.

Quoting further: “There are no lavatories in Clarence House, visitors are therefore advised to use the facilities at Green Park underground station or in St James’s Park.”

McNeely House, on the other hand, features two full-service bathrooms which visitors may use to their heart’s content provided they wiggle the handle.

I hope Prince Charles is as content in his home as I am in mine. Does that mean I do not try to improve it or do better? No, She-With-Plans has me staining new bathroom cabinets. I hope to build a new deck this summer. Am I content, or do I have ambitions? Both.

The key is to learn to have a sense of enjoyment, peace, calm, and satisfaction in knowing that we are working hard, doing our best, and moving forward. It is making ourselves stop to smell the roses, to be thankful, to enjoy the fruit of our labor—while at the same time reaching out with lofty, ambitious goals. To always strive without contentment will damage mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical health. Contentment is not the enemy of right ambition—it nurtures it.

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