Strong ambitions, lightly held

Posted in: Applying Wisdom

To wish for a fuller, happier life than your present one is natural and commendable. What is not commendable is to despise your present state while yearning for a more exalted one.

 Zen Master Yasutani-roshi, via The Three Pillars of Zen

One of the consistent pieces of wisdom that run through all of the ancient wisdom traditions is to practice detachment. Buddhists teach that one should practice detachment from cravings or desires. Stoics, advocate a detachment from things you can’t control. Christians advocates a detachment from anything that moves you away from God’s love.

But the truth is there is no such thing as 100% detachment. You’ll always want things. You’ll never perfectly accept anything that happens to you.

So how do we handle our natural ambitions to improve our lives? How can we take action in the world while still incorporating this idea of detachment?

Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University, coined the expression to have “strong opinions, weakly held.

When making any sort of decision, he suggested you should go with your gut instinct or “opinion,” and then pay attention to any evidence that you may be wrong. If you are proven wrong, you can “let go” of this opinion and move on to a new one.

This approach can also work with your ambitions.

You may want things for yourself like a cool career, a modern farmhouse in a very walkable neighborhood (that one is mine), six-pack abs, etc and it’s okay to work towards them.

But as you get more information through your pursuit of these goals, you can assess whether they are worth pursuing and if not, let them go. 

If it turns out that no matter what you do you’re probably not going to become the next American idol, move on.

Instead of striving for 100% detachment, perhaps the more effective mantra should be “strong ambitions, lightly held.”