Why We Shy Away From Ambition

A dream without ambition is like a car without gas… you’re not going anywhere. – Sean Hampton

What do you think of when you hear of an individual described as ambitious? Do you think of someone who is motivated or competent? Someone who has worked through obstacles and barriers to achieve success? Possibly. Yet, it is just as likely that you entertained negative thoughts or even recoiled. Ambition — for better or worse — is a trait that is often associated with the need for power, rather than that of achievement. (You can see McClelland’s work here).

Why ambition is viewed in this manner begins with philosophical discourse. Over the centuries ambition has often been maligned in favor of more lofty, inspirational endeavors. The very process of envisioning and striving for goals and success, is often viewed a hollow and empty path. This is often evident in the stories that we share.

Consider the plight of Andrea, the young journalist in The Devil Wears Prada, as she embraces the opportunity to work as the assistant to the extremely powerful Miranda. While she may have progressed in her work life, the accompanying disappointment of her inner circle knew no bounds. (The situations she faced portrayed ambition in the most negative light possible.) Ultimately, she was forced to choose between those in her innermost circle or her future. In the end, she earned her place as a journalist. However, she did so at great cost. Her ambition was portrayed as ending in powerful loss.

I can’t help but wonder — is there a kinder, gentler version of ambition that we can all live with?

Ambition seems misunderstood.

In the world of work, the notion of personal ambition is either maligned, stifled or glorified. There is no in-between. No shades of gray, where we can meld our current work lives with the need to manifest that ambition. With the exception of the few that have openly discussed ambition (Hogan, for example), there isn’t a landslide of research to shed light on the topic. Ambition has largely been ignored. But why?

Occasionally, one encounters a concept that is pervasive yet, poorly understood. – Judge & Kammmeyer-Mueller, 2012

In fact, personal ambition is offered a very narrow lane. Only accepted for the likes of tech founders or CEOs. For the rest of us, the connotation is murky, often negative and rarely supported. Why? I would venture to say that a couple of reasons lead the pack.

#1: Stereotypes. For some reason we view ambitious people as unscrupulous or uncaring. However, if your think of the people you admire most, you’d likely characterize them as ambitious. Why? because you admire what they were actually doing, the end result.

#2: Fear. We might envision that manifesting ambition would catapult us into hand-wringing situations that we can’t handle. Situations where we must make choices that are overwhelming and wrought with risk. Yet, work life usually unfolds in stages. One step grows into the other, as we learn and progress.

Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller (2012) discuss in their article entitled On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition, that indeed ambition was related to positive career outcomes (best predicted by neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness). They also muse that ambition is largely viewed negatively by authors and philosophers alike.

“Ambition is discussed by numerous philosophers, with those seeing it as virtuous (Santayana, Kaufmann) apparently outnumbered by those who perceive it as vicious (Aquinas, Locke, Rousseau). “

So, it seems we have a love-hate relationship with ambition, with no in-between. No version exists where we can blend our deeply valued goals with some fantastic version of the future. In fact, personal ambition is offered quite a narrow lane. (It seems only to be accepted for the likes of tech founders or CEOs.) For the rest of us however, the connotation is murky and often negative.

Yet, the act of ignoring ambition can also cause problems. We’ve all suffered through periods of time that we could label as a “crisis of contribution”. In many cases, what we envision to accomplish through the application of our strengths — doesn’t align or manifest within our work. This leaves us in a state of frustration or dissatisfaction.

I’m convinced it could be ambition grumbling to do more.

Waiting for its chance in the sun.

Ambition should be embraced, as it could provide the spark of so many great things.

It’s definition should be broadened to include not only power, but progress.

Moreover — I’m convinced it is not always blind.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, where she currently serves as an Organizational Development Advisor at Gapingvoid. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program and her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, US News & World Report, Quartz and The World Economic Forum.

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