My first serious girlfriend split up with me and broke my heart.
Among other things, she said I lacked ambition, and I guess at the time, she was right.
Since then, I’ve mostly thought ambition was a good thing, something that helped you out in life rather than holding you back.
But lately, I’ve started wondering if there might also be a dark side to ambition that can actually make this a negative trait.
As it turns out, the secret of ambition isn’t whether or not you have it but how much you have and how intensely that affects your life.
If you’re lacking in ambition, you might feel like this is an excuse even though it’s not. But if you have it at a high level, here’s why your ambitious nature might be doing you more harm than good.
What is ambition?
If you were asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” back in primary school, you’re already familiar with one aspect of ambition.
In that sense, it’s the things you want to do, be, experience, and have in your life.
Everyone has ambitions, including things like getting a university degree, climbing Mount Everest, or having kids.
Some are big, some are small, but they all take work and dedication to attain.
But when we talk about an ambitious person, we use this word differently.
Someone who is ambitious wants to achieve success and be seen as successful. They want the honors and the perks that come along with that success, like money, power, and authority.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that drive.
But when ambition causes other problems in your life or completely takes over your focus, it can have negative consequences.
Where does ambition come from?
Why do some people have more ambition than others?
What drives them to want more?
These are interesting questions, and different people will probably give you very different answers.
I have a very ambitious friend who grew up quite poor. She says that has driven her to succeed in two different ways.
She wants to show just how far she can go from her humble beginnings, and she also wants to make darned sure she never ends up living in those poor conditions again.
Other people might highlight anything from wanting to get the most out of life to living up to others’ expectations.
One academic study in 2012 set out to measure ambition and what causes it.
The study’s main findings were that people who were more conscientious and extraverted and who had higher mental abilities were more ambitious. People who were more neurotic or anxious were found to be less ambitious.
And the biggest socioeconomic variable that drove ambition was the parents’ occupational prestige.
In simple terms, people who are more concerned with others and who have higher skills are more ambitious. And people whose parents hold/held high positions tend to also aim high.
Is there such a thing as too much ambition?
While ambition can help you shoot for the stars and achieve greatness, it definitely also has another side to it.
Can you have too much ambition?
I think you certainly can, especially when this is your main or even your only driver in life.
While other people may be driven by kindness, compassion, and charity, your ambitious nature is always pushing you in a certain direction. This can be away from those things I just mentioned and can run completely counter to them.
The story of Ambitious Alex
I went to high school with a guy who was incredibly ambitious, though it wasn’t easy to tell back then.
Alex was a nerdy kid who spent all of his time in the AV room and making weird videos with his small group of friends. He didn’t really socialize with anyone else, however, so I don’t think many people saw the direction he was taking.
It turned out that all that time learning about filmmaking was part of his life plan.
While most of us didn’t know what we were going to eat for dinner, Alex had a big goal in mind that directed pretty much every decision he made:
He wanted to be a big-time Hollywood movie producer.
Sure, wouldn’t we all like to do that – be in control of multi-million dollar deals and hobnob with the rich and famous?
Well, he actually did it.
His little high school video experiments got him a full scholarship to film school, where he continued to excel. He also worked on movie sets and learned the ins and outs of the business and eventually started working in Hollywood.
The last time I saw his name in movie credits, he was listed as an executive producer.
Sounds great, right?
He had a goal and some talent, and he worked hard to get where he wanted.
But I read his bio last year and was really shocked to learn what his life had been like.
He was divorced and estranged from his son. He’d been indicted for tax evasion and had almost gone to prison over it. Instead, though, he’d suffered a major heart attack, which killed him.
To me, this shows how excessive ambition can be even more of a problem than a lack of it.
It can cause unhealthy stress, which was probably a big factor in Alex’s heart attack.
It can make you pay less attention to family and friends than you should, ultimately leading to damaged relationships and loneliness.
It can make you focus entirely on work and turn you into a workaholic, and it can make you develop a big ego, which can cause you to be unlikeable.
So, too much ambition is just like having too much of any good thing. It can flip the positives around and let the negative side of things take over.
I feel like what Alex had wasn’t just excessive ambition – it was toxic ambition.
This is the type of ambition that makes you take a really dark turn in life, the kind that keeps you focused on your goals at the expense of everything else.
That can include morality, like when Alex was indicted for tax evasion, and things can get worse than that. We’ve all heard stories of people doing whatever it takes to get ahead, even if that means causing harm to others.
Imagine an athlete willing to take dangerous performance-enhancing drugs to be the best or to put their body on the line in order to win.
Toxic ambition can make you jealous, highly competitive, and judgmental of others – a real treat to be around!
If this sounds familiar, your ambitious nature may be doing you more harm than good.
What’s good about ambition?
While I’ve talked about excessive and toxic ambition and illustrated where that can lead with Alex’s story, ambition is certainly not all bad.
That same study I mentioned earlier determined that, overall, ambition was a good thing. People who had more ambition had better educational achievements, held more prestigious jobs, and made more money than their less ambitious peers.
At work, another study showed that ambition was linked to greater productivity, better job performance, and increased possibility of getting a promotion.
People with more ambition get more things out of life, albeit these are normally material things.
But with more income and prestige, they do get to have more opportunities and experiences.
They may also be able to take care of their health more effectively by being able to afford more nutritious food and better medical care.
And in general, people look up to and respect ambitious people more than they do people who lack ambition altogether.
How to curb your ambition
If you feel like you may be too ambitious and it is starting to have some damaging effects on your life, your health, and the people around you, there are ways to dial things down.
The first step to take might be to evaluate why you feel such a strong need for prestige and rewards. Your ambition could be driven by factors that you’ve never really considered, like childhood experiences.
If you need help diving deep into this, don’t be afraid to try counseling, which lets you leverage the experience and knowledge of a professional for your personal journey.
You can also take practical steps like these:
- Cut one thing out of your schedule for every day to reduce pressure to perform.
- Find ways to relax and schedule in time to do it.
- Remind yourself to focus more on your loved ones.
- Reward yourself for things that aren’t related to your ambition, like being kind or spending time on yourself.
Your ambition may be doing you more harm than good if it’s excessive.
But by setting new goals and re-assessing what drives you, you can still be a high achiever without letting things get out of control.