Many moons ago a senior director at my old company sat with me talking about my career and said,
“Peter your problem is you have no ambition.”
That felt like a slap across the face because at the time there was no one working harder than I was. Prior to coming to the head office – where I was when I had this conversation – I had been promoted almost every 18 months.
I was so stunned that I didn’t know what to say and the conversation soon turned to operational business matters, but it bothered me enough that I brought it up with my boss who dismissed the comment as the errant rambling of an out-of-step executive.
It wasn’t until I left the company a few years later that the issue resurfaced for me. Especially when in my continuing education a teacher of mine brought up the question: What does it mean to have ambition?
What is Ambition?
When I think of ambitious people in my past, the conversations that people had about them were along two-major themes: (1) they were hard-working and (2) they were willing to do whatever it took to get ahead.
Hard-work by itself proves or achieves nothing
For most, ambition is a drive to succeed—evidenced by hard work. This is why that executive’s ‘no ambition’ assessment of me made no sense. At the time I was one busy manager. I was focussed on getting results and for most of my career I did get results that mattered.
Make no mistake, hard-work is essential for success, but you can work very hard and not get anywhere except tired and burnt out.
I know because I’ve been there.
Take a look at the people around you. How many people do you know that work very hard, and are not happy with the fruits of their labor? You know them; they are often very nice well-intentioned people yet they complain about how difficult life is and all of the sacrifices they make and how little they get in return.
Ambition has nothing to do with the willingness to kill
Another conversation often associated with ambition is about the willingness, even eagerness, to cut people’s throats to win. Ambitious people are thought to be highly political and willing to do or say whatever is necessary to get ahead, even if it means the political assassination of someone else’s career.
While many ambitious people are ruthless, many more are not.
Ambition begins with one fundamental question
What do you want to be when you grow up?
“Do you know why grown-ups always ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up?” asks Paula Poundstone.
“Because they are looking for ideas.” She answers.
Funny because it’s true. Not that adults really are looking to little kids for ideas of what to do with their lives, but rather that adults are not satisfied with what they have become and have stopped asking the question of themselves.
We’ve been taught to value answers more than questions and what’s worse we value easy answers. We’re looking for the ‘cheat’ sheet. But there is no easy answer to the one fundamental question, and it’s up to us to keep going to the mountain with it until something lights us up.
Your answer to this fundamental question is the story of your ambition
Drive or the drive to succeed only makes sense within the context of what you are driving towards.
What are you trying to succeed at?
What is your goal?
Only now do I recognize what that executive was pointing to when he said I had no ambition. He didn’t mean that I wasn’t a hard worker or that I didn’t have the capacity to succeed, he was pointing to the fundamental part of anyone’s ambition: I had not crafted my own story of what I was driving towards.
I was thinking at most just one step ahead: the next promotion and not towards any bigger picture of where I wanted to be in my career either at that company or elsewhere.
The easy answer to the fundamental question
There actually is an easy answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
People even say it, “I am a survivor,” “I will survive” without realising that they are declaring their ambition.
And the strategy to be a survivor is the easiest of all. You deal with what life throws at it. No need to plan too far ahead, you’ll worry about it when it comes.
No judgment as to what your answer to the fundamental question is or the strategy you choose. There really is not a right answer to this question, and strategies either work or don’t. But take care you answer the question yourself. Most people don’t.