Is Ambition a Bad Thing in Indonesia?

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I’ve heard somebody from outside Indonesia ask, “why is ambition a bad thing in Indonesia?”.

By ambition, I assume that he means it’s a dream, a goal, that you try to achieve in full throttle — utilising your skills, energy and thoughts, over a period of time. What makes “ambition” different from just regular goals is that it’s often very likely—by assumption and a widely judgmental tone, of course—unattainable by the aspirant.

You see, people will always judge you down no matter what. They will think you can’t make it. They don’t like to see you succeed, whether they realise it or not. This is where ambition lies—right at the heart of pessimism.

The friend from overseas argued that ambition is not necessarily negatively-toned, as some (or most, according to him) Indonesians admit.

People usually smirk at ambitions such as “I want to be the next millionaire!”, or “I want to build a successful startup!”, or, “I want to travel the world and make my money independently!”, or “I want to be the highest-ranking employee in this company.”

We are so used to surviving, but not growing. Our parents always teach us that as long as you can sustain yourself month by month, it is enough. Don’t be greedy. That is why they always want you to work as a civil servant or salary man in an established company such as a bank.

When it comes to education, our parents always encourage us to choose something very “safe”, such as law, medical studies, engineering or economics. Fairly young fields such as information technology, design, the arts, and most social studies are not considered promising.

As an Indonesian, we are always taught to choose the safest options.

I don’t blame my parents. They are just there to help us and the economy was probably worse that time that propelled them to choose safety over novelty.

This friend comes from the United States, where the economy is more mature, the society relatively more open and the education is relatively more progressive. They have more options and more time to ponder at life. They survived, and endured. When all of the basics come together, it is time to yearn for something more.

Although in that sense, I agree that being a relatively poor country, Indonesians have more reasons to yearn for “something more”. It’s probably a notion—a cultural notion—that “enough” is enough. The act to improve life quality only comes to the finish line that says “enough food, enough clothing and enough shelter.” There is no act towards maximising the opportunities to improve lives beyond those.

My mother always says, “don’t take more than what you need.” Other elderly would say, “in one’s taking there’s another’s stake.” We are educated to live with just enough and anything ambitious is considered an act of greed.

When it comes to today where I work in technology & design, enough is not enough. Good is not enough. The medium is always changing. Experimentation is imminent. Profits to be made. Investments to be paid back. Passion to be fulfilled. Principles to be proven. Products to be launched. Points to be made. Everything feels like a race towards the “more” and the “big”. This is where the difference lies. Indonesia’s current young generation, who fulfils most of the workforce in this field, is educated by the generation who didn’t understand the dynamics.

So, there is really no wrong or right about this. It all comes back to the difference paths that Indonesia and United States have taken. For my American friends: why don’t you try to dive deeper into our path, and we do the same, so that we can get into what I call “enough ambition”?

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