If you haven't already read Kenny Felder's "Feeding the Ego" essay, go read it now, if for no other reason than to read my commentary on it. In it, Kenny tackles the insatiable desire for fame, and thought experiments to defeat it.
The ego is almost always the moustache-twirling villain in spiritual dramas. Ego, booooooo! The reasons usually provided for why the ego is supposed to be so bad are:
The ego is the self, and feeding the ego is being, literally, selfish. By paying attention to yourself, you are not paying attention to more important things: God, and your fellow human beings. You know, the whole "Love the Lord thy God . . . and thy neighbor as thyself" thing.
The ego is an illusion. You think that your sense of yourself is real, but in fact it is a narrative constructed by your big brain with very little reality. Basing your life on an illusion is a good way to wind up disappointed.
Kenny's essay seems to be based on these assumptions. And I wouldn't argue with them, either. However, I think some distinctions are in order . . .
Is Kenny criticizing vanity, or ambition? Vanity is caring too much about what other people think of you, and yes, that's bad, or at least very shallow. Many of the rich and famous are vain. Steve Jobs, for all of his drive and talent, seems to be very much into "being Steve Jobs." Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corp., and probably every other filthy-rich person who owns yachts and mansions, are vain. But I think it's worth noting that in every field of endeavor, there are also top-notch people who are not vain. Bill Gates has always struck me as someone who cared an awful lot about making software, and otherwise didn't give a damn about what people thought of him. Warren Buffet is a great investor, but he hasn't a shred of pretension or pomp. But Gates and Buffet are both very ambitious – they are fanatically dedicated to being the best in their fields. And is that really so bad?
In a scene from Doctor Who, a young math genius named Adric struggled to solve a fantastically complex problem in order to keep the Cybermen from crashing a spaceship into the Earth. Right before he could plug his solution into the computer, however, a Cyberman blew up the control panel. Adric failed. But his last comment, before the space station blew up, was not, "Darn, now the Cybermen have won," but "Now I won't get to see if I had the right answer." It was supposed to be a laugh line, but it stuck with me. It has a certain beautiful innocence about it, when one's involvement in something transcends the mere results of the work. "You only have a right to the labor, not the fruits of the labor" says the Bhagavad Gita. As Kenny had argued earlier, if your sense of significance depends entirely on future results, then you will never know how your life measured up. If you are passionately involved in the creation of something good, then the moment is completely sufficient.
In that light, I think ambition is a good thing – so long as it is the product of a passionate interest in doing something, and not merely the empty desire for recognition.