The Right Way To Be Ambitious

It was Kirsten Gillibrand, a Senator from New York, who said “ambition is not a dirty word.” Well said. So why is it then that the world frowns about those who are, let’s call it, ‘overly ambitious’? That ambition has become something of a quagmire is a shame. Certainly there is a fine line, but on the whole, if we continue to cast a negative light on the idea of ambition, we’re bound to fall victim to diminishing success. Simply put, ambition is important, but the key is fostering the right type of ambition, the kind that is both positive and constructive. Let’s figure that out, shall we?

The definition of ambition goes a little something like this: “an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction - as power, honor, fame, or wealth - and the willingness to strive for its attainment”. Sounds pretty good to me. But the word that has been missing from this in recent time is “earnest.” And that is (or should be) ultimately the driving factor behind ambition - sincerity and conviction. Well, let’s be frank, in order for you not to be a total dick.

So why exactly are we shying away from saying boldly, “I’m ambitious.” To assess this we have to dip back to the 80s when the original OG, the Wolf of Wall Street himself, Jordan Belfort, brought, among other things, savage ambition, cocaine and naked girls to finance. He thought - and his followers too - that ambition was the coolest thing you could have and that nothing should ever stand in your way to reach the top of the heap. But to what end?

Today Belfort is teaching at various business universities across the country and he’s changed his tune - and directed it somewhere - from “ambition is to have billions” to “ambition is healthy, ambition is what cuts through and provides clarity [to work]. It's ambition that drives you to add value to business [exchanges]. Ambition is the engine of capitalism.” And he’s right, without ambition we might as well stay home and stop dreaming. Not home with your girlfriend having a good time on the couch eating pizza, home alone in the dark is what I mean. Ultimately, success is earned, not given, and ambition is key in earning that success.

So perhaps it’s time to claim back the word “ambition” for the next generation. Today ambition is about finding a way to do whatever you love in a way that will still have you love it. In the book (now musical and movie) “American Psycho” Bret Easton Ellis mocked the 90s obsession with ambitiously chasing labels and materialism. The 2000s couldn’t find itself out of its own vanity but, lucky for us, now times have changed so dramatically that we have moved so far beyond the old way of seeing capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit that we simply cannot go back. I believe they call this “evolution” of the species. Ambition is only worth mentioning if it equates to hard work and making a real difference in the world. Add in knowing that nothing will be handed to you and that perseverance through tough times is required. Otherwise you may actually be that dick.

Ambition now, in 2016, is about finding time, space, and freedom. Its about defining what success means to you and taking the steps you need to get there. And those things don’t need to be in a certain order, they just need to find their own way of laying themselves out in your life. Oscar Wilde, oh that wise man, said that “our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more.” How’s that for neo-capitalism. Do more, don’t lose yourself - rather explore yourself.

But don’t confuse ambition with mere aspiration - it’s not just that you have a hope that your life will be excellent. You actually need to persist and be pervasive - fight the good fight. That’s the real work and that’s when ambition is at it’s most golden. Nobody can teach you to be ambitious, it’s just one of those things that you cultivate. If you didn’t before, or you did it with your ass in everyone’s face, now is the perfect time to hone it like an utter gentleman.

Ambition, if not wielded properly Young Skywalker, leads to some twisted addiction. On The Good Man Project Benjamin Shalva’s “Confessions of an Ambition Addict” pretty much lines it up for you - “As ambition addicts grow dependent on this cycle of domination and validation, as we internalize the idea that our worth as human beings depends on the scope of our dreams and the efficacy of our efforts, we will do anything to win.” Ambition, a slow burner, is easily ready to burn your fingers and scorch those around you.

And that’s just not who you are. So instead of finding yourself stranded in your life, pursuing whatever that is that you want with an attitude of winning at all cost, perhaps there is another way where you can still get what you want. But maybe you’ll connect to your real self, make some true friends, see the extraordinary in the ordinary and meet the love of your life. Bam. It’s a choice after all.