Vocational ambition is like the concentric circles of a target where everyone strives to hit the bullseye.
Most of us start in the outer most circle, while a lucky few with natural talent and/or professional connections start off further within. But one thing is for certain: the vocational target analogy is based on limited space; the closer a circle is to the center, the smaller it is. There is progressively less room to go around; thus, someone needs to be removed for someone else to enter.
It is tempting to think this zero-sum model is a good thing since it creates competition, which, arguably encourages excellence and innovation. However the zero-sum model also taps into our most broken selves, spawning hostility, contempt, and subversion.
Fortunately there is enough room for all to hit the bullseye if, and only if, it is approached abstractly, not materialistically. If the bullseye is truth, excellence, service, or another such virtue, then it becomes infinitely available; there will always be enough to go around. On the other hand, if the bullseye is materialistically based, such as wealth, fame, or a leading role in a blockbuster movie, then it is limited.
There are two great tragedies in approaching a vocational target materialistically, i.e., in a zero-sum manner.
First, rather than tapping into and manifesting virtue, one’s industry results in mere material gain. Rather than food that nourishes in a sustainable way, it simply fills the belly. Rather than a song that leads to transcendence, it simply entertains. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with merely filling and entertaining, imagine more instances of nourishment and transcendence.
That said, there is a greater tragedy in the materialistic approach, one that stings much deeper than a pass on virtue. As suggested above, the zero-sum model invariably leads to destructive behavior. If only one jug of water remains in the midst of a crowd dying of thirst, things are going to get ugly really fast. We all have experienced the desperation, insecurity, and envy competition often generates.
Vocational circles are replete with disgruntled and embittered people, from the outer most circles all the way in. Many lack talent, discipline and/or tact. Others are simply seeking the wrong bullseye, yet they deludedly stick around. Perhaps fear is the greatest obstacle, since progress toward the center often calls for personal growth and alienation.
Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: most folks who abide by the zero-sum model cut others down rather than encourage and support. And here’s the rub: the concentric circles get smaller and smaller toward the center; therefore, even though the number of competitors decrease, the amount of space decreases. Thus, no matter how much closer to the bullseye you advance, there will always be destruction. One may even argue that the destructive forces progressively increase!
As we’ve seen, many have succeeded in the zero-sum model; to their credit, they often are talented, disciplined and industrious. But they also run folks over along the way and, ultimately, compromise their own humanity. Conversely, those who view vocational progress abstractly, as a means to virtue, tend to be at peace. They make their way toward the bullseye not in a competitive way, but with gratitude, awe and joy. Though their work can have materialistic value, they more importantly contribute virtue to the world while caring for and loving others along the way.