Ambition. It’s one of those words that has both positive and negative connotations.
Right from birth, we’re encouraged to do our best and reach for the stars, suggesting that being ambitious is a positive trait.
On the other hand, a phrase we hear often is ‘ruthless ambition,’ although few of us would care to be described as ruthless.
It’s someone who is willing to fight their way to the top without giving a second thought to the fate of those they trample along the way.
The ‘game’ can so easily turn from a desire for achievement into a desperate need to beat others no matter what the cost. The outcome of that scenario is never going to be pretty.
Isn’t it curious that one word should have two such diverse meanings?
It’s Not A Level Playing Field
Before I move on to the main focus of this piece, I can’t resist mentioning that not only does the word have alternative meanings, but there are distinct gender-based differences in the way ambition is viewed.
While it’s traditionally praiseworthy in our society for a man to be ambitious, the opposite is true for women. Most people are still uncomfortable with the concept of a woman who openly and vocally strives for success.
A revealing study by Columbia University set out to investigate this theory.
Participants in the study were presented with information about a venture capitalist and asked for their thoughts on the individual as a potential colleague.
Fifty percent of the group were given the candidate’s name as Howard while the rest believed the name was Heidi.
The ‘Howard’ group’s view of the candidate was positive, yet the ‘Heidi’ group felt that she was far from being an ideal colleague and believed her to be selfish.
As demonstrated by this study, an ambitious woman is undoubtedly viewed unfavorably, whereas an ambitious man is seen as an asset. Interesting and so unfair!
Another gender-related fact is that ambitious women are fewer and further between than their male counterparts.
Mostly likely this is down to social conditioning, causing women to be more prone to the negative self-talk that undermines their ability to realize their ambitions and reach their full potential.
Fortunately, twenty-first century women, from the sports arena to the boardroom, are taking these negative connotations of female ambition head on, but there’s clearly still work to be done on changing these hard-wired perceptions.
Now I’ve got that off my chest, we can return to the topic at hand…
A Positive Force For Change
Without ambition, it can safely be assumed that we humans would still be living in caves. It’s the human drive to achieve which brings about change and then progress.
As long as it’s channeled correctly, ambition can achieve incredible results.
To quote Neel Burton, psychiatrist and author of Heaven & Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions:
Many of man’s greatest achievements are the products, or accidents, of their ambition.
He goes on to explain that, on average, ambitious people attain higher levels of education and income, build more prestigious careers, and report higher overall levels of life satisfaction.
The trick, it seems, is to develop healthy ambition, where the enthusiastic go-getter can harness their desire for success without stomping all over colleagues on their way to the top.
Self-doubt Is The Limiting Factor
Since ambition clearly produces such benefits, let’s focus on the outcomes of ‘healthy’ ambition, as opposed to the ruthless variety.
What are the thought processes and conditioning that generate success or failure?
The bottom line is that many of us are limited in our ability to achieve by the endless stream of negativity and doubt in our heads. Giving in to these unhelpful thoughts makes us our own worst enemy.
And while those insidious doubts put the brakes on our achievements, ambitious people forge ahead.
It was Henry Ford who famously said, way back in the early 20th century:
Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re probably right.
In the light of his legendary and lasting achievements in the motor industry, I think it’s safe to assume that he was an exceptionally ambitious individual who set himself the highest goals and pushed himself to fulfil them.
There’s no doubt if you allow yourself to believe you can’t do something, it’s a dead cert that you’ll either fail or, worse still, you won’t even get off the starting blocks.
It’s not that we’re lacking in ideas or aspirations, but that we lack the ability to translate the ambition into action. After all, dreamers and achievers are only separated by having the courage to begin.
By contrast to us self-doubters, ambitious people have an unshakable belief in their ability to succeed and it’s that which allows them to forge ahead where others come to a full stop.
It’s an ability much admired by those of us who’re plagued by the gremlins of self doubt.
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The Doubts That Ambitious People Refuse To Give In To
Let’s take a look at some of the nagging doubts that ambitious people refuse to give in to and consider how this gives them the edge…
1. I Won’t Succeed At This
You’ll never hear an ambitious person say that they won’t succeed either in life or in a particular task.
Ambition is an intrinsic motivator, so they truly believe that, no matter how hard they have to strive for success and no matter how long it takes, they will ultimately get there.
The power of positive self-talk can’t be underestimated. The reverse is also true, so telling yourself that you will fail is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The power of words – even if they are unspoken and only in your head – is huge.
2. Other People Will Laugh At Me
It never occurs to an ambitious go-getter that they won’t be taken seriously by others.
They have a high regard for themselves and their abilities which in turn earns the respect of peers and superiors alike. If you don’t take yourself seriously, then neither will others.
Developing self-respect and learning to value your own contributions is a fundamental building block on the road to success.
3. It’ll Be Awful If I Fail
Fear of failure isn’t something that burdens goal-oriented folk. They understand that failure isn’t all bad, not least because you often learn more from mistakes than from successes.
Their approach is to take calculated risks, some of which pay off and others which don’t.
The key to their confidence is their understanding that failing to get off the starting line is the biggest failure of all.
4. It’s Just Too Hard
You won’t catch an ambitious person complaining that a task is too hard or they’ll be unable to do it.
They have an intrinsic understanding that nothing in life comes easily, or at least nothing that’s worth having.
Accordingly, they just get their heads down and put in the effort needed to reach their goal.
As self-help author Napoleon Hill says:
Some people dream of success, while others wake up and work hard at it.
5. Too Many Things Stand In My Way
If you’re burdened with self-doubt, it’s likely that you’ll see challenges and problems that arise as insurmountable barriers to your success.
By contrast, ambitious people don’t give in to such defeatist attitudes. Oftentimes, they actively relish these bumps in the road, understanding that adversity along the way makes the ultimate destination all the sweeter.
6. It’s Not The Right Time
So much time is wasted by procrastinating and waiting for the ‘perfect moment’ to start on a task or a project.
In fact, the excuses for delaying can be so protracted that ultimately nothing happens at all.
Ambitious people understand that the endless wait for the stars to be perfectly aligned is just a waste of precious time. They just get started and focus their energies on the ultimate goal.
As ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said:
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
If you never take that first step, clearly no one’s going anywhere, literally or metaphorically. The best time to start is right now, even if it’s just a baby-step – quit with the excuses already!
7. I Might Not Enjoy Success
Ambitious people don’t waste their energies on worrying how they’ll cope with success should it come their way.
They’re not burdened with doubts about their capabilities and merely accept their success as a just reward for their hard work, positive attitude, and entrepreneurial spirit.
8. Others Are Far More Talented Than Me
Making comparisons between your own abilities and those of others is always a bad idea. You’ll inevitably end up believing yourself to be inferior.
If you constantly try to mimic others who you believe to be ‘better’ than you, it’s likely that you’ll always fall short.
That’ll only undermine your self-confidence further and intensify your idea of your own inferiority.
By contrast, ambitious people seem to have an innate sense of their own strengths and competencies and don’t waste their time making such comparisons.
You need to accept and appreciate your own unique talents and aim to be the best version of yourself. Ditching the urge to compare yourself with friends and co-workers is a hugely positive first step.
Observe the way they operate, for sure, and be open to learning from them. But don’t let those massively negative emotions – jealousy and resentment – creep in.
Remember that you are not that person; you are you – be true to yourself!
9. I’m Just Not Good/Worthy Enough
If your default setting is to say you’re not good enough or worthy enough, then you’re more likely to give up when you meet the inevitable bumps in the road.
Ambitious people aren’t quitters and they never say that they’re not good enough.
As the song goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
I reckon that neatly sums up the attitude that ambitious people have toward problems they encounter. After all, ambition’s indispensable partner is perseverance.
Just Don’t Give In To Negativity
I think we’ve established that a lack of ambition can be an individual’s own worst enemy.
On the other hand, ambitious people have a deep-seated belief in themselves and their potential to achieve. What’s more, they believe that they have the power to be a game changer.
Ambition doesn’t have to be about success and certainly not about trampling your way to the top.
It can be about making the most of your own unique talents and feeling the satisfaction that comes with it.
As cartoonist and humorist Frank Tyger puts it:
Ambition is enthusiasm with a purpose.
That enthusiasm can help you find new doors, but it takes passion and courage to open them and step through to the other side.
And A Final Word To Lao Tzu…
I hope that these wise words will encourage you to ditch those nagging doubts, set your eyes on the prize, and fulfil your unique potential.
We only have one chance at this life, so wouldn’t it be a shame not to make the most of our allotted span by keeling over and giving in to negativity?
Be careful what you water your dreams with. Water them with worry and fear and you will produce weeds that choke the life from your dream. Water them with optimism and solutions and you will cultivate success. – Lao Tzu