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What is ambition and how do we qualify an action or lifestyle as ambitious or not?
Typically, how we think and feel about ourselves is greatly influenced by what others (our parents, our peers, leaders in our industry) think of us. It’s dangerous to assess ourselves in this way because it leads to making decisions that aren’t right for our needs, our values, our experiences, our personalities, etc.
I believe it makes us watered down versions of ourselves and actually impedes the positive impact that we are capable of having; we do things for the wrong reasons because our focus is on the image of ourselves that the public reflects back to us instead of the reality of who we actually are.
Lately, I’ve been working on breaking the approval seeking part of myself and thinking of ambition as dependent on the individual and what their goals, values, and interests are because ambition means different things to different people. And the same goes for achievement and success.
As you think about your career trajectory and, over the years, prepare your resume and keep your career profile up-to-date, I encourage you to stay connected with what YOUR true ambitious self looks like vs. what you see on the cover of Fortune, what your parents’ ambitions are for you, or what you see your peers doing.
Are you overcoming obstacles and doing the hard work to get to where you want to be and achieve what you set out to achieve? Are your goals based on what you actually want for yourself and do you let your values and ethics guide you in the right direction?
Following the Mainstream Can Cause Us Harm
The pressure for making certain “acceptable” decisions doesn’t stop with our friends and family. Norms are pushed on us through the media as well, as Alain de Botton so aptly describes in Status Anxiety:
“Ideology is released into society like a colourless, odourless gas. It is embedded in newspapers, advertisements, televisions programmes, and textbooks -where it makes light of its partial, perhaps illogical or unjust take on the world; where it meekly implies that it is simply stating age-old truths with which only a fool or a maniac would disagree.”
This includes ideology about the economy and who qualifies as a useful person within that economy.
Now, you still have to possess skills, interests, and talents in an area where there is clear need in order to be employable or create a career for yourself. In general, being people-centric will help set you on the right path.
But prioritizing money and praise is NOT the only way to be an ambitious person. Ambition is possible without either of these foci.
If you perform some kind of action that greatly influences your community in a positive way but there is not necessarily any kind of monetary reward or public recognition for it, are you not ambitious in your efforts and are you not successful?
What we see reflected back to us often in these cases is that it doesn’t qualify as ambition but we shouldn’t be assessing our ambition based on someone else’s judgement of us. Our limit should not be where the paycheck and the praise ends.
Get comfortable with the idea that what other people think about you does NOT matter and is most often a distraction from being a real leader!
Traditional Views on Ambition
For too long –in my opinion and based on the findings of researchers in the fields of the science of happiness, sociology, consumer behavior, and many other areas of study– we have measured ambition based on the amount of money and/or public recognition that an individual receives or seeks.
We conflate the feeling of love (however disingenuous it may be) that we get from strangers based on money rewards and attention with real success and love.
If you aren’t bringing home a fat paycheck or on your way to getting one, you aren’t all that ambitious.
If you aren’t being featured in publications as an expert in your field (or if your don’t care to be), ambition simply isn’t part of your personality or something that you prioritize.
We, as a society, are confusing monetary gain as a measurement of an individual’s value in the world and we are being told what it means to be ambitious instead of deciding what it means for us and what WE want to contribute to the world.
This is causing much confusion in the world of professionals as college graduates leave programs that were never right for them for jobs that aren’t right for them. These big decisions that we later (sometimes much later) realize are mistakes that can often be traced back to status anxiety and our narrow view of what ambition is because we followed the path that others told us was the right one.
What Makes a Person Ambitious?
The problem with the public attention and financial success mindset surrounding ambition is that we are leaving out the numerous other approaches to ambition that one might argue are far more important than a salary or public praise and, in the end, do more good for society and future generations.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that those who receive the praise and the money are the ones who deserve it; we buy into the idea that we live in a meritocracy. So those who fall into the category of wealthy and/or public figures stake claim over the adjective “ambitious”, leaving out the many others who are striving to be change makers or make progress in their fields; the ones who haven’t prioritized public recognition and most likely made sacrifices regarding their paychecks….or simply have their noses down in their work.
So what makes a person ambitious? There isn’t a definition that I can give you because there is no model to follow. You are going to have to create your own model.
That might initially sound scary to you….but what it should sound like is FREEDOM.
You have to decide what your ambitions are for yourself. What is it that you love and enjoy? What do you feel are your innate talents and how can you work hard at delivering those talents as a service to those around you? What is ripe for disruption?
Once you’re on that path -on YOUR path- you can feel comfortable in your ambition and won’t need to look for approval.
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