Ambition: some thoughts

I read this wonderful post from @Batty_Towers about ambition the other day, and it really struck a chord with me. I may not be a Christian, but I completely agree with everything she writes about how talent and ambition are not incompatible with humility and kindness.

This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for a while – I’ve had a draft post with the title “on ambition” and absolutely nothing in the text sat in my WordPress drafts for about a year. Inspired by Batty, I thought I’d sit down and try to work out what it is I actually want to say about this.

I’d never really considered myself ambitious, which is why it came as a surprise to me when, after my first interview for the job I’m in now, the feedback I got was that they’d been impressed by my “evident ambition and drive”. The “drive” part I sort of got – although hardly a workaholic, I do aim to do the best I can at whatever I’m working on, and put all I have into it. But “ambitious”? Surely ambitious people are the ones who stamp all over their colleagues to get to the top, basically sacrificing any hopes of a personal life in the process? I’ve never really aspired to a management position, and I certainly wouldn’t want to push past someone else on my way up, so surely I’m not ambitious? All I really want to do is be the best I can be at what I try – and in a work context that means being the best librarian I can be.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that actually, that is a sort of ambition. It may not be in the way I’ve always thought about it – talk of ambition in the workplace always puts me in mind of women in 80s power-suits and killer heels – but ambition for yourself is still ambition.

(Sidenote: I’ve now typed “ambition” too many times, and it’s stopped looking like a real word. I hate it when that happens.)

Perhaps that’s why the feedback I got put “ambition and drive” together: for me at least, they are inextricably linked. My personal ambition means that I am driven to push myself harder, to achieve what I want to achieve.

Of course, a lot of this has fallen by the wayside in the last year. On a personal level it’s been a very difficult year, and I’ve pulled back from a lot of the extra-curricular work I do. I’ve still done odds and ends, but I haven’t been nearly as busy in the last year as I could have been, or as I have been in the past. It’s been good to take a bit of a break from everything, but I’m starting to feel like I need to start pushing myself again.
On some level, I feel a bit disappointed in myself if I’m not working as hard as I think I could be, or should be.

I’m aware that can be an unhealthy way of looking at things, which is why I also found this recent Harvard Business Review post on changing your thought patterns useful. The writer argues that feeling passionate about your career can lead to harmful, obsessive passion – which can lead to negative thought processes around a flawed evaluation of your own worth, feeling over-responsible for things that may be out of your control, and probably weren’t your responsibility to begin with, and insecurity in your relationships with others and your perception of how they see you. The article outlines some common statements associated with these thought processes, and suggests some positive alternatives: for example, “I can only rest without guilt once all the work is done. If I stop any sooner, I am lazy, selfish and irresponsible” (that one certainly sounds familiar to me!) becomes “There will always be more work to do. By choosing to rest at reasonable intervals, I increase my productivity, accomplish more, enjoy life and stop feeling resentful toward others who take breaks”. The writer suggests getting into the habit of repeating the positive alternatives to yourself, to break the habit of negative thought processes. I certainly think it’s worth a try, so I’m going to give it a go.

I guess what I’m circling around here is that there are positive and negative sides to ambition. Ambition as outlined in the first blog post linked to above is a good thing: it’s good to take pride in doing things you’re good at, and to want to do them the best you can and in ways that will benefit more people. On the other hand, you have the stereotypically bad view of ambition, and the one most people associate with the word: that of pushing others aside to get ahead at all costs. I don’t think I’m guilty of that, but there is another, more insidious downside to ambition: if you become too driven, you end up pushing yourself far harder than is healthy. I guess, as with so much in life, it’s just about finding a balance.


11 comments on “Ambition: some thoughts

  1. I think you have pretty much written the second half of the blog post for me here! I understand v well that sense of ‘I am lazy,’ I know there is much more I could be doing to be better at what I do. Since I wrote my post I think I have started to feel a bit differently about the need for R&R and where I want to go next. The HBR advice sounds good. Thanks for this!

    • Interesting, looking forward to chatting with you about that. And thanks for the comment – I actually felt a bit bad writing a new blog post rather than just commenting on yours, hope you don’t mind!

  2. Really interesting thoughts; I agree completely! Thanks for the link to the HBR article, can definitely see how some of my work thoughts could be harmful.

  3. Great post, but do you think the negative way is how most people view ambition? I really hope not! I consider myself ambitious, I think carefully about how I want to develop and act on that, I watch for opportunities and fire applications in “just in case” but I would never, ever want to push past someone to get there. I’ve known people who were like that but they don’t define the word for me and I really hope I don’t come across as being one of them. You have me worried now!

    • Oh no, didn’t mean to worry anyone! Basically, the negative connotations come from the word itself, not behaviour like you’ve just described. I think I just have a knee-jerk reaction to that word, which doesn’t really have any connection to the many different ways in which ambition can be expressed. I don’t think most people think of it that way, in fact I doubt it’s that common a reaction at all: it probably says more about me that the word “ambition” conjures up such negative images for me really! I very much doubt that anyone considers you to be the “bad” kind of ambitious just for looking out for opportunities and thinking about what you want to do next – those are really positive things to do.

  4. Hi, it’s difficult to embrace a word and all it means if you have a negative response to it. How about embracing another A word? Authenticity – Do you follow the Leadership Freak blog? a 300 blog each day on all things leadership.

    • Interesting – I hadn’t come across that blog before. I get what you’re saying but the problem I have, in my oh-so-literal mind, is that authenticity is not the same thing as ambition. As much as the word has some unfortunate connotations for me, it does at least have the advantage of a clear, well-understood meaning. “Authenticity” just sounds a bit too vague for me – it can mean all manner of things really.

  5. This is a really good post, Laura. I – and a lot of other new professionals, I’m sure – will be able to relate to this. A friend at work called me ambitious a few weeks ago and I just don’t myself as The-Apprentice-style ambitious ie. wearing a suit and talking loudly into an 80s-style massive cell-phone.

    Like you’ve mentioned, I tend to feel extremely guilty whenever there’s work to be done: whether it’s urgent or not, it needs to be done before I can even think of relaxing! I’ve been listening to this song lately which is a great song but probably doesn’t help: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AauQTgxOKu4

    And I think that the job I’m doing now has been good for me in this respect because it’s not the kind of job that can be ‘finished’ no matter how hard I push myself. Coming to terms with that unfinishable nature has been therapeutic.

  6. Thanks for the comment Simon. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who’s a bit uncomfortable about being called ambitious!

    That sounds like a good job. I do wonder if my work-guilt is exacerbated by the fact that, while there is no end to the work I do, it does break down into (mostly) discrete, completable tasks.

    And yes, that’s a great song, but not tremendously helpful under the circumstances… 😉

  7. […] Ambition: Some Thoughts (woodsiegirl.wordpress.com) […]

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