The Importance of Ambition

Ambition is the most understated ingredient for conventional success.

The ingredients for conventional success include things like hard work, intelligence, perseverance, and perhaps even some luck. But there’s another important trait that is required to achieve outstanding feats—even if you possess all of the former. The straightforward explanation is that perhaps you don’t want to achieve anything extraordinary.

Perhaps you’re a nonconformist who doesn’t derive joy from fame or lavishness. Perhaps a simple life with security, certainty, and comfort is your ambition. So… What exactly is ambition?

Ambition explains one’s desire for success, which is subjective. It’s ultimately the direction one will pursue with the resources they have. It can be thought of as having a mission; In fact, the two are really similar. The difference is that ambition is usually a lofty pursuit, especially in the eyes of onlookers. It differs from a mission because it’s usually so far-fetched that it cannot be meticulously planned or choreographed.

Levels of ambition are somewhat subjective, and people can be driven more intrinsically or extrinsically. So depending on who you tell your aspirations to, it may sound ostentatious, or it may sound admirable. On some occasions, it may even sound underwhelming. “What!? That’s all that you want to accomplish in life??”

Life can reveal priceless lessons—even in unexpected situations. This is exactly what happened to me during my term at one of my first jobs. One of my coworkers taught me how ambition plays such a substantial role in one’s life direction. We can refer to him as Jack for this story.

Jack Must Be Joking

Jack and I worked arduous physical labor in a scorching factory. It was definitely some of the most strenuous, physically demanding work I’ve ever done in my life. Our company had lofty output targets that we were pressured to reach despite the chronic personnel shortage. We were overworked, battered, and compensated meagerly. No wonder they had a difficult time hiring and retaining employees. Every day, I felt like I was worth so much more than this.

Jack stood out like a sore thumb. Unlike the archetypal employee of the company, he was actually very well educated, mannerly, and already pretty accomplished. With his resume, he was qualified for many high-paying jobs as a software developer in glamorous places like Silicon Valley.

One of his most impressive accomplishments to date was his previous tenure at a reputable startup where they developed social media infrastructure and features. His company actually built some of Snapchat’s features that millions of people use today. And he was one of a dozen people who were involved in that.

Jack was in his early thirties when I met him, so his possibilities in life were endless. I was visibly intrigued and craving for more of his story. Although, he seemed quite unenthused and almost uncomfortable while telling it to me. It almost seemed like he wanted to leave that life behind.

So I had to ask, “why did you choose to work here?” It turns out this job wasn’t a temporary stint, nor was it the beginning of a tragedy. It was quite the opposite. Jack actually wanted to be here long-term, and that was him saying that even after working here for a couple weeks. He loved the physical labor. It gave him purpose and a sense of accomplishment to earn a living this way.

His attitude shifted with animation as he began to describe to me his ideal life of living on his own self-sustaining farm on a large piece of secluded land, growing crops and raising livestock. Certainly not the typical life of an experienced software engineer earning six figures a year.

For the next few days, I tried and tried to start conversations with Jack about business ideas and the future of technology but all he gave were dull answers. He would even purposely change the topic to natter. I thought he was batshit crazy to have the knowledge and connections he did and not capitalize on it. It was hard for me to comprehend how someone so young, accomplished, and capable chose a life that some would regard as misfortune.

It’s not very clear where ambition comes from. Why do some people have the audacity to want to transport human civilization to Mars and others crave a life of forty solid years at a stable job to retire on a secluded farm? It’s one of those special obscurities of being a human. And as it seems, it’s certainly a very important factor in determining one’s direction in life.

Jack is not worse off by choosing a simple, modest life over one of abundance and accomplishment because that is what he wants. Neither is he some sort of special case that neurologists should study for being a deviation in the gene pool. It’s actually common that ambitions vary from person to person.

One of the most well-known examples of someone whose personal ambitions altered the course of their life comes from a man who actually did change the world. However, he sacrificed abundant wealth and notoriety for his own personal ambition.

Nothing More, Nothing Less

Nikola Tesla never cared about money. By most estimates, his inventions were so valuable that he easily should have become the world’s first billionaire and the richest person on the planet by a long shot. But none of that happened. In fact, when he passed in 1943, he was bankrupt, alone, and on the verge of insanity. To him, the ultimate purpose of life is to discover the complete mastery of the mind over the material world. And so he dedicated his entire life to invention. Nothing more, nothing less.

Nikola was a man whose ambitions did not align with stereotypical success. But instead, with a genuine passion for advancing technology and human consciousness. Without his contributions to society, we’d probably still not have radio, television, AC electricity, tesla coil, different types of lighting, robotics, x-rays, radar, microwaves, and dozens of other amazing inventions that save lives and improve the quality of living.

Ambition comes in different shapes and sizes. There is a point to be made that your local garbage man is just as important as his fellow Fortune 500 CEO. After all, what would happen to your trash if there’s no way to properly dispose of it? What would your neighborhood look like after a month? There are important social roles that a society needs to be successful. And it cannot be successful without those roles being filled one way or another.

This means that as long as all social roles are filled, we are sufficient. However, humans typically aren’t content with sufficiency. We yearn for growth. And in order for growth and improvement to happen, we need more ambitious people. So while it’s fine to live a simple, modest life, I believe that a healthy ambition should be encouraged to all who will listen.

Ambition Determines The Direction

Image generated by the AI DALL-E 2.
AI DALL-E 2’s depiction of Ambition. Input was “an expressive oil painting of an ambitious mountain climber, depicted as an explosion of a nebula”

Ambition is one of the most pervasive, yet polarizing and misunderstood concepts in Western culture. On the one hand, it has been chastised for millennia throughout history, literature philosophy, and theology. For example, in the Geneva Bible, you have “God detesteth ambition” Isaiah 39:6.

Even archaic warnings about ambition are prevalent such as in the moral of Icarus, one of the most famous tragic figures in Greek mythology. His story highlights the dangers of hubris or excessive pride. Although he was warned by his father not to fly too high, Icarus became overexcited and flew too close to the sun, causing his wings to melt and leading to his untimely death.

This story is often used as a cautionary tale, warning of the dangers of overreaching and disregarding advice. Have you ever noticed that a lot of advice regarding ambition typically encourages secure mediocracy or to reach for something more “realistic”? The simple reason is that it’s in our nature to not want others to be far better than us. Someone else’s lofty dreams often triggers animus.[1]

On the other hand, Icarus was also warned against flying too low. William Casey King explains in his book, Ambition, A History, From Vice to Virtue, that ambition is “widely considered to be a strong component of the American national character and intrinsic to the American mythos.”

Similarly, psychiatrist Neel Burton observes that “in the West, ambition is lauded as a precondition or precursor of success, even though the Western canon itself tends to fall against it.” Ambition explains much of the success that exists in the United States and also why many ambitious people from around the world chose to immigrate to this country to pursue their dreams.

The placebo phenomenon explains how what we believe we will experience from a treatment—our expectation—substantially impacts what we actually experience. Placebo has the power to alter our biology in a way that meets our expectations. This is one of the closest things we have to real magic. Genuine ambition can be thought of as your expectation or manifestation.

I’ve come to realize that ambition is more than just a pretentious word. As in the case of Icarus, it represents the main ingredient for both the extreme good and the extreme bad. It’s an amplifier for all the other traits and tools we have at our disposal and it ultimately determines the direction we will take in life.

[1] Silicon Valley is what happens when a culture encourages ambition.