by Elizabeth Oldfield
Monday, 11
October 2021
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What Thomas Cromwell taught us about ambition

The chief minister realised too late that careerism would lead to his undoing
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Ben Mills as Thomas Cromwell performs on stage during “The Mirror And The Light”. Credit: Getty

Last week I saw Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s compelling, amusing and stunningly staged, but the most haunting moment is Cromwell’s meditation on ambition as he comes to the end of his life. Even Henry had already reflected longingly on what his own life would have been like as a quiet rural landowner, away from the crushing weight of the crown. 

On Cromwell’s final days in the Tower, sentenced to beheading by the King he had served faithfully for decades, he is visited by the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey, himself no stranger to ambition. “As a boy I put a ladder against a wall and I have been climbing ever since”, Cromwell says, and in the pause the realisation sinks in that the top of a ladder is the most unstable place. “There is a flaw in the nature of ladders”, says Wolsey. “Or climbers”, Cromwell replies. 

During the interval at the theatre, I had conversations with two people outside. Both of them were successful and ambitious, but also deeply disillusioned with the ladders they were climbing. “I feel like I’ve built myself a gilded cage”, one father said to me, with refreshingly rare honesty. It reminded me of Wolsey, who thought it was always the way — that some people will always wake up “with their blood pumping” and want to take over the world, even though deep down, they know it will not give them the fulfilment they yearn for.  

But the pandemic, for all the pain and suffering it has brought, appears to have encouraged many to re-evaluate what is important to them in life. Economists in the US and the UK have identified the “great resignation”, an upsurge in people quitting their jobs. The Harvard Business Review identifies mid-career workers in their 30s and 40s as those most likely to be quitting their jobs. Except, that their analysis  (“metrics such as compensation…promotions…, performance..and training” are the “root causes”) seems laughably blind to the deeper existential questions beneath what appears to be a mass, sped-up, mid-life crisis. If you realise your ladder is up against the wrong wall, you stop climbing.

More than a decade ago, Oliver James’s book ‘Affluenza‘ echoed centuries of religious teachings in an urgent treatise against blind ambition and over-consumption. Don’t get a massive mortgage, he urged. Align your career goals with your actual values, not the performance of status, and remember that committed human relationships are the best prescription for happiness. If the pandemic helps more of us actually take that medicine we will be all the better for it. Let’s hope we get there before we lose our heads.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
11 months ago

This is a very interesting article and I hope the author’s analysis of the reasons behind the Great Resignation is correct, but I’m not entirely convinced.
Has anyone polled these mid-career people to understand why they are quitting their jobs? Is it really because they realize they’re chasing a phantom in the form of money, prestige, etc, or are they quitting one job for another that pays better or isn’t so stressful? In other words, are they swapping one ladder for a more comfortable one?
We’ve seen this phenomenon at the company where I work. I’m not privy to the exit interviews of the departing employees but they seem to be doing a combination of two things when they quit: pursuing an opportunity they might not otherwise have been motivated to pursue but for the pandemic (such as moving to a different part of the country, or returning to their country of origin to be closer to family), but also seeking a similar job to the one they already have.
There’s also something slightly elitist in the notion of someone sacrificing aspects of their life to pursue advancement and a high-profile career. You have to be talented and/or well-connected to even embark on such a career. The wrong ladder problem is, imo, the problem of gifted, or otherwise privileged, people who have many options in life. Most of us struggle to find decent employment and pay the bills. We’re forced up a ladder and heaven help you if you drop off.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Once extended family and community, Patriotism, and Religion have been striped from our lives – as modern society has done to most of us, ‘the Great Resignation‘ naturally is what is left.

And age too…Who really ends up fully satisfied with how one has managed ones life when older? Only the very few.

JG Whittier’s wonderful poem puts it perfectly:

““Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.””

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
11 months ago

Isn’t ambition a multifarious thing though? I’ve never had great ambitions to own a car, rise to higher management (or any kind if mangement), never cared much about status and money.

Intellectually challenging myself and having intellectually satisfying work that doesn’t bore me as been quite a strong motivation though. Without it I woukd probably be half-dead. I’m not sure this can easily be lumoed as a Bad Thing.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
11 months ago

Isn’t ambition a multifarious thing though? I’ve never had great ambitions to own an expensive car or big house, rise to higher management (or any kind if mangement – I’d rather cut off my hand than exchange having to work with people rather than computers and my contentment in a job is correlated to how much I am allowed to work alone), and I’ve never cared much about status and money or clothes or any of that. I don’t resent or despise people who do, I just have no personal interest whatsoever.

That said intellectually challenging myself and having intellectually satisfying work that doesn’t bore me as been quite a strong motivation though. Without it I would probably be half-dead. I’m not sure this can easily be lumped as a Bad Thing.

Last edited 11 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 months ago

I can totally understand the desire to work with computers. Four-plus decades on and the joy of cutting code on a daily basis is undimmed. [Arthur & Ariadne from Inception]: “… there’s nothing quite like it, It’s just… pure creation.”

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

Being a carpenter the image of existence being a ladder leaning against a wall, and then projecting over it; and the climb up being one’s life is pretty good… Because as we know, each step up after one has topped the wall, and the ladder is cantilevering over a fall, with each step bringing one more perilously close to it – overbalancing and tipping onto the ground – it is almost Icarusarian in its archetypal image.

I was spared this dilemma/challenge as I quit climbing at about the third step, got off, and wandered away, and so led a life of going no where.

“Both of them were successful and ambitious, but also deeply disillusioned with the ladders they were climbing. “I feel like I’ve built myself a gilded cage”, one father said to me”

That ‘gilded cage’ actually sounds pretty good from where I stand……

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
11 months ago

I remember a very sad conversation I had with an elderly friend of my wife. He told me that he has spent his working life effectively selling his soul to his career. Worked all hours, worked weekends, spent weeks away on company business. What did it get him? Well he was made redundant like the rest of the company. He found out that his near neighbour who also worked for the company,but enjoyed a better work life balance, was only earning a couple of thousand less than him when the company shut down. He was divorced, his kids didn’t want to know him and he never saw his grandchildren. A couple of years later he died of prostate cancer.

Ambition brought him nothing. He had placed all his energies in building castles of sand and he died alone.

We all have to work, but we shouldn’t sell our soul. My wife’s friend openly regretted his life and wished he had understood better what he was sacrificing.

Last edited 11 months ago by Clive Mitchell
chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

What was that Indian writer’s book ‘A fine Balance”…….indeed – i dont remember the details but I sure remember the title……It takes rather a lot of reflection to figure out that balance – we are not taught it and most dont reflect enough to acheive it. Life has become something requiring real strategizing to acheive any level of balance….

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
11 months ago

I retired in June this year as a result of Covid. But not for a better quality of life – it was because I intensely disliked engaging with my colleagues remotely through Zoom. My ‘intellectually challenging’ work wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of buzz one gets from working alongside people. And with an immuno- compromised spouse there was no end in sight to working remotely.
So my great resignation may end up with me working as a delivery driver, or some such, just for the interaction with people that I require from work.
I just don’t understand people who stay on a wheel they dislike once they have enough money to change or jump off. They always think they need even more money.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

sadly just the need to pay next months bills and top up my meagre pension

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
11 months ago

Are not the imagined view from the lower rungs of the ladder of what life will be like at the top and the reality of what it is like up there inevitably going to be in conflict: fantasy clashing with reality?