The ugly truth about our ambition
Ambition makes a lot of cameos these days. You’ll see the word tossed around in meetings, sprinkled across job ads, and stuffed into captions beneath inspirational photos. We think ambition means a lot of things — discipline, drive, willpower, commitment.
In truth, it means none of the above. And often the opposite. The A-word doesn’t care about you. It’s not your friend. Stop responding to its texts. Ambition will only hurt you, and everyone you know.
What does ambition actually mean? English borrowed the term from Latin a long ass time ago. The verb ambitionem literally meant to go around town scaring up votes. Imagine that friend who never wants to hang out with you, unless they want something. That’s ambition.
In the early days of the English language, ambition still carried a negative connotation. Someone with ambition would stab you in the back for wealth or recognition. Calling someone ambitious was an insult. A warning. Watch out for that guy. He’s ambitious.
Plato and Aristotle also warn us against ambitious twits. For them, political leaders who campaign too hard almost always want the glory more than the burden that tags along. Decades ago, even American politicians took a much chiller approach to elections. Presidential candidates didn’t even accept their party nominations for weeks. If you jumped too fast, it made you look… ambitious — out for yourself.
But language evolves, and words take on new meanings. America has bathed in the toxic waste water of hyper-capitalism. We’ve gone way past the basic idea that it’s good to make money.
Now, companies like Amazon and even Google want “ambitious, passionate entrepreneurs” or whatever to “push themselves and their peers to new levels of excellence” or whatever.
Do they really know what they’re asking for?
Maybe they do. After all, CEOs are happy to dangle fat salaries in front of smart, hungry twenty somethings willing to work 80 hours a week, wear disposable underwear, and sleep in their cubicles. All while bragging to everyone about how much they sacrifice.
My own university rewards this kind of behavior. Hell, most of academia does. For years, I gave into it myself. Not so much these days. At some point, you have to value purpose and fulfillment — not extrinsic rewards.
Ambition as a personality trait
Psychologists study loads of traits associated with ambition. These traits include boldness, liveliness, diligence, determination, extroversion, self control, and an inclination to leadership.
So ambition refers to a very specific personality type. If you’re missing even one of the above traits — like extroversion — then you probably aren’t ambitious. That’s not a bad thing.
You can still be talented, creative, hard-working, and organized. But if you enjoy keeping to yourself, and don’t like bossing people around, then guess what? You’re not ambitious. Not technically.
People have mistaken me for ambitious, and then I surprise them with some of my decisions. I’ve turned down or ignored a handful of opportunities that some of my friends would’ve killed for. When they ask me why, I tell them — it wasn’t for me. There’s a difference between doing whatever it takes to pursue your own goals, and ladder climbing.
Lots of people have a ladder that stops at some point. They reach a certain level, and then they stay. That’s not lazy, or complacent. Maybe you make all the money you want, and you don’t care about titles or control over others. You find joy in creativity, discovery, and learning.
Sometimes you come across someone who blows you away with their talent — at singing, sculpting, or coding. You wonder, “Why aren’t they rich, or famous?” The answer might be simple. They don’t care.
You don’t have to be ambitious to win at life. Some people become great at what they do, earning wealth and fame as an afterthought.
Ambition as a tragic flaw
Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus offers a great cautionary tale about ambition. Think back to the early days of the Roman Republic, circa 490 B.C. Caius Marcius, nicknamed Coriolanus for his bravery in combat, runs for consul to please his parents. He wins, but there’s a slight problem. He actually doesn’t want the job, just the honor.
Imagine that. Pursuing a title for its own sake. That sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve heard it before.
On top of that, Coriolanus doesn’t like poor people. He looks down on them, because they haven’t achieved anything with their lives. To him, they’re useless — barely human. Not even worth a scrap of bread. And he doesn’t pretend otherwise. At a riot, he basically tells them that if they worked harder, maybe they wouldn’t be starving.
He tells them if they’d joined the military and served their country, they might’ve made something of themselves. Like him. That’s more or less what he conveys to a crowd of starving plebeians — his constituents.
You can imagine how long Coriolanus lasts in politics. His pride and vanity get him banished from Rome. Instead of learning his lesson, the outcast asshole forms an alliance with a former enemy, the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius. Together, they lead an army against Rome.
His fellow Romans tell him this is treason, but he won’t listen until his mom steps in. Finally, Coriolanus changes his mind. The decision really pisses off Aufidius, who kills him for going back on his word.
The lesson here? Don’t run for political office if you don’t actually want the job — like a certain person you might see in the news a lot. Second, don’t form friendships with your enemies and betray your own people to get what you want. Both mistakes stem from the same flaw — ambition.
See, not good.
This shortcoming undoes quite a few of Shakespeare’s characters — Macbeth, Richard III, and of course Julius Caesar. They all wanted power and prestige, at all costs. Their plans never turned out very well.
Overcoming your ambition
Some people complain about how everyone gets a participation ribbon nowadays. Nobody wants real winners anymore.
Honestly, I don’t see too much of that. Instead I’ve seen the opposite mindset taking over — that you have to win, all the time. Do whatever it takes to get what you want. And then want some more.
I’m guilty of this, too. My entire life I’ve never been satisfied for long with my accomplishments. Publishing articles and books has only deepened my need to write and publish more.
A lot of us feel this way. An accomplishment has its own high. And like any high, you come down. You crave another hit. And another.
It’s good to want more. But at what cost?
Lucky for me, ambition in research and writing just means I do more of it. Quietly. With a lot of caution about how I engage in self-promotion. I’ve never liked that anyway.
Life has taught me to spread my ambition around into different areas. It keeps me sane, and tolerable. If I didn’t spend forty minutes on a cardio machine every day, my friends would probably kill me.
You think I’m lying, but here’s proof. In high school I used to give motivational speeches to the cross country team. While we were running. Finally, a girl shouted at me, “Jessica, just slow down and shut the fuck up!”
My solution to this problem was to add some training sessions to my week, where I could train harder on my own.
That was stupid, because I would up injuring myself. Goodbye, running career. But something happened during my recovery.
During rehab, I missed half of track season. I’d hoped to set new long distance records my senior year. Instead I spent half the season on an exercise bike. When the sports therapist finally cleared me to race, there was no chance of competing seriously. It didn’t matter as much as I thought, though. Running was still fun, even if I didn’t break any records.
I was just happy to be on the field.
Too often, we hear the opposite of this. We hear “play to win” or “go big or go home.” It’s almost disgusting.
There’s nothing wrong with perfecting your talents and skills. Do it because you love to, not for recognition or material gain. Me? I love writing, and I’ll be doing it for a long time to come.
Sure, we do what we love for money whenever we can. But it’s money to live, and money for our kid’s college (or whatever they decide to do). And some charity. Not obscene wealth.
Life after ambition
A student recently came to my office asking for some career advice. He wanted to know if I planned on trying to find a better job down the line, with a better salary. I’m not sure why he asked.
Maybe he wanted to know it if was okay to pursue ambition.
Anyway, my answer was the truth. No. I’d worked my ass off to become a writer and a professor, with at least some sense of job security.
To this student, I explained how much work, anxiety, and outright fear goes into a doctorate followed by a job hunt. You have to be willing to move to Alaska, if that’s what it takes.
I’m not kidding. I literally applied for a job in Alaska. They didn’t give me an interview. So, even Alaska has standards.
Stop judging Alaska. Just because it’s cold. Jeez.
That’s not exactly ambition. Just hardcore. Now that I’ve got my tenure track job, I’m not going anywhere unless I have to. Academic job searches suck. Literally. They suck your life force, and all the time and attention away from your teaching and research.
If I just wanted money, there’s a hundred other jobs I could’ve taken. Me? I make about sixty grand per year. I’m definitely not in it for the money. Also, I’m not really in it for the title. Because I ask all my students to call me by my first name. Titles are bullshit. They just get in the way.
I’m into what I’m good at, and what I love. That’s it.
So I explained to this student — the job is just a means to an end. The end was doing what I love — writing, research, and teaching.
These days, I’m less concerned with the length of my CV. It’s just a vehicle. A byproduct of doing what I love.
Do what you love, or what you’re good at, and you’ll find your way. Learn to love what you’re good at. That’s not too hard.
Sometimes what you love and what you’re good at aren’t the same. For me, I may have loved running just as much as I loved writing.
At least one of them seems to be working out. Way back, I had to demote one of my “passions” to keep the other alive.
That’s not ambition, or passion, just sublime. Fuck. I’ve just introduced a new word. If sublime catches on, we’ll have to switch it up again.
We could all benefit from toning down the discourse around ambition. At some point, we stopped seeing the film Wall Street as a cautionary tale. Too many people think greed is actually good.