Note 27: Is Ambition Arrogant?


The definition of ambition is a strong desire to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work. I’d like to break ambition down into two parts, the first being “blind ambition.” This could be a pathway that leads you to do things you may regret in your rearview later on. For example, if you have a desire to be a politician. Let’s say you are running for senate in your home state, and you come across some negative information on your chief adversary. The evidence is a bit gray, meaning you don’t know for certain if your competitor committed this act or not, but you know for sure how the press and subsequently the public will react to it. Either way, it’s gonna cast a shadow of doubt over your opponent. That play is potentially in the segment of blind ambition. You are eager to achieve the end game regardless of cost. By cost, I mean to yourself, others and maybe some collateral damage you couldn’t even see that ended up in the line of fire.

The second part of ambition is “acute ambition,” which I would label as a strategic, morally centric approach to achieving a goal. Let’s say you have a desire to move up in your career. You are currently a mid-level leader in a $200 MM publicly traded corporation. Your next step is a director-level role. That level of ambition will keep you focused on the key performance indicators that your company values, and specifically that your direct supervisor values. If you don’t have the home team support evangelizing on your behalf, it will be difficult to move up. You adhere to those values, play a fair game, hit the metrics and thus your acute ambition gets you in line for a promotion. I wouldn’t call that arrogance. I would call that practical.

Ambition, then, really depends on what your financial, familial and retirement goals are. If you desire an early retirement, you may need to accelerate your career progression. However, I don’t want to pigeonhole ambition so it’s only about salary or compensation. At its core, it’s about attaining an objective. For example, let’s consider a librarian who may seek to be the best librarian ever. The Dewey Decimal System is child’s play to her, and she will evangelize why reading in the library is like no other experience in the world. Librarians do not make a large income. This is not a calling one seeks for lavish financial returns, but it can be full of ambition due to an intrinsic passion that far supersedes monetary gain. So when I say ambitious, I don’t mean only compensation-wise. It’s about anything you overtly seek, and what you are prepared to do to obtain it.

Are you prepared to risk relationships, ethics, morals and your own right and wrong compass, regardless of consequence? Or are you measured in your ambition? Are you measured in what you seek? That is more acute, rather than arrogant, ambition. We all have our own measuring sticks for what is right or wrong.

Nature versus nurture is a topic I mentioned in a previous note and very much comes into play here. We are born a certain way through our DNA. As my son’s father, I have passed that down to him. Sorry . . . or thank you? Not sure on that one yet 😊. Nurture is what you experience in life. That is a culmination of life events that you participate in, and they soak deep into the pores of your skin. You would then pass this down to your son or daughter, should you choose to procreate.

Ambition is a double-edged sword. It’s something I personally share with you. My ambition is a desire to create an impact, to challenge myself and those around me. That desire can be met in a variety of different ways.  It could be through the company I am currently apart of, a non profit I join due to its mission or a start up company I create due to an entrepreneurial bug.  Whatever the role it will based upon the rules of the game. These rules are financial target attainment (yep, even in non profits finances are extremely important), leadership proficiency and other pliable values the company holds in high regard. I would have both internal and external competitors for this role. Some may view this as a negative, but I view it as the opposite. It energizes me instead of detracting from me. It forces me to bring my best every day. If I were to go after this new opportunity no holds barred, lie my way and steal my way to winning this role, that would be blind ambition. I do not espouse to be in this type of arena. It’s one of the biggest reasons, by the way, that I could never be successful in politics.

Ambition is a positive thing, provided that your pathway is not an unscrupulous one, but rather a virtual path that keeps you focused on what is right and wrong, fair and equitable, and pushes the heck out of you to be a better you every single day throughout your journey in life. That is acute ambition, and I am optimistic this is what resides in your veins.

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