Greedy or Ambitious: Which Are You, and Do You Know the Difference?

Greed, avaritia in Latin, is one of the seven deadly sins.
Merriam-Webster defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.”
I expected better. Merriam-Webster’s definition says nothing. It’s presumptuous to boot.
Who is this philosopher king to declare that someone has more of something than is needed? Who is to say what’s needed and how much of it is needed?
No such person exists. If such a person were to offer such judgment, you’d reflectively despise that person. He or she would be a Gladys Kravitz, a pariah, and rightly so.
Now, juxtapose greed with ambition. Merriam-Webster defines as ambition as nebulously as it defines greed. Ambition, Merriam-Webster tells us is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power; a desire to achieve a particular end.”
Intent reveals the difference.
Greed is an opprobrium. It’s an insult. Ambition, in contrast, is a compliment.
Greed and ambition are separated by means, which also provides the distinction.
Permit me to clarify the means.
Ambition is to pursue goals through work, perseverance, diligence, and patience. Ambition is marked by value creation, which leads to many desirable ends, including wealth.
Greed, in contrast, is to pursue ends through shortcuts: theft, manipulation, deception, dishonesty, coercion, political lobbying. The greedy individual seeks to satisfy demands through efforts that create the least value, or destroy value.
Warren Buffett compounds his wealth endlessly through intelligent investing and patience. The means signify ambition. The end is great wealth.
Bernie Madoff compounds his wealth through deception, theft, and obfuscation. The means signify greed. The end is poverty.
I’ve also noticed that the people who most invoke the word greed most frequently suffer from another deadly sin — jealousy.
Someone views another person’s success and labels it as greed when ambition is the appropriate word. The person applying the label attempts to assuage a sense of inferiority through moral grandstanding. To label the other person greedy is the lazy (or slothful, another deadly sin) way out.
Failure to understand how the economy works compounds the problem.
The economy is viewed as a zero-sum game, like a sporting event or a political contest. One person wins, another must lose.
Compare yourself to Buffett or Gates and you could be tempted to label yourself as a loser through a zero-sum lens. The sense of inferiority is assuaged by denigrating the putative winner: the winner is greedy.

Bill Gates and Wealth Building

The economy is no zero-sum game. Economic life, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t analogous to a sporting event.
When Bill Gates accumulates $70 billion in assets and investments, he doesn’t concurrently create 70,000 welfare mothers. To the contrary, in wealth building, Gates much more likely created 70,000 millionaires. Wealth is nearly always a byproduct of value creation through voluntary exchange.
To desire wealth, even great wealth, and to pursue that desire of wealth building is itself no indicator of greed. Investing is a means to pursue wealth.

Diligence and Discovery

If the goal is to invest to accumulate $1 million, $100 million, or $10 billion, the goal fails to connote greed or ambition. Only the means to the goal can do that.
As for yours truly, my goal is to continually accumulate wealth. I have no end figure for building wealth. All I can say is that I want the figure today to continue to grow until the end of my tomorrows. I wish the same for you, if you so desire.
I attempt to perpetuate my goal through diligence and discovery. I want to accumulate as much wealth as my skills and market value will allow me. I see nothing greedy in my pursuit of wealth. In wealth building, I take nothing that no one willingly gives.
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” declared the lead character Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. “Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
No, that’s not greed, as Gordon Gekko defines it. That’s ambition. Ambition, for choice of a better word, is good.

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