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A critique of ambition

Every time I hear a professional football coach or player talk about an upcoming season, I hear him say that his greatest ambition is to win the Super Bowl. A player named Russ Grimm once said, “I’d run over my own mother to win the Super Bowl.” Of the 32 professional teams, only one can be crowned a world champion each year. Only one gets a parade through the city holding the Vince Lambardi trophy overhead. All other 31 teams failed to achieve the ultimate goal.

Like the football players, we are all taught from the cradle that we can and should reach the pinnacle of success. We can be whatever we want to be and we can become the best – if only we are willing to work hard and never give up. The purpose of this article is to challenge these teachings and suggest a more effective path.

What is ambition?

Ambition is a strong desire to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work over an extended period of time. Examples of ambition are: seeking the corner office, beauty, awards, fame, fortune, a cure for cancer, and the most amazing [fill in the blank] on the block. There are four states of lofty ambition:

State of ambition Outcomes/ feelings Quote
You are not taking steps to achieve your ambition Stress and a maybe a little self-condemnation You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water – Rabindranath Tagore
You make a step toward achieving it A fleeting sense of accomplishment immediately replaced with a desire for the next step. This feeling keeps us on the hamster wheel of ambition When someone is forced to achieve just to have any value, then they can’t stop. Stop achieving, and they stop being lovable. It’s a terrible burden. – Lance Dodes
You realize you will never achieve it Pain and potentially more self-condemnation Society often tells us the act of letting go is a weakness rather than a strength, which isn’t true. Make sure you’re not running and hiding, of course — but it’s okay to accept what’s not meant to be and find your happiness elsewhere in another dream – Julia Dellitt
You achieve it A brief feeling of accomplishment that no one else seems to care about followed by a sense of emptiness and a lack of purpose For 20 years my life had been defined by the goal of making the first computer graphics movie. Now that that goal had been reached I had what can only be described as a hollow lost feeling. I felt a troubling loss of purpose. Now what? – Ed Catmull

Is ambition bad?

Striving to meet your basic needs (i.e. food, basic clothing, health and shelter), protect your family and help those around you are virtuous pursuits. Do not give those up. But we are not talking about basic needs or serving God and others here. We are talking about the need to have more.

The ambitious miss the beauty before them as they strain to look beyond the horizon. Ambition is a source of regret for those who are not achieving and may never achieve their dreams. And even those who reach their ambitions can be left feeling empty. “And when Alexander [the Great] saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.

Religious teachings have been casting doubt on ambition for a long time. Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self ?”2 And “When we undertake to gratify our vain ambition, the heavens withdraw themselves.”3 Many Eastern religions also teach detachment from ambition.  

Some convince themselves that their dreams are for the benefit of family members. Below the façade of seemingly altruistic ambition though is a vein of insecurity and selfishness. My experience is that my friends and family do not care if I am the CEO or the intern as long as I spend quality and quantity time with them and meet their basic needs.

My ambition

It recently dawned on me that given my age I may never be able to land that wakeboarding trick I have been working on since I was a teenager. I may never become CEO of a successful company or completely overcome my tendency to lose my temper. These may seem like trifles, but they mean something to me. All of the successes that I should have achieved by that point in my life were causing me pain.

What surprised me is that my ambitions were weighing on me even though my life is objectively charmed. I graduated with honors from my university and went on to an Ivy League graduate school. I am in great health, have five beautiful children, have a wonderful wife and am a successful executive at a good company… but ambition is still there whispering that I am not enough.

Life without ambition

In a fictional novel about the life of Alexander the Great by Steve Pressfield, a philosopher is asked what he has done that compares with Alexander’s world conquest. The philosopher responds without hesitation, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.” So how can we conquer our ambitions?

Do some introspection and identify your ambitions. Think long and hard about which of those are worth holding onto and which you should let go. See my article on why experiments are better than goals for some ideas on what to replace ambition with. I would also like to hear your perspective on how ambition gives you power or holds you back.   

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