Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Ambition normally involves trying to be something completely different from who and what we are. We fixate on a cultural, religious, or social value and try to become that way. Introverts in the West try to be like extroverts; extroverts in the East try to be like introverts. This is better than accepting our darker impulses and just going along with our most base biological and cultural instincts; but, it can quickly become an imprisoning set of rigid constructs. At this point though, it may become possible to transmute “ambition” into an inspiration based on experiencing and following our deeper basic goodness, our intrinsic wisdom.

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Quotes (78)

“People were so consumed by their fears and ambitions, their desires. They were so busy planning and plotting their lives that they failed to live them.”

Imhotep 2650 – 2600 BCE
First Western architect, engineer and physician

Themes: Ambition Fear

34. An Unmoored Boat

“Because the wise never try to be great, they accomplish great things.”

Lao Tzu 老子 604 BCE - via Shan Dao, chapter #34
from Tao Te Ching 道德经 Dàodéjīng

Themes: Ambition

“Standing tiptoe we lose balance... pride has never brought a person greatness.”

Lao Tzu 老子 604 BCE - via Witter Bynner, #24
from Way of Life According to Lao Tzu

Themes: Humility Ambition

“Let him who would move the world first move himself.”

Buddha गौतम बुद्ध 563 – 483 BCE
(Siddhartha Shakyamuni Gautama)
Awakened Truth

Themes: Ambition

29. Not Doing

“those who are capable of leading the world are those who have no ambition to use the world; those who are capable of sustaining fame are those who do nothing excessive to seek it.”

Liú Ān 劉安 c. 179–122 BCE via Thomas Cleary
from Huainanzi

67. Three Treasures

“They can because they think they can... Fortune favors the bold.”

Virgil 70 – 19 BCE
(Publius Vergilius Maro)
from Aeneid

“I too must attempt a way by which I can raise myself above the ground, and soar triumphant through the lips of men.”

Virgil 70 – 19 BCE
(Publius Vergilius Maro)

Themes: Ambition

“He who is not prepared today will be less so tomorrow.”

Ovid oʊvɪd 43 BCE – 18 CE
(Publius Ovidius Naso)
Great poet and major influence on the Renaissance, Humanism, and world literature

Themes: Ambition

“Those who wish to appear wise among fools, among the wise seem foolish.”

Quintilian 35 – 100 CE

Themes: Ambition

“A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.”

Marcus Aurelius 121 – 219 CE

Themes: Ambition

“Those who display themselves don’t shine for long. Those who flatter themselves don’t succeed for long. And those who parade themselves don’t lead for long”

Wu Cheng 吴澄 1249 – 1333 CE via Red Pine
"Mr. Grass Hut"
from Tao-te-chen-ching-chu

24. Unnecessary Baggage

“It is a great error to act superior to others.... anyone truly versed in any art will be clearly aware of his own deficiency; and therefore, his ambition being never satisfied, he ends by never being proud.”

Yoshida Kenkō 兼好 1284 – 1350 CE via Donald Keene
Inspiration of self-reinvention
from Harvest of Leisure

“Ambition never comes to an end.”

Yoshida Kenkō 兼好 1284 – 1350 CE
Inspiration of self-reinvention

Themes: Ambition

“All phenomena are timelessly free in awakened mind, and so there is no phenomenon that is not free... no need now for anyone to make an effort to free them anew... Do not strive or try to achieve!”

Longchenpa ཀློང་ཆེན་རབ་འབྱམས་པ། 1308 – 1364 CE via Richard Barron
(Longchen Rabjampa, Drimé Özer)
from The Basic Space of Phenomena

Themes: Freedom Ambition

“If you grasp the leftovers, you cannot hold to reality and will end up cut off from the source.”

Bassui Tokushō 抜隊 得勝 1327 – 1387 CE
Meditation master without distraction

Themes: Reality Ambition

“Whenever men are not obliged by necessity to fight, they fight from ambition.”

Machiavelli 1469 – 1527 CE
(Niccolò Machiavelli)
from The Prince

Themes: Ambition Warriors

“Painting and sculpture, labor and good faith have been my ruin and I continually go from bad to worse. Better would it have been for me if I had set myself to making matches in my youth. I should not be in such distress of mind.”

Michelangelo 1475 – 1564 CE
from Letter to friends, 1542

“I have felt the swaying of the elephant's shoulders; and now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious.”

Meera 1498 – 1546 CE
(Mirabai, Meera Bai )
Inspiring poet, cultural freedom inspiration

Themes: Ambition

“Glory and curiosity are the two scourges of the soul; the last prompts us to thrust our noses into everything, the other forbids us to leave anything doubtful and undecided.”

Montaigne 1533 – 1592 CE
Grandfather of the Enlightenment
from Essays, French Essais

“The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.”

William Shakespeare 1564 – 1616 CE

Themes: Ambition

“Better to be first in something small than second in something great because the first move has a big advantage. Those who follow look like parrots.(#63)”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Shan Dao
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Success Ambition

“When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.
A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.”

Matsuo Bashō 松尾 芭蕉 1644 – 1694 CE

30. No War

“When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.
A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.”

Matsuo Bashō 松尾 芭蕉 1644 – 1694 CE

30. No War

“Every object is beautiful in motion; a ship under sail, trees gently agitated with the wind, and a fine woman dancing, are three instances in point. Man was made for action… a calm is not desirable for any situation in life.”

Abigail Adams 1744 – 1818 CE
One of the most exceptional women in American history

Themes: Ambition

“Now let me dare to open wide the gate/Past which men's steps have ever flinching trod.”

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 1749 – 1832 CE

Themes: Openness Ambition

“I’ve never bothered about getting ahead… What use is there in fame and fortune? In my hut, I listen to the evening rain and stretch my legs without a care in the world.”

Ryokan 良寛大愚 1758 – 1758 CE
(Ryōkan Taigu,“The Great Fool”)

44. Fame and Fortune

“Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principals which direct them.”

Napoleon Bonaparte 1769 – 1821 CE

Themes: Ambition

“I've got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”

Thomas Carlyle 1795 – 1881 CE
"Great Man” theory of history creator

“Ambition is the germ from which all growth of nobleness proceeds.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 – 1882 CE
Champion of individualism

Themes: Ambition

“Success is the necessary misfortune of life, but it is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early.”

Anthony Trollope 1815 – 1882 CE
Novelist as teacher

Themes: Success Ambition

“Everything great glitters, glitter begets ambition, and ambition can easily have caused the inspiration or what we thought to be inspiration.”

Karl Marx 1818 – 1883 CE

12. This Over That

“if you are fond of looking stonily at smiling persons, the persons must be there and they must smile.”

George Eliot 1819 – 1880 CE
(Mary Anne Evans)
Pioneering literary outsider

Themes: Ambition

“that one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye. Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.”

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891 CE
from Moby Dick or The Whale

Themes: Warriors Ambition

“To get the most out of life you must be active, you must live and you must have the courage to taste the thrill of being young ...”

Friedrich Engels 1820 – 1895 CE
Businessman-philosopher, political theorist

Themes: Ambition

“Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.”

Mark Twain 1835 – 1910 CE
(Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
America’s most famous author

Themes: Fame Ambition

44. Fame and Fortune

“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they've got a second.”

William James 1842 – 1910 CE
"Father of American psychology”

Themes: Ambition

“We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”

Robert Louis Stevenson 1850 – 1894 CE

Themes: Ambition

62. Basic Goodness

“There was one who thought himself above me, and he was above me until he had that thought.”

Elbert Hubbard 1856 – 1915 CE
from A Thousand and One Epigrams

“A victory meant the glory of a lifetime. the soul-stirring excitement together with the extreme beauty of the spectacle would seem to give a theme fitted to the heart's desire of a poet. But... the perfect expression of anything means that that thing has reached its culmination and is on the point of declining.”

Edith Hamilton 1867 – 1963 CE
from The Greek Way

Themes: Ambition Victory

“We know that our dreams are not realizable; but it is useful to have dreams in order to see them come to naught and to learn by their failure.”

Marcel Proust 1871 – 1922 CE via Justin O'Brien
Apostle of Ordinary Mind

“Rise above sectional interests and private ambitions... Pass from matter to spirit. Matter is diversity; spirit is light, life and unity.”

Muhammad Iqbal محمد اقبال 1877 – 1938 CE

“You have to reform yourself before reforming society and the world.”

Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅 1881 – 1936 CE
(Zhou Shuren; Lusin)
Insightful satirist representing the "Literature of Revolt"

from Epigrams of Lusin

Themes: Ambition

“A new step in the genesis of mind… A new domain of psychical expansion… waiting for us beyond the line where empires are set up against other empires, in an interior totalisation of the world upon itself… a spirit of the earth.”

Teilhard de Chardin 1881 – 1955 CE via Bernard Wall
from Phenomenon of Man

80. A Golden Age

“The thought struck him like a bullet. Ambition dropped like a plummet. Rid of the heart-burn of rejected love and all the other stings and pricks of life’s nettle-bed his ambitions had burnt upon him, he opened his eyes which had been wide open all the time but had seen only thoughts.”

Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941 CE via Shan Dao
from Orlando: A Biography

Themes: Ambition Wu Wei

“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition.”

Nikos Kazantzakis 1883 – 1957 CE
from Zorba the Greek

20. Unconventional Mind

“I came gradually to want to prove nothing.”

Gilbert Seldes 1893 – 1970 CE
Maker of the first full-length documentary film
from The Stammering Century

“Success—'the bitch-goddess, Success' in William James's phrase—demands strange sacrifices from those who worship her.”

Aldous Huxley 1894 – 1963 CE
from Proper Studies

Themes: Success Ambition

“a person who seeks truth will never find it… a person who struggles cannot understand”

Krishnamurti 1895 – 1986 CE
(Jiddu Krishnamurti)

Themes: Ambition

“When a civilization loses simplicity, it becomes increasingly full of troubles and degenerates. People become slaves of external ideas, thoughts, ambitions and social systems.”

Lín Yǔtáng 林語堂 1895 – 1976 CE

“It is our higher aspirations that make us immortal—not the permanence of an immutable separate soul, whose very sameness would exclude us from life and growth and from the infinite adventure of the spirit and condemn us forever to the prison of our own limitations.”

Anagarika​ (Lama) Govinda 1898 – 1985 CE
(Ernst Hoffmann)
Pioneer of Tibetan Buddhism to the West

“Only a man who is capable of great passions is capable of great deeds and great accomplishments in the realm of the spirit. Only a man who has gone through the fire of suffering and despair, like Milarepa, could have accomplished the highest aim within a lifetime.”

Anagarika​ (Lama) Govinda 1898 – 1985 CE
(Ernst Hoffmann)
Pioneer of Tibetan Buddhism to the West

from Way of the White Clouds (1966)

Themes: Ambition

“It is only in stopping halfway that individuality solidifies and shrinks to the notion of an egohood which contradicts or opposes universality... Individuality pursued to its end, i.e. realized to the fullness of its possibilities, is universality.”

Anagarika​ (Lama) Govinda 1898 – 1985 CE
(Ernst Hoffmann)
Pioneer of Tibetan Buddhism to the West

from Inner Structure of the I Ching

“Schopenhauer drew a gloomy picture of the impotent human will beating desperately against the rigidly determined laws of the universe... and the consequent desirability of reducing human vulnerability by reducing man himself... that man suffers much because he seeks too much, is foolishly ambitious, and grotesquely overestimates his capacities.”

Isaiah Berlin 1909 – 1997 CE
"the world's greatest talker"
from The Proper Study of Mankind

Themes: Ambition

“Spending all your life trying to achieve ordinary worldly goals is like trying to net fish in a dry riverbed. Clearly understanding this, make a firm decision not to allow your life to pursue such a useless course.”

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche དིལ་མགོ་མཁྱེན་བརྩེ། 1910 – 1991 CE via Mat
"Mind" incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo
from Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, 1992.

Themes: Ambition

“If, however, economic ambitions are good servants, they are bad masters.”

E. F. Schumacher 1911 – 1977 CE
The “People's Economist”

9. Know When to Stop

“I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's. I'm sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished... It's disgusting”

J. D. Salinger 1919 – 2010 CE via Franny
from Franny and Zooey

Themes: Ambition

“If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don't watch it, you start showing off, and then you're not as good any more.”

J. D. Salinger 1919 – 2010 CE
from Catcher in the Rye

“It was true that I didn't have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition... How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

Charles Bukowski 1920 – 1994 CE
"Laureate of American lowlife”

Themes: Ambition

“Great things are accomplished by talented people who believe they will accomplish them.”

Warren Bennis 1925 – 2014 CE
Authentic Leadership pioneering thought leader

“In the past there were people who were not rich but contented with their living style, laughing and happy all day. But when the new rich people appear, people look at them and ask, 'why don't I have a life like that too, a beautiful house, car and garden,' and they abandon their values.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh tʰǐk ɲɜ̌t hɐ̂ʔɲ 1926 CE –

Themes: Ambition Wealth

“The unforgivable sin is to not become all that you can as a human being”

R. D. Laing 1927 – 1989 CE

Themes: Ambition

“Only throw away likes and dislikes and everything will be perfectly clear.”

Seungsahn 숭산행원대선사 1927 – 2004 CE
(Soen Sa Nim)

Themes: Ambition

“He who awaits much can expect little.”

Gabriel García Márquez 1927 – 2014 CE
(Gabo, Gabito)
The greatest Colombian

Themes: Ambition

“Success is like reaching an important birthday and finding you're exactly the same.”

Audrey Hepburn 1929 – 1993 CE

Themes: Success Ambition

2. The Wordless Teachings

“Man’s greatest problem, the problem that has caused most of his agonies and miseries, has been his attempt to compensate for the narrowing of consciousness and the entrapment in the left-brain ego. His favorite method of compensation has been to seek out excitement. He feels most free in moments of conquest; so for the past three thousand years or so, most of the greatest man have led armies into their neighbors' territory, and turned order into chaos. This has plainly been a retrogressive step; the evolutionary urge has been defeating its own purpose.”

Colin Wilson 1931 – 2013 CE
from A Criminal History of Mankind​

“We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines. One works not because the work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit - a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation.”

Wendell Berry 1934 CE –

72. Helpful Fear

“externally empty, internally empty, and absolutely empty... there is nothing particularly to do do. There is nothing to work on, no one to make a reference point, nothing whatsoever.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE via Judith Lief, editor
from Bodhisattva Path of Wisdom and Compassion

Themes: Ambition

“Stop acting, stop speeding. Sit and do nothing. You should take pride in the fact that you have learned a very valuable message: you actually can survive beautifully by doing nothing.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE
from Journey Without Goal

Themes: Wu Wei Ambition

26. The Still Rule the Restless

“I don’t really have any ambition, you know? I only have one thing I’d really like to see happen. I’d like to see mankind living together. Black, White, Chinese, everyone. That’s all.”

Bob Marley 1945 – 1981 CE

“The day you stop racing, is the day you win the race.”

Bob Marley 1945 – 1981 CE

47. Effortless Success

“Because of the nature of the penis, men have performance anxiety, whereas no woman ever has to prove herself in this way. So men's egos are totally involved in performance, in doing, achieving... It's ironic that feminism looks at the penis as power and violence when in fact it is very weak.”

Camille Paglia 1947 CE – via Playboy interview (1995)
Fearless and insightful status quo critic

Themes: Ambition

“They were all enamored with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology!”

Susanna Clarke 1959 CE –
from Piranesi

Themes: Progress Ambition

“Like a child at the cinema, we get caught up in the illusion. From this comes all of our vanity, ambition, and insecurity. We fall in love with the illusions we have created and develop excessive pride in our appearance, our possessions, and our accomplishments. It’s like wearing a mask and proudly thinking that the mask is really you.”

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche རྫོང་གསར་ འཇམ་དབྱངས་ མཁྱེན་བརྩེ་ རིན་པོ་ཆེ། 1961 CE –
(Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche)
"Activity" incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo
from What Makes You Not a Buddhist

39. Oneness

“It's as important to know how to give up on dreams and ambitions as it is to know how to generate them.”

Alain de Botton 1969 CE –
Philosophic link between ancient wisdom and modern challenge
from Twitter

Themes: Ambition Dream

“The essence of bodhichitta is the heart that thinks, I alone, personally, will establish all sentient beings in the state of complete enlightenment.”

Mingyur Rinpoche 1975 CE –
Modern-day Mahasiddha

Themes: Ambition

“Success breeds ambition... The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more... Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger, tastier.”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

from Homo Deus

Themes: Ambition

“Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids... Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

from Sapiens

Themes: Ambition

“Think about what happens when we think that we must do something to achieve or possess something else […] the intolerance of what is not leads to unhappiness”

Yi-Ping Ong 1978 CE –
from Tao Te Ching - Introduction and Notes

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