Thursday, May 07, 2009

Make Mistakes of Ambition, Not Sloth

"All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer." - Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince

Makes mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. What a powerful notion. There are a few bits of wisdom to tease out of this: Making mistakes is just a part of life. All mistakes are recoverable, maybe not back to where you were before exactly, but we will recover and things will go on. When we realize this, it is time to drop our fear of making mistakes. By being inactive, by not making choices, we are passively making choices of low energy, and mistakes exist there, too--sometimes bigger ones.

There are many barriers to acting in a high valence; most of them are just disguised laziness and fear. Webster defines valence as "relative capacity to unite, react, or interact" and "the degree of attractiveness an individual, activity, or thing possesses as a behavioral goal". Don't you want to increase these things? Linking these definitions is pretty potent, too. It speaks to important benefits of extending our energetic orbits that we act in. As we increase our capacity to interact, we improve our degree of attractiveness. Getting into this high valence requires simply wanting to be there more than being in the lower valence. There are a few psychological barriers which keep us in a low valence:

It is so easy to either get caught up in a safe routine. This often comes from fear of making mistakes and taking risks. This is a dangerous place to be, because it keeps us making mistakes of sloth.

2. There's a notion that it's greedy to want more than we already have. By that line of reasoning, ambition can be seen as egoism or egotism. This is a misinterpretation of what a spiritual life need be. In Buddhism, there's a concept of renunciation in which we give up the pursuit of things that we use to define ourselves. However, taken too far, we are no longer adding to the world and being industrious.

3. It is tempting once we have discovered the elation of meditation to sit alone in meditation all the time. While it is important to meditate and practice mindfulness to approach lives from a serene and contemplative approach, it is also valuable to increase our valence. The Lama Surya Das remarks about how curiously Eastern practices come to the West. Rather than focusing on generosity and striving to free all of mankind from suffering initially, the in road is to focus on meditation. Certainly all of these aspects and more (the 6, sometimes 10, paramitas ) all strengthen each other, and the wise practitioner grows them together. However, there seems to be a proclivity for self cultivation rather than public action. I know this personally, because I am quite guilty of this myself. It is important to remember to act out of generosity and develop skillful means, then use these hand in hand with wisdom and meditation... all in balance.

4. As we learn the suffering from attachment, there's a fear of identifying with goals and ambitions. Overdoing the wise notion to not identify with what we create. We can counter goal/ambition identification by remembering to Start Whole. "There's nothing wrong with being goal-oriented. This dojo (school) came because I had a goal to make a dojo." I learned this wise concept in a recent Interview with Kim Ivy. Since we're talking about Buddhism (well, I'm writing a little about it, and as long as we're on the subject...), a couple obvious examples to me are of the industrious Buddhist monks. For instance, look at all of the publications by the industrious Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama. Another example is Matthieu Ricard, a translator for the Dalai Lama, who is involved in many scientific studies, who has led an effort to modernize Buddhist teachings by digitally archiving important texts, and is an author in his own right. Having this ambition to create has added virtue to the world in helping to reach the enlightenment of others.

5. Over-modesty. Another great stumbling block is to not act until you are convinced of your expertise. You may deem it hubris to act. Certainly, it is wise to develop skill in whatever you do, but waiting until it is fully developed will completely paralyze you from action. If you search yourself, you will likely find that this is just sloth disguised as nobility. Refusing to act is certainly not going to help anyone. Again, I urge you to choose to make mistakes of action, rather than mistakes of sloth. Even if you do make these mistakes, you learn from them and have contributed the energy of generosity and loving-kindness.

As we are aware of these barriers, we are able to overcome them. Pledge with me to increase our valences. If we are going to make mistakes--which we will--make mistakes of ambition, not sloth. This poem by Goethe has been a life long favorite of mine, and I leave it with us in parting.

"What you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it."

This post is dedicated to former co-worker and current friend Joe Duffy. His ambition has brought many great ideas to pass. I have never seen him make a mistake of sloth.


  1. This was a great read, thank you.

  2. Thank you! I've caught myself making this slothful mistake of not writing in a while. Your fresh comment helps me see that.