Ambition is not an emotion or mood.
It’s more of a trait, one that stays with you through emotions and moods. It’s an inner motivation, or characteristic.
As a trait, ambition shows up as the consistent drive to achieve.
Ambition is not about a particular type of achievement. Having a goal or project does not make a person ambitious, either. We all strive for various achievements, with various motivations.
The distinguishing mark of ambition is that the desire for achievement is about achievement itself, not about the outcome of the achievement. The desire for achievement is matched by a willingness to work hard for it.
Ambition can drive you to do great things.
It can also keep you in a loop of doing, achieving, accomplishing… anything.
Once you achieve something, you quickly begin scouting for your next achievement. It’s never about the object achieved. It’s about the process and reward of achieving.
Ambition can get sick and twisted and dark and greedy and selfish and ugly and cruel and all that other terrible stuff.
But the dark side of ambition isn’t the obvious.
Ambition’s most dangerous shadow is not voracious greed or a self-justifying, cruel selfishness. Those things aren’t positive, but they’re also a) easy to spot and b) inevitably self-defeating.
The dark side of ambition is more subtle and demoralizing: It’s a pervasive, intense, and unrelenting sense of dissatisfaction (with yourself, mostly) and failure.
The more ambitious you are, the more aware you are of your own shortcomings and failures. The more you see to be done, the more aware of all you have not yet done to get there.
The bigger the vision, the bigger the gap between you and ever getting close to that vision.
“Highly ambitious people are sensitive to resistance and failure, and experience an almost constant dissatisfaction or frustration. As with Sisyphus, their task is never finished, and, as with Tantalus, the water that can slake their thirst is always in sight but always out of reach. Just as Tantalus had a rock dangling over his head for all eternity, so ambitious people live with the noose of failure hanging about their necks. Indeed, it is the fear of failure that checks the ambition of all but the most courageous, or rash, of people. Just as mania can end in depression, so ambition can end in anguish and despair.”
Ambition can be motivating — it usually is — but it can also be incredibly demoralizing, painful, and frustrating. And, since most ambitious people are overachievers, they’re often misunderstood when they try to express their sense of failure.
Successful people tend to be the most ambitious; the irony is that, as ambitious people, they do not see themselves as successful.
Ambition’s unrelenting voice keeps pointing out the next goal, the next mountain, the next challenge, the next level.
There’s always so much more to be achieved.
Ambition feels like you’re always starting from ground zero.
Starting from ground zero means starting with no resources, no tools, no skills, no experience, no helpful shortcuts, no trust in your own knowledge or expertise or authority. We can pretend; act confident; do what we need to do, despite our feelings. But the fact remains that it’s a sucky feeling, and it creates a negative emotional burden.
Also, it is not logical. It doesn’t make sense. It does not make sense that–after years of experience and achievement in a given field–we would feel we’ve gained no ground, made no significant headway, are not successful, have to start all over again, have to prove ourselves, are lagging behind, are failures.
This sense of failure has nothing to do with how hard we work or how much we achieve. It has everything to do with how much is left to achieve.
It’s the shadow of ambition. It is deadly. It smothers our morale and self-worth and joy. It will weigh us down, drag us under the waves and drown us, unless we learn how to overcome it.
Ambition needs to be joined with gratitude.
Gratitude notices, accepts, and appreciates what already is (what has already been achieved). It is the counter-balance to ambition. Gratitude allows us to pause and acknowledge our own successes, which takes the desperate edge from our drive to achieve more.
Gratitude is the choice to focus on the good in what is, right now: in your self, income, body, family, limits, skills, relationships, environment, abilities, so on.
Gratitude enables satisfaction. When we extend our gratitude to include ourselves, we enable rest and self-acceptance and a much healthier (and more reasonable) perspective.
When we no longer need to prove ourselves (because we can acknowledge and appreciate what we have already proven), we get to control our ambition.
We get ambition with perspective.
Rather than being slaves to an incessant drive for achievement (which never eases that gnawing sense of dissatisfaction), we take the reins. We no longer serve ambition. Ambition serves us.
If gratitude opens me up, ambition opens the whole world up. Imagine what can be when we have the two working together.
Quote from Is Ambition Good or Bad? by Neel Burton, M.D.