Suppose Sam decides that he is going to be ambitious, and try to get promoted to partner in 6 years rather than the usual 8. To achieve his goal he is going to have to be driven, motivated, and hard working – all good traits – but there is a problem. Being ambitious requires attempting to do things that not everyone else can do, and I wonder therefore about how Sam views others; others who maybe don’t want to get to partner, or despite their best efforts won’t ever make it so high.
Does he think of himself as somehow special, or “better” than these people – and if not then why is he telling himself that he can achieve more than they can? Has he received some special signal of talent from his past? Is he grateful that he has had opportunities where others have not? Is there, contained within the idea of ambition, an inherent dismissal of other people’s ability, work ethic, or even worth?
The challenge is: how is it possible to simultaneously believe that you are both better than others (because being ambitious means to an extent doing things better than others) and also that you are amongst or equal to others? Does being ambitious require the kind of ego that allows you to place yourself head and shoulders above the crowd you are standing within?
It is important here to separate between the ‘goal’ and the actual achieved outcome. It may be the case that Sam admires people no matter what their goals are but doesn’t admire people who don’t achieve those goals. So he might claim that someone who wants to get to partner in 6 years but doesn’t manage it until 8 is not as good as he is. But the more interesting question is what does she think of people that don’t want to get to partner in 7, 8, or even 9 years – are they somehow lesser because they don’t set their goals as high? The response to this line of argument is that all this is only true if Sam places some value in being ambitious – if he thinks he is worth more because he is ambitious then he will likely think others are worth less if they are less ambitious; and then the question becomes: is it possible for a person to have high aims and also not connect their self-worth to those high aims? Maybe he thinks of himself as special in certain areas, or at certain things, but he does not equate this ability with the core worth of a person – to him all people are equally ‘worthy’ but may have different strengths and weaknesses.
I think also, for instance, that it is strange to imagine what the minds of highly ambitious people look like. The strangeness comes from my own introspection - it seems overly hubristic, for example, for me to imagine myself capable of making decisions that will affect the lives of 300+ million people. I consider myself to be a reasonably ambitious person, but I don’t think I would ever have the self-belief, or the egotism to believe myself capable of such a responsibility. It is astounding to me that anyone does, and it makes me wonder about what kind of mind is that person is carrying, that they are able to think so highly of themselves?
The counter point is that people who stand for office, or take on such huge responsibilities, do so not from a place of ego, but from a place of service. That to put oneself forward for a leadership position – at any level in an organization – is not to declare yourself a deserving king, entitled to the throne, but rather as a way of giving even more of yourself to a cause you believe in. It is not because people wish to be adored that they place themselves on stages or in the limelight, but rather it is a compelling desire to do more for those they care about – and they can only do more by being in those positions.
Perhaps also I am confusing the definition of “ambitious” with that of “elite”? Maybe a better definition of ambitious is more aligned with “be the best you can be” – which in Western society we consider to be a good trait in general, and not with “be better than others”. However, in reality, competition for opportunities and resources means that “elite” and “ambitious” are regularly intertwined. Often, in order to be the best version of yourself, you need to put yourself forward for positions and awards that others are competing for, and so in order to deserve the award, you must think of yourself as being more deserving than the other competitors. Being the best you can be often comes at the expense of someone else – you know you are taking an opportunity away from someone else by winning that opportunity for yourself.
Note: The above are not my actual beliefs, but just questions that have crossed my mind. There ought to be no shame in excellence, and criticising ambitious people is quite a toxic thing to do because often ambition requires overcoming a huge amount of self-doubt already. So credit where credit is due.