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Ambition: Can Too Much Get You in Trouble?

Maybe Freud said it best,

“... those who are ambitious are driven by a powerful force that can lead them to great heights or to great depths."

The very first episode of the our Leverage Point podcast was on “career ambition”. It continues to be one of the most popular and also one of the more controversial topics tackled.

It is the nature of ambition that makes it controversial.

Ambition Isn't 'Good' or 'Bad', but too little or too much might be.

We have all seen examples of the "great depths". We've known colleagues who are competitive to the point of being unwilling to compromise or cooperate. They'll do whatever it takes, only to get what they want, be unsatisfied, and strive for yet more. Only to “arrive” and find it’s lonely at the top.

Psychologists McCall, Eichinger and Lombardo warned of the risk of too much ambition for a successful career. Career risk occurs when the competitive spirit of the ambitious causes distrust among their colleagues or causes them to focus on the organization's politics rather than the work. It can compromise a career when the accelerated progress has left gaps in foundational skills, leading to the downfall of the "rising star".

And then, on the way down, you get to pass the people climbed over on the way up!

Beyond the impact at work, we've all seen the career-zealot who has sacrificed relationships, health, and even happiness to get ahead. Ambition has a price tag. And it may be as high as 3-5 years of life. A study of over 1,000 GE employees over many decades revealed that lower-level employees lived 3-5 years longer than senior executives. The cost of "making it." As an old joke goes, ambition is like a parachute - it's great until it fails…

And then there is the extreme, the ambition that crosses the line into unethical behavior: safety, environment or labor law violations, consumer fraud, accounting violations, tax evasion, and insider trading. To name a few. It is success, at any price. Is it any wonder that ambition has a bad rap?

The controversy arises because mediocrity can't be the answer. Settling for mediocrity means missing out on the great heights ambition can take us.

Indeed, it is the drive to set goals, the satisfaction of achieving them, the resilience to overcome challenges, the willingness to take risks and the courage to dream that changes … well, everything. Ambition turned a dream into Mickey Mouse (Walt Disney), a vision into an iPhone (Steve Jobs) and curiosity into Amazon (Jeff Bezos).

The Answer: Tempered Ambition.

And so, we need a new definition of ambition: a definition that is not the "at any cost" pursuit of career goals but which is never content with the status quo. And so, we encourage you to practice "tempered ambition". Tempered ambition is continuous striving for a balanced career to achieve success on your terms, or:

  • Continuous Striving: Consistently working towards what you want, with intention and purpose.

  • Pursuit of a Balanced Career: Building a career based entirely on what you want, including considerations for loved ones while maintaining a balance between work and personal life.

  • Achieving Success: Delivering results in ways that benefit both yourself and others, in ways that work for others, by being known, by making others happy to know you, and being prepared to move on while always leaving positive impressions.

This isn’t a low bar. We’d argue it is harder, more aspirational than raw ambition. It is about balance, with the goal of achieving success and satisfaction in the long term.


Do Your Ambition Check-Up

Take 10 minutes and reflect on these questions.

  • How do you prioritize your career goals compared to other life goals?

  • What sacrifices have you made for your career (time away from family, health, education, personal hobbies, etc.)?

  • What sacrifices are you prepared to make in the future?

After reflection, on a scale from 1 to 10, score how important is career advancement to you? If others were rating you, what would their answers be? Your family? Your friends? Your colleagues?

While not the least scientific, scores of 8 and above would be high, while three and below – are low. And either extreme should be explored, but both present an opportunity.

For those at either end, we'd suggest there is an opportunity. For those with high scores, there is the opportunity to ensure you will be satisfied in the long-term. For those with low scores, there is the opportunity to ensure you don't look back and say .. "what if…" or "if only I'd..."

And so, if your score is high, explore your current state, with a spirit of open inquiry. Ask yourself:

  • How realistic is my definition of career success?

  • Do I know and understand the full cost of my career ambition?

  • Am I willing to pay it?

  • Are those I care about willing to pay it?

If your score is low, explore your current state, also with a spirit of open inquiry.

  • Do I know what I want from my career, and whether I have the drive to achieve it?

  • What do I gain from lower expectations of success?

  • Will I regret not having strived to do more?

  • In settling for the current state, what opportunities do I miss, for myself but also for those I care about most?


From Insights to Action

If you’re not “in balance”, we suggest you start by increasing your self-awareness. Work to be conscious about what you want to achieve. Be intentional. Don’t assume you want to progress, or that you will be happy long term with the status quo. Instead,

  1. Explore your values and personality, your boundaries, and your “non-negotiables”.

  2. Having diagnosed your goals, identify the options that could deliver that considered, thoughtful career goal.

  3. Work your plan. But as you do, continuously check for balance: am I doing enough or too much?

In Conclusion

We encourage you to explore your current state of ambition, in the spirit of no judgment. Our level of ambition, low or high, is no one's “fault”. It is determined by factors that we have little control over, like the neighborhood where we are born. Our innate ambition can be hard to change*. Instead, we challenge everyone to accept where they start, work with what they have, and adjust, to find tempered ambition.

This post represents the authors' views and not those of associated organizations or institutions.

* Ambition has been evasive… nearly hiding in between the extraversion and conscientiousness factors. But some researchers argue it is so important in our lives and careers that it deserves its own little nook as a distinct facet of personality. Ambition is predicted by a person's emotional stability, conscientiousness, extraversion, general mental ability, and parents' socioeconomic status. While some factors may change, most do not.

Jones, A. B., Sherman, R. A., & Hogan, R. T. (2017). Where is ambition in factor models of personality? Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 26–31.

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