Someone recently asked me this question and I found it surprisingly hard to come up with a compelling answer. I talked my way out without a clear yes or no, but the question kept pondering in my head for a while. If you take a look at the dictionary, it says that being ambitious means the same as ‘having a desire to be successful, powerful or famous’. But then again, what is even success and how do you measure it?
I guess everyone has her own definition of success and it’s certainly not one-dimensional. For some people its a well-paying, secure job in consulting and a personal vineyard. For others its running a yoga studio in Bali and being at peace with everyone and everything. Or a bunch of children running around the house and getting the loudest applause at the bi-weekly stand-up comedy night in your local pub. I like to think of success as the combination of ‘achievements’ of a person in different life areas. Like this its quite ‘easy’ to pin down success for an individual person: it’s simply a point in a multidimensional (or even infinite?) vector space. To give you an example:
One thing that complicates this approach of thinking, is that success is not stationary. It’ not that upon graduating high school, you say ‘I wanna have a Ferrari and organise a house party in my private villa every weekend and once you attain that you are successful for life. Rather, the typical thing that happens is that people want more once they reach this goal or often even already way before that. Instead of a Ferrari they now want a private jet. Instead of regular parties with their mates, they want to spend half of the year holidaying on the Maledives.
And of course, priorities in life (aka. the included dimensions) might change as well. Maybe at one point you’ll be bored on your personal, tropic island, get a mid-life crisis breakdown and decide to become a monk in Nepal. Or your favourite pub closes and you decide that you want to spend your free evenings painting so, one day you’ll have a decent picture that you can hang up in that empty space over the couch. This means, translating this back to the analogy, success is a moving point in a multidimensional vector space.
So back now to the original question: ‘What is ambition?’ Well, in the same way you can define success as a (moving) point, you can also map your current state to the vector space. And then ambition is the (euclidean) distance between where you’re at now and what you define as success. If the distance is large, that means your goals, the outcome you are working towards is very hard to achieve. If the distance is short, this means there is a reasonable chance to get there at some point. But then, when is it now appropriate to label yourself as ambitious? There is definitely no absolute threshold for that, something like ‘all people with a success point more than x units away from their current situation are ambitious and the rest is not’. Rather, I believe it’s your ambition relative to those of others, that matters. Who those ‘others’ are, is again different for everyone. It could be the colleagues at work, the people you follow on Twitter or the comedians at the pub.
This makes it even harder to give an appropriate answer to another person. You might know (deep down) who is in your own reference group, who are the people you measure yourself against. But in most cases you only have a very limited understanding of the people (and their current-state to success-state distance) that the person opposite you compares herself to. Thus, there will ever only be one correct answer to the question: “It depends.”
The mainstream consensus on this question certainly is ‘yes’. ‘Ambitious’ is an adjective that most people desire to label themselves with. At least no-one wants be seen as unambitious. Nevertheless, there are also some good reasons to believe that there is a too much of ambition and that being ambitious has some downsides as well. Some thoughts on this:
High Ambition -> higher education, income & statusThis link is not only (at least somewhat) straightforward but also backed up by quite some scientific evidence (for example this paper here, here or here). I mean, you could argue that it is questionable whether everyone wants more education, income and status. However, at least based on my personal experiences I claim that only very few people would say ‘no’ if you’d offer them a doctor title, more money and more social media followers ‘for free’ (let me know if you have made different observations - would be interested to hear about them).
Ambitious people dream big & build
Ambition might come at the expense of social bonds & hinders collaborationResearch by psychologist Tim Kasser (who also authored a book called “The High Price of Materialism”) suggests that materialistic values such as money, possessions and social status lead to poorer interpersonal relationships. This makes it also harder
Ambitious people are less satisfiedA study amongst psychology graduates found, that those with high ambitions were objectively more successful a few years down the road but were less satisfied with their professional development. Another study only found a very weak link of ambition to well-being and a negative correlation with longevity. So, if all you want is to live a happy life, maybe you should become less ambitious?
What’s your opinion? Do you have any arguments in mind which are missing here?