One of the reasons that Stoicism is so related about us is that its most famous practitioners were doers. Among the Stoics, we find prominent statesmen, soldiers, writers, lawyers, leaders and artists. It’s clear that Stoicism and a successful career are not incompatible. Indeed, they might even complement each other.
The stereotype of the monk or the dedicated student of philosophy is someone removed from life–someone so inwardly focused that they aren’t interested in anything else. But the Stoics were clearly quite different. For instance, Seneca was a very talented and successful writer. It’s hard to believe that he was not ambitious, in the sense that he wanted to be good at his chosen craft and took pride and satisfaction in that work. His ambition was clearly to be a good writer.
What we don’t have any record of is the suggestion that Seneca was motivated to be seen as a good writer. He hasn’t been described as chasing fame, complaining about the public reception for his work, nor did he pander to the masses. Seneca’s ambition wasn’t to be seen as highly skilled–it was to be highly skilled.
This is the critical distinction we must manage if we seek to be both ambitious and Stoic. Our ambition cannot be direct at externals, but at our own actions. In this way, we’ll never be thwarted or led astray. As Marcus explains perfectly, “ambition means tying your happiness to what other people say or do…sanity means tying it to your own actions.”