Ambition can drive us toward some of our greatest life achievements. These achievements can be monetary or physical, like buying a house or running a triathlon.
Ambition can also drive us toward recognition and power, such as becoming a social media influencer or achieving a high rank in politics.
So how can you tell if the good ambition you’ve had up until now has shifted to bad ambition?
There are a number of different ways to determine this. Let’s take a look at some examples of good ambition vs. bad ambition, so we can see where things can start to go wrong.
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Good ambition is a goal that inspires you. Bad ambition is a goal driven by others.
Let’s say you’re in medical school because your life purpose is to help heal people. Sure, you’re tired and stressed, but you’re also really dedicated to your goal. You’re skilled at what you do, and you feel an immense sense of joy and satisfaction when your skills are put to use alleviating other people’s suffering.
In contrast, let’s say you’re pursuing a PhD in an attempt to prove your worthiness to others. Maybe you grew up with narcissistic parents and now you’re attempting to show them that you are, in fact, an intelligent, capable person who’s worthy of respect.
Or perhaps your family is pushing you to be something you’re not. You’d rather be a designer or a gardener, but they’re demanding that you go to law school. You agree because you want to make them proud, not because law is your profession of choice.
In the first situation, your ambition is healthy. In the second and third situations, your ambition isn’t healthy, nor is it serving your best interests.
Good ambition is striving to better yourself. Bad ambition is striving to be perfect.
Let’s say you’ve been out of shape for a while and your goal is to get fit. You’ve researched nutritional goals, have a solid routine set up, and bought all the equipment you need.
That’s great! You’re well on your way to getting into the shape you want to be in.
But what happens when you become obsessive? Let’s say that you cut out processed sugars because you want to eat healthier. But then you start to obsess over anything that may have even trace amounts of sugar. Before you know it, you start freaking out and berating yourself if you accidentally eat a piece of fruit, because that might cause a setback.
When you start seeing results in your overall physique, you may want more. Instead of sticking to your routine, you up the ante. You start lifting more weight than is safe for you. You lower your calorie intake, despite the dangers to your health.
Then you start putting others down for not pursuing health and fitness the way you are. Maybe you start by suggesting to your friends that they get more exercise. Then you start making snide remarks to people at the grocery store who are buying frozen foods instead of organic kale and artisanal kombucha.
In your mind, you’re striving for “perfection,” rather than betterment, while judging others poorly for not doing the same.
But there is no such thing as perfection. We are all improving, all the time, doing the best we can. And as long as we’re doing so with temperance and self-compassion, that’s great.
When we’re actively harming ourselves in the pursuit of a perfect ideal, we’ll end up disappointed. That goalpost will just keep moving forward, and we’ll break ourselves (and possibly others) trying to reach it.
Good ambition is having realistic goals. Bad ambition is having unrealistic goals.
A goal is considered to be realistic if it’s actually attainable. This means that you have the possibility of making it happen. This could be via your own skill set, finances, social network, or a combination of all of those.
Let’s look at a small goal, and how it can be realistic or unrealistic. Say you want to learn a new language. Having the goal of learning that new language is a realistic one. In contrast, a goal of learning that language to fluency within a month is unrealistic.
If you have no other responsibilities in your home or work life, and you can pay for excellent tutors, you may be able to attain a high working knowledge of a language in 4 to 6 months. But even then, you’ll still have a long way to go before you’ll be truly fluent.
When you choose an unrealistic goal, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Your sense of self-esteem and self-worth will plummet because you tried to attain it, and failed miserably.
This is because you set yourself up for failure. Maybe you even chose that kind of unrealistic goal because you knew you wouldn’t be able to achieve it. This kind of self-sabotage is common with people who feel comfortable with failure. They create self-fulfilling prophecies, and then use that lack of achievement to “prove” that they’re worthless, stupid, etc.
If you actually want to achieve something, make it reasonable. Then create a step-by-step system in which you show measurable improvement. These little successes will keep you going until you’ve achieved your dream.
Good ambition may inspire others. Bad ambition may hurt others.
Some people are intent on achieving their goals regardless of who they hurt in the process. Not only will they eliminate all compassion and empathy in pursuit of their aims, but they don’t care whose necks they step on for the sake of self achievement.
Take a good look at how your ambition is affecting the people around you.
Are you supported by loving, caring individuals who are happy to cheer you on as you move forward? Are you making time for these people, as well as expressing your appreciation for them?
If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then it sounds like your ambition is in a healthy zone. You’ve got a balance going on, and you’re inspiring those around you to help keep you on track.
In contrast, if you’re sacrificing your family, friends, colleagues, and others close to you to get what you want, chances are you’re slipping into the badlands.
Are you acknowledging when your coworkers contribute to group projects? Or are you taking all the glory in order to get promoted?
Are you being honest about your own failures? Or are you lying and placing blame on others so you get rewarded instead?
Has your partner tried to communicate their frustrations or worries to you, only to be brushed off, silenced, or ignored? Do your children seem alienated and withdrawn from you?
Another aspect to consider is whether you’re working with people in order to achieve a mutual goal, or dominating and manipulating them for your own ends. Encouraging others who are working alongside you is great. Micro-managing and controlling them shows disrespect.
Take a moment and be real about what your interactions are like with the people close to you. Then determine whether you think your current pursuits are healthy, or hurting.
Good ambition works well with your life. Bad ambition disrupts your life.
Do you have any downtime? Are you taking regular breaks to get real, restful sleep and engage in hobbies you enjoy? Or are you “on” all the time?
When you spend time with friends and acquaintances, are you doing so because you sincerely enjoy their company? Or because these interactions can help you achieve your goals?
Have you alienated your social network because of your constant striving? Or are people still reaching out to you for a friendly chat?
If you’re just go go go all the time without any opportunities to recharge, you’re likely well on your way to burnout. Tides ebb and flow, and seasons let soil lie fallow. Nobody can produce all the time without recharging, and we can’t constantly draw from our social circles without giving something back.
Balance is everything.
Good ambition is wanting to help others. Bad ambition is desiring power and prestige for yourself.
There’s a common saying that people who want to be in positions of power are the ones who should never be allowed to rule.
Some people end up in politics or other parts of the public sector because they fell into the role. Maybe they were involved in charity or nonprofit work and were invited to be part of a change campaign.
Then, if that mission was successful, others may have encouraged them to run for local office. Before they know it, they’re in a position of power and have an active role in making their neighborhood a better, safer, healthier place to live.
In contrast, there are people who suddenly appear in politics out of nowhere. Maybe they come from famous families and just happen to want to try running a city. Or a country. Their campaign is based on their popularity, and they charm people with snappy interviews and engaging social media content.
People who fall into the former group have ambitions that are in service to others. Meanwhile, those seeking power merely to have that title for a while are living in service to themselves.
Which do you think is the healthier ambition?
How To Tell If Your Ambition Is Good Or Bad
Are you unsure as to whether your ambition falls under the “good” or “bad” category? Aside from thinking carefully about the points above, you should check in with yourself to see how you feel about it.
Do you still feel like you’re excited and happy to pursue your goal(s)? Then you’re likely still doing okay. Maybe check in with those around you to see if they think you need a break, or to make sure that you’re still honoring them instead of immersing 100% in your own achievements.
In contrast, if your ambition is resulting in stress, anxiety, depression, and/or physical ill health – either in yourself or in those around you – then it’s probably time to rein it in. Be honest with yourself about how you feel, how you look, and how those around you are feeling too.
Checking in with those closest to you is one of the best things you can do. Ask them to be honest with you, as they may be inclined to maintain the status quo rather than risking upsetting you. But being honest with you if your actions are unhealthy might be the best thing they can do for you.
Don’t Be Ashamed To Seek Help
Many people get obsessive and compulsive about the goals they’re striving for. It can be difficult to break free from these obsessions without professional help. If you feel that your ambitions are controlling you, rather than inspiring you, then please reach out to a therapist for assistance. Connect with one of the experienced therapists on BetterHelp.com to get this particular issue sorted.
A perfect example of this would be someone who’s struggling with an eating disorder. As mentioned earlier, striving to attain a stronger body or more attractive physique can be a good ambition. It turns to bad ambition if you start to get really obsessive about it, counting every calorie to make sure you don’t go over an unhealthily low number, or constantly increasing your weight reps.
This kind of ambition is far more detrimental than it is beneficial. Fortunately, trained professionals can help get you back on track with cognitive behavioral therapy and other coping strategies.
If you think your ambitions are unhealthy (but not dangerously obsessive) and you want to re-align them with your life and values, speaking to a life coach is a wise investment. They’ll be able to help you figure out what you really want to achieve and work with you to form a balanced plan of action to get you there. Simply fill out this short form to get quotes from several coaches along with details of how they can help.
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- An Open Letter To Those Who Have No Ambition, No Goals, And No Dreams