I recently came across this excellent short interview with 'Ambition’ author, Rachel Bridge, and it got me thinking about how important having ambition really is... and whether having it is all that it’s cracked up to be.
From Dali to Macron, Sandberg to Bonaparte, Branson to Burton, there seems wide acknowledgement that having ambition is a good thing, even a necessary characteristic. And certainly, there is a romance to the concept of ambition, an excuse for making those crazy choices and then going all out to see them through.
When I did a rough poll of my fellow co-workers in our work-space recently, the conclusion was unanimous: having ambition is critical. Being the brightest ‘techie’ in the building is not good if you don’t aspire, or push hard enough, to do something with your potential.
They also felt you needed to know your stuff too – otherwise having ambition alone would result in foolish pursuits, not to be encouraged. I’d agree with them.
“Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings” Salvador Dali
There’s no doubt that having ambition gets us places. From the dawn of time, it’s been ambition that moved us on from the stone age, created the British Empire, resulted in world-changing inventions and broke down societal stereotypes.
Sheryl Sandberg, speaking to CNN in 2013, had a take on this that is particularly thought-provoking. “The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests.”
We have a horrible way of over-complicating things as we grow into our adult lives. Those ‘personal passions, talents and interests’ become all too often extinguished by duty, mundanity, financial pressures, parental responsibilities and yes, stereotypes... not to mention the fear of failure and ridicule, which are often compounded by those stereotypes. All of which adds up to a loud voice in our heads telling us that ‘we can’t’ or shouldn’t, or that it’s all too difficult, or that we’d be reckless, to go ahead.
Featured in Time magazine this time last year, well ahead of his triumphant election results and at a time when there was considerable doubt about his chances of success, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, emphatically championed the importance of ambition in the face of something that might be considered too hard or unlikely.
“We need people who dream impossible things”, he said, “who maybe fail, sometimes succeed, but in any event, who have that ambition.”
He stands testament to the fact that some who dream hard enough, who shut out the scepticism of others, will find a way to make it happen. And that way is paved with the stepping stones of ambition.
“Anybody with artistic ambitions is always trying to reconnect with the way they saw things as a child.” Tim Burton
Ambition at is purest and most potent is often very simple in its focus. Stripping things back to a childish simplicity is often the route taken by technologists, scientists and inventors – all ambitious to disrupt, innovate and improve on what already exists.
I look at my own children and marvel in their (often fearless) beliefs that things are ‘just possible’ and their incredible ability to imagine things beyond what they can in fact see. Burton is a master at holding on to this wonderful childhood skill and channelling it into his work. It’s a mindset, skill and ambition that I have often sought to practise in my own career, (which is not without challenge for someone practising law for most of that time!).
But ambition can have a darker side too - something that Rachel Bridge also discusses in the attached article and, of course, her book. And it’s often not what you strive to do, or in fact achieve, it’s the way that you achieve it that matters most. Ambition when wielded by Frank Underwood types can be positively destructive and to say someone ‘has ambition’ in this context, is not to bestow a compliment.
“Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.” Napoleon Bonaparte
Ambition is may be as much about other people, about leadership skills (bringing others on the journey with you, getting them to believe in and back your vision), as it is about what you physically do.
Because if you achieve your ambition, but you cause collateral damage to others along the way then your success may be short-lived and a rather brittle, hollow thing...
Far better to have ambition that seeds ambition in others and creates opportunities for them too, along the way. In my view, the greatest ambitions are inspired by others, those who lead by example, who invest the time in others to empower them to achieve their own goals too. Teachers, parents, friends, mentors, managers... how many people have inspired you to achieve your ambitions in life?
When was the last time you thought about your ambitions and truly invested in them?
And when did you last help someone else to achieve theirs?
“Ambition is one of the most powerful tools we have to create positive change in the world. Without ambitious people dreaming of a better future, innovation would end and progress would falter.” Richard Branson
(Branson was talking about the importance of ambition to entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum for social good in 2014)
How has writing Ambition fired YOU up to make changes to your life? Has it uncovered any ambitions you’ve since acted on? Yes – the day after I finished writing Ambition I sat down and started writing the novel I had always wanted to write. I finished it five months later. What kept me going though out that time was a single phrase from my book – ‘You have to make your goal a priority’. It worked.