For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been ambitious. I have always found myself wanting significantly more out of life no matter how good life happens to be. If it isn’t with my career it’s with my money, and if it isn’t with my money it’s with my relationships. As soon as I get closer to what I perceive the good life to be, my perception of the good life expands.
I will always be chasing.
Maybe you can relate to what I’m describing.
Whilst I can see the obvious motivational benefits of having ambition in life, I have also felt it’s darkside. Having lofty ambitions can often lead to self-criticism and anxiety, because oftentimes there is such a vast gap between the person you are and the person you would be satisfied to be.
There have been times in my life, where I have contemplated how fulfilling it would be to be genuinely grateful for and satisfied with a normal amount of success and growth. To get a good job, have a good family, and do all of those normal things that everybody loves doing.
I am ashamed to say I can’t stand the thought of it.
I wanted to find out the good and the bad of ambition- how it benefits us and how it holds us back- so that I could make smarter, more balanced decisions in my own life. So I have researched extensively everywhere from scientific literature, through to successful individuals and a look at my own experiences.
I hope that anyone contending with their own ambition can put to use what I have discovered.
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Is ambition good or bad?
The research shows both positives and negatives that come with an ambitious mindset. Whilst ambitious people showed greater self efficacy and job performance on average, they also tended to experience lower job satisfaction.
Ambitious people often experience the benefits of general disciplined living, but they can also struggle with balance and making time for important activities that aren’t related to their goals. Like any personality trait, being ambitious has its advantages and disadvantages.
What is ambition really?
If ambition is just “A strong wish to achieve something”, someone could be said to be highly ambitious if they are perpetually burning to achieve objectives. This distinction is an important line to draw- Whilst you can have an ambition for a specific thing to happen, being ambitious is less tied to the specific outcome. It is a character trait.
If you gave an ambitious person everything they ever desired, they would instantly desire some other list of things in the far distance. What is this exactly?
In psychology, one of the most referenced models in the field of personality is the “Big Five” traits model. This model presents human personality as having 5 basic dimensions.
Conscientiousness is the trait which is the most related to ambition. According to verywellmind.com, highly conscientious people are far more likely to live in a goal-oriented way. They are also more likely to delay gratification.
As with any personality trait, conscientiousness does bring its own challenges- Highly conscientious people are more likely to struggle with spontaneous situations, overworking themselves and perfectionism.
It is not just conscientiousness that contributes to ambition. Researchers for the American Psychological Association found a connection between ambition and extroversion, as well as general mental ability. This makes sense intuitively, as ambition is something beyond just conscientiousness.
Conscientious people are constantly delaying gratification and developing skills to achieve goals, but when you think of an ambitious person you think of someone who wants to be recognised and rewarded for valuable contribution. They want to be seen for their work, in a way that perhaps goes beyond the conscientious trait.
This same psycnet study also linked ambition to a number of environmental factors like parent’s occupational prestige, educational attainment and income. This ultimately shows that the people around you, and the way you are brought up, do play a significant role in your level of ambitiousness.
What does the research say about the pros and cons of ambition?
We have already looked at some of the research which looks to explain what ambition is psychologically, and how it comes about. Here, we are looking at some of the research which analyses the effect of the ambitious trait in different facets of life.
In a workplace study for the Journal of Vocational behavior it was found that your ambition, as judged by your supervisor, was positively related to your job performance, promotability and generalized self efficacy.
Your level of ambition also affects the type of organization you might build. In one study, It was found that as politicians get more ambitious, they are more likely to run personal campaigns and less likely to run party centered campaigns. This sentiment might be applied to other organizations.
In a study of psychologists themselves, it was found that ambition was positively related to income and job title. It was also found that ambition was negatively related to Job satisfaction, and even that higher levels of ambition among psychologists led to Job satisfaction that diminished over time.
In a study of university undergraduates, the ambition and income of males had a significant impact on whether females indicated sexual interest. Contrastingly, the ambition/income of females had no significant impact on mens sexual interest in them, which was determined more by their physical attributes.
6 successful people on whether ambition is good or bad
What follows are the words of 7 men and women from history, all of vastly different eras and philosophies. The only thing that these people have in common is that they all managed to achieve massive success and notoriety in their worlds.
Hopefully we can all learn from their views on growth and success, and their experiences with ambition.
Mark Twain was the pen name used by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who is accepted as perhaps the greatest humorist writer America has ever produced. Like other great writers, Twain had a way of distilling complex fundamental truths about life into humorous prose.
On ambition, Twain wrote the following:
“The end of true philosophy is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities. We will then be a happy and a virtuous people”
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you think that you too, can become great”
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did do”
Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He was also one of the last great Stoic philosophers, and as such had some powerful thoughts about topics related to ambition.
“A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions”
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions”
Professional Football player turned wrestler turned actor turned entrepreneur Dwayne Johnson knows more than most about ambition. Here is some of what he has to say on the subject.
“Don’t be afraid to be ambitious about your goals. Hard work never stops. Neither should your dreams.”
“If something stands between you and your success- move it. Never be denied”
“Think back to 5 years ago. Think of where you’re at today. Think ahead 5 years and what you want to accomplish. Be unstoppable”
“My work, my goal, my life, it’s like a treadmill. And there’s no stop button on my treadmill. Once I get on, I just keep going”.
Helen Keller was an American Author, lecturer and political activist in the early twentieth century. Keller was actually deaf and blind, and despite this grew to be named one of the most admired people of the 20th century.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
“It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision”
“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”
Jim Rohn is one of the most famous self development speakers who ever lived. Raised on a farm in Idaho, Ron made his initial fortune in direct sales.
After working for a company called AbundaVita, He quit to start as an entry level salesman at Nutri Bio. Rohn impressed with his character and leadership, and he grew to run the organization on behalf of its founders.
Rohn went on to teach personal development seminars worldwide, and created the audiotape The Power of Ambition amongst many other works.
“When you know what you want, and you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to get it”
“Don’t set your goals too low. If you don’t need much, you won’t become much”
“Ambition is a minute by minute, day by day activity”
“Don’t give up until you get where you want to be, however long that is”
“Ambition is an eager desire to achieve”
I have included quotations from Buddha for a balanced view about ambition and desire. Born as a prince in what is now Nepal, the Buddha abandoned his life of wealth and endured a life of suffering to achieve an enlightened state. Today, over 5% of the world’s population identify as Buddhist.
“Those who act with few desires are calm, without worry or fear”
“When one is overcome by this wretched, clinging desire in the world, one’s sorrows increase like grass growing up after a lot of rain”
“Craving and desire are the cause of all unhappiness”
“The gift of the Truth beats all other gifts. The flavor of the Truth beats all other tastes. The joy of the Truth beats all other joys, and the cessation of desire conquers all suffering”
My personal experience with ambition- the good and the bad
Ambition seems like it has always been an intrinsic part of my personality. Knowing what I know now based on the research at the start of this article, I would imagine this indicates that I am high in trait conscientiousness, the “Big 5” trait that best predicts ambition.
I can also see that my parents occupational prestige and my academic performance in school, both could have pointed me in an ambitious direction growing up.
Because I never made the decision to be ambitious consciously, I admit that I haven’t really ever stopped to analyze the merits and drawbacks of being ambitious.
I have definitely experienced clear positives and negatives that come with this mindset. On the one hand, It has incentivised me to discipline myself and plan my future. I manage my finances closely and keep myself in good physical shape. I can see how being ambitious and wanting more out of my life has driven the formation of these positive habits.
On the other hand, I have struggled at times to enjoy a lot of the things that you’re really supposed to enjoy, and can find myself thinking quite selfishly. If I take a day off, for example, I find myself feeling disappointed and tormented for not pushing forward 100% of the time.
Sometimes, I am being genuinely lazy and this mindset serves me. Sometimes, I have taken a rare break to spend time with friends or family or recover my health. In these cases, I struggle to really be present and give my attention over anything other than my own projects and goals.
Of the great men and women quoted above, the Buddha sticks out to me as he is the only one whose words I struggle to relate to. He speaks to the dangers of the desire, and the feeling of “lack” that comes as a result of having ambitions. Don’t get me wrong, I can see how that works. But I cannot see how that mindset can be paired with growing and achieving your potential in life. I’m sure there’s an answer, but I can’t currently get my head around it.
How to offset the inherent downsides of ambition
Treat yourself like someone you care about
This idea is one that I first came across in the book 12 Rules for LIfe by Jordan B. Peterson. It is something that I have tried to implement into my own thinking, which has significantly helped me to give myself a break at those times where I clearly need one.
Sometimes when you are trying to push for a better future and discipline yourself, it becomes kind of self-tyranny. Nothing is good enough. Do more Do more Do more. When you stop, why the f*ck have you stopped?? But there’s a problem.
If your goal was to raise your son to be the most formidable and brilliant man that he could be, then you would probably impose discipline and demand more out of him than the average parent. But that isn’t all you’d do.
You would still laugh with him. You would still make sure he knows that you love him. You would still see to it that he enjoys his life and understands his worth.
This isn’t just because you’ll love him whatever he does, but it’s also a much more effective strategy. If you want to make him stronger, you can’t just beat him down again and again until he hates himself and life and you.
You let life beat him down a bit, then you let him know he can lift himself up, then he fails and you tell him you love him, then you forget the whole thing and laugh about something, then you try again to let life beat him down but in a smaller way, then you tell him he can get himself back up, then maybe he does and you’re absolutely thrilled for him. Then he feels amazing and you see that he is more than he was.
If this is intuitively how you would get the most out of your son, how would you get the most our of yourself?
Enjoy the process of your work
Realizing ambition means pushing, doing a lot of work for a long time and saying no to a lot of things that you’d rather be doing.
It’s delayed gratification. Less pleasure and more difficulty now, for more growth and success in the future.
What if you found a way to enjoy all of those things that you have to do to be successful, even a little more than you do at the moment?
You still get that success in the future, but you also get some pleasure and gratification today. You can have your cake and eat it too!
The best part of this is that most people who think they will succeed, ultimately do not. They fall off. They give up.
By enjoying the process of your work, you will inevitabley find more easy what most find challenging and difficult. This makes it much more likely that you will end up doing what needs to be done. You become more satisfied and patient, without losing that ambition that you’ve always had.
Look at what you have done, as well as what you will do
Building this blog has been a slow process. The views have been going up steadily, but when you check the analytics everyday it can feel like a very slow process. A lot of sacrifice, for what feels like tiny incremental improvements.
I started recording the amount of monthly clicks that the site gets in a google sheet, as a way to track my progress. Whenever I am dissatisfied with the level of reach my website is getting, I can go and see how far It has come. It might be small, but at least it does better than 18 page views a month now!
When you look forward to what you want to achieve, it is so easy to feel small and underperforming. Your goals are so big relative to your day to day reality. By looking at past ambitions that have since been realized, you allow yourself to relive that victory in a small way.
I have found it energizing and empowering and can often renew your commitment to your future goals.
Great Resources for those who want to learn more about ambition
For this blog, as well as my own interests, I have read and reviewed a lot of books relevant to the topic of ambition. I have decided to include the book that I think ambitious people will find most compelling, as well as my own experience with the book.
A memoir by Nike’s creator Phil Knight, Shoe dog tells the whole story of how He struggled to build what Nike is today. What I found so great about this story, is how completely relatable Phil Night is as he struggles through the obstacles he faces.
He has no idea what he wants to do with his life.
He has parents that are worried about his path and want him to get a respecteable job.
His dream is initially to be a runner, but accepts age 23 that while he is good at running, he wasn’t that great.
He was introverted and shy, and awful with women.
You come to understand that Phil Night is not really that extraordinary, but he just cannot accept the way his life is. He wants so much more. He is ambitious, and compettitive, and he follows his intuition even when he has no idea where it is leading him.
It is also, and probably more so, a story of pure resilience and grit. Night’s business ethos of maxing out his credit every month to grow Nike as fast as possible, landed him in serious trouble more than once. He lost his bank twice. He was investigated by the FBI for fraud. It is remarkable the amount of times Phil Night nearly lost his whole business. But he just kept ploughing forwards and figuring it out.
When I first heard the audio version of this book, I struggled to sleep. The challenges that I faced in my own life, were remarkeably similar to some of those that Night struggled with throughout his.