As the author of numerous reports regarding the psychological and behavioural characteristics of those being considered for advancement, recruitment or on-going development, I’ve considered, from time-to-time, whether ambition is a positive or negative trait. In the work world, I had generally thought of ambitiousness as descriptive of someone who has a dream of succeeding at a specific endeavor or aspiring to a particular position.

I viewed an ambitious person as one who is hard-working and striving to achieve specific goals. I saw these individuals as willing to put forth additional effort to make their mark whether in their job or building a meaningful career. I thought employers preferred ambitious workers. I came to realize, however, that ambition is often viewed in its excessive form implying “overly ambitious”. The implication here being that ambition, by its very nature, is characterized as a great desire to succeed and that being ruthless, dishonest or harmful to others is the unmistaken and inevitable consequence.

On reflection, and candid appraisal, I have come to the following conclusion: while one may characterize ambition either positively or negatively, those who typically characterize ambition as negative are frequently those who have failed to set challenging personal goals or have been unsuccessful in achieving their goals, whether at work or otherwise. To make their point, naysayers of ambition often associate ambition with such negative characteristics as greed, intolerance, and the drive for power. A typical analogy is drawn from the movie “Wall Street”, where the lead character Gordon Gecko unequivocally stated that greed was good: there were no limits to how much money you could make or how big a company could get.

Furthermore, those who downgrade ambition are also prone to equate ambition with ruthlessness, implying that ambition blocks out such human feelings as friendship, respect for others, or compassion.

Finally, ambition is regarded as being solitary: the individual wants power at any price, and that the reward is often loneliness or isolation. More often than not, however, ambition, regardless of whether the source is insecurity, fear of failure, humble beginnings, a need for admiration and respect, or on the other hand, determination, self-confidence, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, or an intense desire to do good and give back…..ultimately, having ambition means understanding that we have value, that we can become better or create a better community, world or place of work.

Ambition helps us map out paths for success in our personal, family, or professional lives. Ambition also teaches resilience. When obstacles present themselves, ambitious people often find a 2 way around them. As one CEO once told me, those with ambition have “moxie” (by which he meant that when they hit a wall their legs don’t stop moving).

Furthermore, being ambitious causes one to be more adaptable and tolerant: by including other people in our ambitions we all move forward. Ambition does not have to equate with a solitary undertaking nor be limited to the workplace: it can be a vision for a city, the elimination of a disease or the improvement of a community.

In conclusion, albeit that certain members of society tend to denigrate ambition, those with aspirational goals ought not allow those with less or little drive, those who have failed to achieve or those who exhibit “blind ambition” set the tone for their concept of ambition. Without ambition, lives become mechanical and less meaningful. We need to celebrate ambition and enjoy the better present and future it brings. So, if you have established lofty goals for yourself, and in this case as it relates to career goals:

  1. Don’t be afraid to volunteer for difficult or challenging assignments if achieving these helps the organization and you
  2. Don’t justify your ambitiousness
  3. Don’t hesitate to include others in achieving your goals
  4. Don’t feel the need to have perfect work/life balance if you truly derive joy from pursuing your goal
  5. Don’t be afraid to say “no” if saying “yes” diverts you from your goal
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want
  7. Don’t be afraid to make decisions
  8. Don’t be afraid to challenge others, either 1:1 or in group meetings (as long as you have facts)
  9. Don’t expect that everyone will like you, whether you are ambitious or not
  10. Don’t be embarrassed by your successes
  11. Don’t be afraid to live successfully
  12. Don’t be afraid to say you made a mistake and learn from your errors
  13. Don’t be afraid to walk from toxic relationships….and the sooner the better
  14. Don’t be afraid to change jobs
  15. Don’t be afraid to invite your boss to lunch or dinner….or your boss’s boss for that matter
  16. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
  17. Don’t be afraid to stand out
  18. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, respectfully
  19. Don’t hesitate to give back

Pulvermacher Kennedy & Associates is a firm which focuses on strategy facilitation and implementation, business transformation and change management, succession planning, and executive and executive team development & coaching. PKA serves publicly traded entities, large national organizations and family businesses. Clients include organizations focused on financial services, oil & gas, hospitals, lottery corporations, real estate development, pharmaceuticals and high tech.