Do you remember The Little Engine that Could? It’s the story of an upbeat engine that saves the day when a long train needs to be pulled over a high mountain. Larger trains refuse the job for various reasons. The small engine is asked to take on the challenge, and agrees. Chugging the phrase, “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can,” he eventually pulls that big train over the mountain.

The book has become a classic. It’s a celebration of optimism, the power of positive thinking, drive and perseverance. In some sense, it’s a metaphor for the American Dream. Just think the right thoughts, manifest your desire on a message board or repeat them to yourself at breakfast and bedtime, and hey!—you’ll get what you want.

The catch is, life’s not always like that. In countless situations, despite all of the positive dreaming and thinking and talking and doing, things just don’t turn out the way individuals want.

Is it possible that what we see as failure is not really that at all?

The question that presents itself is this: Certainly, attitude and ambition are key factors in moving life forward; but is “failure” primarily a result of having the wrong attitude, of not persevering with spunk? Or is it because G‑d gets a bigger picture than our dreams and desires, and nixes our manifestation boards, arrests our ambition, and halts life-as-we-would-have-it before it gets off the ground? Is it possible that what we see as failure is not really that at all, but rather a kneading of our ego and softening of our edges in accordance with what’s truly best for us?

The interplay between our own ambitions and initiative on the one hand, and divine influence on the other, is complex. Maybe that’s why contemporary culture has taken its fair share of swipes at The Little Engine that Could. One “Far Side” comic features a down-on-his-luck Little Engine sitting at the side of a building with a sign that reads, “I thought I could, I thought I could.” Shel Silverstein’s poem “The Little Blue Engine” also refers to the story. However, his version ends with the engine almost reaching the top of the hill, only to slide back down and crash on the rocks below. His poem closes with the line, “If the track is tough and the hill is rough, thinking you can just ain’t enough!”

Whereas the poet’s emphasis is a cynical undercutting of optimism and perseverance, which my inner child strongly resists, part of me wholeheartedly endorses the notion that my resolve and steadfast adherence to a goal is no guarantee of making it up the mountain. If anything, relying solely on myself compromises the very foundation of my endeavors. Buying into the idea that the course of my life is a product exclusively of my desire, my thought patterns and the determination to see them actualized is arrogant. It’s also dangerous. Unmitigated ambition causes pain and damage.

Unmitigated ambition causes pain and damage

The building of the Tower of Babel is a wonderful example of this ilk of go-getters. It tangibly demonstrates how climbing the corporate ladder can run amok. Fired by a vision, emboldened by ambition, each member of that generation said to the other, “Prepare yourselves! Let us mold bricks and fire them! . . . Prepare yourselves! Let us build ourselves a city with a tower whose top is in the skies! Let us make ourselves a name, so we do not become scattered upon the face of the entire earth.”1

The ambition, entrepreneurship, innovation and perseverance of the generation are archetypical of all later effort. It’s irrelevant what that endeavor is. Whether running the triathlon, starting a business, managing a home, composing music, or any other sincere effort to achieve something, we’re each in some way building a tower driven by ambition. As individuals, we reflect the personal drive that spurred them on to action. At the level of teamwork, we’re modeling something of the great collaborative effort involved in building the tower that was to pierce the very skies.

As we all know, though, the story does not end well. In fact, it’s one of the low points in the history of humanity. So fanatical were the people who built the tower that in their zeal to complete it, if a brick fell down and broke, all wept, saying, “How difficult it will be to replace it!” But if a man fell down and died, no one even looked at him. Sound familiar? We all resonate with the teaching, because we know it personally.

We’re familiar with it because we’ve either acted that way to others or been treated that way by others. Probably both. What first comes to mind for me is an article I recently read in Forbes magazine on developers in India shunting slum dwellers out of the slums because right now the location is hot, and the almost one million inhabitants of Dharavi are inconveniently standing between Mister Make-It and rupees galore. But I needn’t go that far. The same dynamic—if not event—happens on my block when a landlord loads his building with dozens of cell towers catty-corner across the street from a school of over a thousand kids. You get the picture.

In response to the emotional and spiritual underpinnings of this flurry of activity, G‑d became indignant. He said, “They are one people, they all have one language, and this is what they have begun to do! Shouldn’t they be stopped from everything they have planned to do? Prepare yourselves!” G‑d declared to the heavenly multitude. “Let us descend and confuse their language, so that they will not understand each other.”2 New dialects and languages emerged. Soon, our sages relate, one asked for a brick, and the other brought mortar. The fist attacked him and smashed his skull. The glorious collaboration, the Dubai of its day, came to an end amidst animosity, alienation and death. (Much like the Dubai of our day. Ahem.)

We’re each in some way building a tower driven by ambition

The seed of the great downfall of the Generation of the Dispersal was sown at the very outset of the project. The essential problem was that their desire for success and their intense activity were born of egoistic intent. The Keli Yakar comments that “originally, they were all unified . . . However, they also wanted to ‘make a name for themselves.’ In looking out for their own reputation, they tried to outdo each other, and became so self-involved that they created the opposite effect of their original intention: discord and controversy.”3

Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch is of the opinion that “the people of that generation understood that G‑d’s blessing flows into a place of peace and harmony. They figured that by keeping together, they would be able to bring down sufficient divine blessing for physical prosperity, without having to work too hard as individuals.”4

Both opinions, albeit different, communicate that ego was the groundswell behind the business of building the tower. This inner core of selfishness became manifest in the violence that characterized their endeavor. Predicated on ulterior motives, their ambition and drive was not mitigated by a sense of others. It was not informed in the least by the awareness that our capacity for perseverance and our other abilities come from G‑d.

What this all boils down to is that it’s not the ambition itself that is negative, but rather the point from which it springs. Ambition, like everything else in life, is both bad and good. It’s bad if born of ego. The holy version, though, is essential for human survival. If not for drive, tenacity and perseverance, we wouldn’t get much done. Perseverance empowers us in this moment to actualize our goals and visions for the future.

In Hebrew, we would call this ability netzach. More than being ambition or perseverance per se, netzach is the underlying force that drives the ambition. That explains the correlation between the literal translation of netzach as “victory” and the notion of perseverance. We anticipate victory and therefore persevere, and by corollary, because we persevere we are victorious. This soul power taps in to our life mission, giving expression to our deepest desire to conquer exile and manifest the Oneness that pervades reality.

In the Kabbalistic model of the human soul mapped out in the tree of life, netzach is the fourth of the emotional capacities of the soul. The very top of this tree is like a crown that sits above the head. This crown is the threefold supra-conscious realm of knowing in a non-tangible way. Here, we simultaneously touch and don’t touch reality. We sense existence from afar, akin to the way the openings in our skull hover above the actual brain, allowing for a sensing of reality that is in many ways higher than the intellectual mind.

Moving down the tree, we come to the conscious mind. It, too, is comprised of three. They are the core ways the mind frames existence: conceptualizing, analyzing and internalizing. Lower on the tree lie the three primary emotions. These are: love, awe and empathy. Finally, there’s the last triad, comprised of what we might call emotions-in-action. They are: ambition or perseverance, humility and human connectivity. Each is born of emotion, but the drive in this realm of our being begins to move more strongly outward, seeking tangible expression in the physical world, as opposed to the core emotions, which are more connected to the heart itself.

Predicated on ulterior motives, their ambition and drive was not mitigated by a sense of others

As with each of the soul powers, there’s no person who won’t have each running through his or her emotional rainbow. The question is merely whether it will be in a holy or an unholy form. The story of the building of the Tower of Babel illustrates the arrogance, violence and destruction characteristic of unholy netzach. That account finds stark contrast in another building project, one that displays the most holy form of the skill, namely the construction of the Temple of Solomon.

At the outset of the construction, King Solomon communicated to Hiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre: “You knew that my father David was not able to build a house for . . . G‑d, because of the war that surrounded him . . . And now, G‑d my G‑d has granted rest on all sides—there is no adversary and no misfortune. Therefore, I have decided to build a house for the name of G‑d my G‑d . . . Command (your servants) that they cut down cedars for me from Lebanon. My servants will be with your servants, and I will provide you with the wages of your servants according to whatever you say.”

The two kings and the two nations worked harmoniously together. Others participated in the project. In a profound biblical underlining of the sense of peace that imbued the endeavor, we’re taught that neither hammers, nor chisels, nor any iron utensils were heard in the Temple during its construction. This was because whereas iron implements are used to shorten men’s lives, the Temple was constructed to prolong life. It’s a bold thumbs-up to life and peace.

Working with great vigor, Solomon managed to finish the Temple within seven years. From start to finish, the project bore testimony to a vision and drive tempered by love and humility. That’s why at its completion, G‑d told Solomon that it was a place where the Divine Presence could rest. Rather than pose a counter-challenge of “Prepare yourselves!” as He had done with the Babel builders, G‑d here promises that His presence will dwell in the House. And all this was accomplished with dedication and focused ambition, within the course of only seven years!

The bottom line is this: we can fail for lack of cultivating a vision and lack of trying. But by the same token, we can fail for trying too strongly, from ambition untempered by humility. It’s essential to remember that G‑d does see the bigger picture, and that if He “nixes my manifestation board,” it’s for a greater good. That focus helps take the cutting edge out of ambition and effort, rendering it potent but not destructive.

We all need people who inspire us to follow our dreams. Just as importantly, we need to be aroused to the awareness that it’s not “my strength and the power of my hand that has accomplished all this success.” I may be a Little Engine with a powerful drive. But if not for the Master Engineer, there’s no story to tell at all! Shel Silverstein may just have the right end to the story. With apologies to the original, I’d venture to say, “I-pray-I-can, I-pray-I-can,” and remind myself . . .

If your ego’s tough and your attitude rough;
Strutting your stuff just ain’t enough!