My Grandfather came to the United States from the Ukraine in the early part of the last century with nothing but a small suitcase and a pocket full of dreams and ambition. He was processed through Ellis Island in New York where all the immigrants had to go. He related the story to me about getting something to eat in the Ellis Island cafeteria. He said that he sat down at an empty table and waited for someone to take his order. Nobody did, of course, because it was not a restaurant but rather a cafeteria. Eventually, another man sat down beside him at the table with a tray full of food and related to my Grandfather how it all worked. The man said, “You start at the end of the line. Go along the line and pick out what you want and at the other end they will tell you how much it costs and then you pay for it.”
My Grandfather told me that he soon figured out how it worked here in America. He said, “Life here is like a cafeteria. You can get anything you want as long as you are willing and able to pay the price for it. You can even get success. But you will never get anything if you wait for someone to bring it to you. You have to get up and get it for yourself.” He told me, “If you alter your attitude about things you can change your life.” What a terrific life lesson. As I remember it, I learned this from my immigrant Grandfather when I was about 12 years old. I was a young boy full of ambition and dreams of success.
The definition of ambition is interesting. “Ambition is having a desire for and making an enthusiastic effort for advancement, power or success; ambition includes having high hopes with goal tending.” Walter Savage Landor said the same in, Imaginary Conversations. Others have said a lot about ambition as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Nothing is so commonplace as to wish to be remarkable.” Deep within most of us hides the ambition to be a success, to achieve great things. Maybe we do not want to be radically famous, but most of us at sometime have the desire to succeed, to make ourselves better than we are at that moment we think those thoughts. With that ambition and desire, there must be enthusiastic effort and goal tending. We must go through the line in the cafeteria of life, take what we want, and be willing and able to pay the price.
I’ve long been a student of what makes others successful. Often times in my younger days I would emulate the qualities of successful people. My ambitions took me from a small town, Mississippi poor boy, on a long journey. I learned from others that being ambitious and accomplishing self established goals was very important. Learning the power and importance of positive self-talk also helped me achieve my goals and realize my ambitions. When I entered the cafeteria of life I started at the end, I went through the line, I took what interested me, and I paid the price. As I made my journey through high school, then college, and then through Law school my ambition was to accomplish my goals, not to be deterred by naysayers, and to enthusiastically work at achieving. The main catalyst for my various successes was, in my own mind, that I BELIEVED that I could do what needed to be done to accomplish my goals. If somebody told me I would never make it, never do what I set out to do, or that I didn’t have the brains, brawn or stamina to succeed. My attitude was always, “You wait and see.” I knew that I would get to where I wanted to be because I never intended to give up.
The great Olympic track champion Carl Lewis said, “If you go by other people’s opinions or predictions, you’ll just end up talking yourself out of something. If you’re running down the track of life thinking that it’s impossible to break life’s records, those thoughts have a funny way of sinking into your feet.” Carl Lewis wasn’t a track champion when I was struggling and working to find my way in life. But Carl and I had the same attitude. We had similar ambitions to succeed. It is a universal attitude. It is a universal ambition to succeed at what one sets out to do. Carl Lewis was saying that, “The world is a mirror that reflects your own face. Frown at it and it will show you a sourpuss. Laugh at it and it will be your jolly friend.”
Be positive in your belief in yourself. The first person who has to belief in you is you. Ambition is hard work. There is always room at the top. Most people want to improve themselves, but too many don’t want to work at it. Ambition looks up; failure looks down. Remember the analogy my Grandfather told me, “Nobody is going to bring it to you in the cafeteria of life, you have to go get it yourself, and you have to be willing to pay the price.”
The best qualification for someone with ambition who is craving, wanting, desiring success, is to come from humble beginnings. When you start from humble beginnings and when you begin at the end of the cafeteria line, you have to muster up the courage and enthusiasm to go get what you want. America was settled by generations of immigrants who came to this country with a burning ambition to make something of themselves. Ambition should flourish in the United States of America. Ambition, essentially, is the desire to fulfill what the Declaration of Independence describes as “the pursuit of happiness.”
If you have that burning desire to succeed, if you are diligent in the pursuit of your goals, if you are willing to pay the price for whatever success that you desire to achieve, you can realize your ambitions. Start at the end of the cafeteria line, walk through the line and pick out the things you want for yourself, and then determine in your mind that you can and will pay the price. W. Clement Stone said, “There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.”
Keep looking up. Hitch your wagon to a star. Follow that star. I close with a poem by an anonymous poet which speaks volumes about ambition.
Bite off more than you can chew,
Then chew it.
Plan more than you can do,
Then do it.
Point your arrow at a star,
Take your aim, and there you are.
Arrange more time than you can spare,
Then spare it.
Take on more than you can bear,
Then bear it.
Plan your castle in the air,
Then build a ship to take you there.