Lisa Markwell: The retention of perspective is a life skill to cherish

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The Independent Online


Ambition is good. Ambition is expected. Ambition has never been as important as it is right now, with fewer jobs, less money, more graduates than ever before. Right?

Reading the headlines about Greg Smith, the Goldman Sachs employee who resigned with a spectacular open letter to his superiors on Wednesday, the dark side of ambition was suddenly revealed in inglorious technicolour.

The traditional goals of moving up the greasy pole; earning a higher and higher wage and wielding increasing amounts of influence have never looked so ugly.

Smith doesn't come out of the whole affair with much more than whatever he banked during his 12 years with the avaricious financial company and Goldman is certainly tarnished (for how long is still unclear because money is what talks in the longer term, at least for the firm and its clients).

But what is clearest of all is that to be a "success" at Goldman – and plenty of other places – one's moral compass can get a little (or, in this case, a lot) out of whack.

Goldmans referred to Smith damningly as "only a vice-president" and the only employee in his department of the business – creating the view that after more than a decade at the bank, his career had not progressed as it might have. But a salary of £175,000 and annual bonuses that regularly took that over £1m seem pretty successful to most of us.

It would be marvellous to have a child that wanted to achieve success, but how is that measured? A survey published last week from a university in Indiana suggested that ambitious people earn more money – but they die younger and are no happier. Investing in relationships, whether with family or friends, gets a better return than investing in the markets – if a long and happy life is what's really important, if that's what is your genuine ambition.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of an old friend of my husband, whom I'd also first met in the mid-Eighties. He died far too young, aged just 49, leaving parents, siblings, a wife and two beautiful daughters. The chapel was packed and crowds spilled outside. The gathering afterwards continued for hours as friends shared their fond memories.

The defining factor of the many speeches was how happy he was and how happy he had made others. He had, many mentioned, made all of his career choices based on his desire to work only with friends.

And that crystalised the rights and wrongs of ambition for me.