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Rethinking Ambition

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
18 min read
Rethinking Ambition
Photo by Benjamin Davies / Unsplash
“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.”
–John Lubbock, The Use Of Life

Ambition is a polarizing word these days. On the heels of the Great Resignation, think pieces are shunning ambition for its empty promises, while thread bros on Twitter are touting its essentialism for success. The New York Times claimed we’re in “The Age of Anti-Ambition,” while “ambition” has been hashtagged on Instagram nearly 10 million times.

For some, ambition is a dirty word that equates to capitalist greed, hustle culture, and productivity porn. It means progress at all costs, men who are toxic, women who are bitches, and a lack of empathy and self-awareness. It means putting you and your career success ahead of everything else.

For others, ambition means making a dent in the universe. It means having confidence that no one else can tell your story for you, and big dreams worth sacrificing for. Ambition means to leave it on the field and die without regrets because your legacy will live on. To not have ambition would be to be lazy, and have no sense of purpose. If you’re not moving toward a big hairy audacious goal, what’s the point?

My life over the past two years has oscillated between both ends of the spectrum.

As an investor, I dreamed of having my own firm one day, a portfolio filled with unicorns, a fancy apartment on 5th Ave, my name on the Forbes Midas List, and more! Much more. For over a decade, my schedule was packed with back-to-back meetings from the moment I woke up to when I finally crashed in the evening. This hyper ambition became part of my identity, and eventually led to addiction, burnout and feelings of deficiency. Once I tasted success, I had a major realization—I was the same person at my core, and the mountain I thought I had been climbing didn’t exist. I felt tricked.

As my identity shifted from VC to coach and writer, I began to loathe the part of me who was ambitious and even those around me who are ambitious. I told myself a story for the past year that ambition is bad and only leads to burnout. “It’s a vice,” I wrote in my journal. The pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction that my drive had evaporated in thin air. This only led to more self-loathing—I began to view myself as soft, lazy, and a waste of potential. Underneath these subconscious attacks was shame and existential dread. What if I’m going to be insignificant and just fade out?

When I looked around me, especially on Twitter, hustle culture appeared to be front and center. Endless advice threads. Optimizing content to grow audience. Building in public. It’s venture or the highway. Blitzscaling. Thought leadership ad nauseam. From the outside looking in to the world I once inhabited, I began to loathe what I saw—unquestioned and unchecked ambition. I looked at people I used to respect, even friends, with skepticism and cynicism because their ambition seemed one-dimensional to me. I eventually quit Twitter for six months because I couldn’t take it anymore.

I felt stuck. One end of the spectrum led to burnout, anxiety, and addiction. The other led to negativity, cynicism, envy, and jealousy. I hated the way I felt when I would expose myself to anything or anyone that had the slightest scent of ambition. At the same time, I resented myself, I thought something was wrong with me and the way I viewed the world I had come from. I was not my usual optimistic, positive and ambitious self, and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back. Something was up. Why am I feeling this way? What’s going on? With some distance, I realized two things—first, that I was changing, and second, I needed a middle ground.

That’s when I took a step back and asked myself some important questions:

  • How do I define ambition?
  • Where did that definition come from?
  • What’s my ambition in life?
  • Am I an ‘ambitious person’ or ‘a person with ambitions’?
  • How have my goals and values evolved over the years?
  • What’s calling me in this next phase of my life and career?
  • When I get there, what will I have that I don’t have now?

Through this exploration, it occurred to me that I could redefine ambition as something that's multi-dimensional and deeply personal rather than just tied to work, success and outcomes. It could encompass all the goals I now have, as well as my future aspirations, like how I want to show up in the world. Most importantly, one that honors the positive attributes of ambition, and neutralizes the negative.

What is Ambition For?

Philosophers have been interested in ambition for centuries. Go deep enough into ​​Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and many others and you’ll find musings on the topic—it’s been lauded as a virtue and loathed as a vice.  

In the modern zeitgeist ambition is largely equated with work and success. Merriam-Webster’s definition of ambition is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” The word dates back more than a thousand years, and has roots in Roman politics. Similar to modern political campaigns, candidates in those days also had to spend their time canvassing and convincing their constituents to vote for them. “The Latin word for this effort was ambitio, which came from ambire, a verb meaning ‘to go around.’ Since this activity was caused by a desire for honor or power, the word eventually came to mean ‘the desire for honor or power.’” Hundreds of years later, ambitio made its way into the English dictionary as ambition, and would eventually come to mean “an admirable desire for advancement or improvement.”

In Striving for Success: Towards a Refined Understanding and Measurement of Ambition, Professors Andreas Hirschia and Daniel Spurkb, highlight several definitions and context clues, all linked to success, upward mobility, and general progress (bullets added):

  • “Ambition is originally conceptualized as a relatively stable personal disposition, defined as ‘the persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment’ (Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller, 2012, p. 759), or
  • ‘a yearning desire to rise that is committedly pursued’ (Pettigrove, 2007, p. 57).
  • Ambition is considered as highly relevant in diverse social contexts, such as educational attainment, sports, or politics (Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller, 2012; Pettigrove, 2007), and seems to be particularly relevant in the work context.
  • Indeed, several researchers argued that ambition should exert significant effects on a broad range of work and career behaviors and outcomes (e.g., Jones et al., 2017; Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller, 2012).”

When you look at these definitions and descriptions of ambition, they are all tied to success, rising, attainment, and accomplishments related to work. When we step back and look at the full picture, we can see how this sense of ambition—particularly in tech, the world I come from—is related to the larger capitalist project of progress at all costs. The rationale goes something like this: if we’re not progressing and moving forward, we’re not growing both as individuals and as a society. We need growth and progress to further the American experiment. To be ambitious is to be American. In fact, in a study concluded in the 1990s, 89% of Americans believed that ambition is “essential” or “very important” to get ahead. Individual progress is measured by power, fame, influence, money, so that’s what motivates the masses. If we’re not aiming for those things then we might as well pack it up and head for the hills. Ambition is an American value.

But without a vocation, or a calling, for ambitiousness to serve, ambition for its own sake is conquest, a pursuit of the ego. When our ambition goes unexamined and unchecked there are real costs and implications to ourselves, those around us, and society. We’ve seen this play out in business and politics for the past decade (or perhaps forever) domestically and abroad. You know what I’m talking about. This type of ambition grows and infects—it’s metastatic. David Whyte nailed this in Constellations, writing, “Ambition left to itself, like a Rupert Murdoch, always becomes tedious, its only object, the creation of later and larger empires of control.”

Once we accept that ambition is a way of life and become intoxicated by its allure, we attach our identities to our pursuit and our self worth to the outcome. In other words, we become that pursuit, and from that place everything flows, including where we spend our time, what we think about, how we perceive others, how we value ourselves and more. And over time, the more we buy into this notion and orient our lives towards attainment, it becomes addictive, leading to burnout, self deception, health issues, insecurity, black and white thinking, greed, self neglect, comparison, and more. It also gets in the way of our relationships, leading to alienation and loneliness.

And as we age, we remain in its gravitational pull, even when we consciously or subconsciously despise what we’re doing. Despite this, we still get up in the morning, go to work, and go through the motions because we tell ourselves stories like, I need to realize my full potential or it’s only for the next five years. It becomes an obsession.

However, without ambition, that desire to achieve something great, we might not have the personal computer, light bulb, city-wide plumbing systems, or The Oprah Winfrey Show. Ambition helps us follow through on our curiosities, leading to discovery. It helps us feel meaning, purpose, fulfillment, motivation, courage, confidence, self-esteem and impact. Identifying as ambitious can help us push through challenges we might otherwise turn away from, unlocking our potential. Sometimes I ask myself, “If an ambitious person were doing this task, how would they do it?” It can change your confidence and attitude—and therefore your ability—to see yourself as a person who will do great things.

And this is why I believe that we need to redefine and expand what ambition means. Ambition is an important value and idea that leads to incredible things when it’s attached to vocation, service, and progress, and detached solely from outcomes. It shouldn’t just be about work and making a dent in the universe. Ambition can be so much more. We can and should be ambitious about more things that we can imagine, and this doesn’t make us bad, greedy or evil. It means that we’re human and we aspire to change, to evolve, to create something different and better.

One of my clients, a founder who deeply cares about climate, figured out that his calling in life wasn’t to solely build a unicorn and make millions in that pursuit, but to play a pivotal role in solving global warming. Through his exploration, he realized that his ambition to work on this problem exceeded his ambition to build a fintech company, even if that meant departing the startup he co-founded. His ambition was driven by a purpose far bigger than himself—the planet and his kids. Solving climate change has become his calling.

This is just one example of the new ambition I’m talking about.

Redefining Ambition

We want to honor ambition's roots, given the benefits that I’ve touched on, but we need to expand what it means and its place in our lives. The way we’ve been using it is limited and one dimensional, and humans are multi-faceted, complex and diverse. That’s why we need to move away from associating ambition with only work, success, rising, attainment, and career or industry accomplishment.

Here’s my new definition of ambition. I call it holistic ambition:

An intentional desire to be, become or create something new, better or different that is aligned with who we are and what we value.

This could be designing a dream house upstate, ensuring your sick parents have a comfortable end of life, training for a half marathon, or being more patient around your kids.

If you limit ambition to the realm of work and career, you are short-changing yourself on what you can experience and what impact you can have. This new definition is expansive, inclusive and multi-dimensional. Ambition can permeate every aspect of our lives, such as family, friends, spirituality, leisure, learning, service, health, community, love, and creativity.

Furthermore, under this new definition, success for the sake of success doesn’t qualify as ambitious. Holistic ambition is oriented towards creating something new, better or different for yourself, your family, your community, and the world. It’s about creating a better life—not through the old avenues of wealth, fame, influence or power, but by way of other virtues, like benevolence, abundance, justice, balance, dignity, joy, truth, and beauty.

Thinking through all of this the last few months, I realized that I wanted to bring an ambitious attitude to things that couldn’t have clear outcomes. Furthermore, I wondered how I could be ambitious about living a multi-dimensional life, but not be attached to specific outcomes. When ambition is tied to more than just outcomes, we can begin to be ambitious about how we live every day, with new goals and aspirations related to how we move through the world and not just what we want to get out of life.

This led me to understand there can be multiple types of ambition, not just one tied to success and outcomes, all of which have their place in a balanced life—creating, becoming, being and doing. They are all essential for a life filled with balance, meaning and purpose.

Creating ambition

Creating-ambition focuses on what you want to create and bring into the world. For example, I have clients who aspire to scale their startup into a unicorn, launch a podcast, get married and have a family, and start a sports franchise in a foreign country. What drives this ambition isn’t money, power, status or accolades, but an idea and pursuit of birthing something new, expressing oneself, and creating something bigger than the self.

Becoming ambition

Becoming-ambition focuses on who and what you want to become. For example, when I was an addict I wanted to become sober but I didn’t know where to start. But deep down inside, I knew that I wanted to become a different person who was clean and healthy. We can have ambitions to become a CEO or a professional podcaster, but we can also aspire to become sober, better parents, triathletes, and more. It may not be about becoming different, but becoming more of who you actually are at your core.

Being ambition

Being-ambition focuses on how you want to show up as a human being. It includes the qualities, thought patterns, behaviors and energies you bring to specific contexts each day. For example, I strive to be more patient, kind and curious, especially with my kids. And when I’m at my desk writing, I aim to be more focused, open, and calm. When we adopt and commit to a way of being it’s embodied and encoded in how we experience and interact with the world. Being-ambition doesn’t have to be limited to specific activities, but it can include how you show up every day in specific situations and contexts.

Doing ambition

Doing-ambition focuses on what you do, your daily activities. This manifests in the world through your actions and behaviors. For example, I’m ambitious about writing every day, not for any reason other than I love the medium, the challenge, and the expression. It helps me think clearly and learn about myself and others. Doing-ambition is an ambition to prioritize the activity in your life because it enriches your life, and to value the process and the inputs over the specific outcomes and rewards. It can be applied to any activity—advocacy, running, meditating, writing, volunteering, and reading to your kids before bed. There doesn’t need to be a desire to be the best or successful. We do it because we enjoy it and what we gain from it even if that’s just a deep inner satisfaction.

The beauty of holistic ambition is it can be experienced daily or over longer timescales. For example, you might want to create something new and form a new identity which might take months or years, but that will require you to change how you spend your time (doing) and how you show up (being). We’re shifting the idea of ambition as an achievement far down the road to something that we can practice and enjoy every day. And this helps us separate from just outcomes, and outward forms of validation that I touched on, and focus on creating a life filled with purpose, balance, and alignment.

Heraclitus once said, “big results require big ambitions.” I agree with this wholeheartedly, but those big results don’t need to be in the office and don’t need to be tied to traditional markers of success. They can and should extend to things like a special meal you lovingly prepare and serve to your closest friends. When we look at this new definition, we can see that we can have big results in our inner state and our life, not just in the broader world. Ambition isn’t about scale—making our lives bigger. It’s about depth, and it’s personal.

Putting It Into Practice

When I was growing up, my father was around, but he didn’t live with us and wasn’t very active. Once I became a dad, I realized that I didn’t have a complete blueprint for what it means to be a great father. Rather than rely on his model of parenting, I have an ambition to be the father I never had but dreamed of having. This is the most important being-ambition in my life.

I aspire to be a present, active, patient, curious and healthy father.  It means that when I’m with my girls I’m engaged. I ask questions. I look them in the eye. When they talk to me I answer them. I put them to bed every night. When they ask for help, I acknowledge them and drop what I’m doing to support them. When they’re upset, I don’t tell them to get over it, I ask them what’s going on and try to understand them. I listen deeply. If I don’t understand what they said, I ask clarifying questions rather than just nod. They come first, no questions asked. This is how I want to show up for them. It’s a way of being.

I realize that I’m learning on the job, and I’m far from perfect, but I aspire to do my best. So when I feel myself losing patience and getting angry, which I do because I’m human, I don’t beat myself up for not attaining an unrealistic ideal. Instead, I simply remember my being-ambition, come into presence, and suddenly the struggle is just an opportunity to meet this ambition today, and to call on my strength and resiliency as an ambitious person to do so. It’s a practice.

This is just one taste of holistic ambition, but there’s no limit on what’s possible for you.

In fact, today I’m more ambitious than I’ve ever been because my ambition is multi-dimensional and is grounded in what I value—it encompasses my family, my health, my career as a coach and writer, my relationships, my finances, and more. I’m more focused on the intention, the practices and the process rather than the outcomes because I trust that somehow everything will unfold the way it’s meant to. Most importantly, my identity and sense of worth isn’t tied to some far off achievement, but grounded in the present and near future.

The possibilities are endless when we begin to realize that ambition has no limits. It could be committing to a life free of alcohol and drugs. It could be marching in the streets for a cause you deeply care about. It could be starting a small business to revitalize your hometown. It could be canvassing for a candidate you deeply believe in. It could be volunteering at the local food bank. It could be launching that newsletter you’ve thought about for months. It could be completing a triathlon in honor of a late friend. It could be becoming someone who saves and invests their money. Or it could be listening to your significant other with all of your being.

As write this, I’m reminded of something my friend Jonathan Basker said to me as we were sitting in Madison Square Park on a picturesque evening last fall:

“For a long time I thought I wasn’t ambitious, until I realized my ambition is to live a good life.”

And a good life Basker lives. He lives it in Brooklyn. He’s happily married. He spends time upstate in nature. He has great friends and runs his own business. He’s devilishly handsome. He’s created a well-rounded life for himself. He meets his ambition each day he participates fully in his own life—through awareness, presence and gratitude.

Steps to Cultivating Holistic Ambition

So how do you start to explore this new definition of holistic ambition for yourself? I’ve created a five-step exercise to help you to create clarity, identify what ambition means to you, and define your holistic ambitions. This process should take you at least a few hours to get started, and I encourage you to break it up over several days and sessions. There’s no rush. Just block the time, grab your computer or journal, and put your phone away, so you can focus.

Step 1 – Your History and Relationship with Ambition

In this first step, we create awareness of our historical and current relationship to ambition.  

  • How has your ambition changed throughout your life? Think back to your childhood, high school, college and your career. What were you ambitious about at these different stages? What has changed or stayed the same? Where did the source of your ambition come from?
  • What are you ambitious about today, going by the traditional definition of ambition?

Once you’ve explored these questions, what do you notice about yourself and what you value? Are there any themes? What feelings and emotions come up? Maybe nothing, because you’ve never identified as an ambitious person or work hasn’t been the center of your life. That's ok. Note that! You might wonder, what’s behind that lack of ambition or, even better, what if I could be ambitious in other areas? The point here is to see how ambition has played a role in your life.

Step 2 – Your Holistic Ambition Explored

In this second step, we imagine what holistic ambition could look like when we apply it across our lives.

  • What might it look like to have ambition in each aspect of your life? Include family, romance, friends, finance, career, spirituality, community, health, learning and growth.
  • For each category, ask yourself the following questions. What do I want to create? Who do I aspire to become? How do I want to show up and move through the world? What activities bring me joy and aliveness? What kind of life do I want to have?

Once you’ve completed this, you should have a solid list of ambitions tied to creating, becoming, being and doing. Review what has emerged. Which ones give you energy and resonate? Circle those.

Step 3 – Identify Your Holistic Ambition

In this third step, we take the list of holistic ambitions that we generated above and narrow it down to four that we can focus on in the coming weeks and months. From your list, choose a creating-ambition, a becoming-ambition, a being-ambition, and a doing-ambition. These four can be categorical, thematic or unrelated. The point here is to select four of them that you’re excited to experiment and play with in the coming weeks.

Step 4 –  Design Micro Actions

In this fourth step, we brainstorm and select a range of “micro actions” that support each of the ambitions we identified. This is where the rubber meets the road. For each ambition, brainstorm a set of micro actions that help you fulfill that ambition each day. These actions should conveniently slot into your day and take five to ten minutes. The idea is to embody ambition. This can be setting an intention when you’re around your kids, practicing a breath exercise, taking a bath at the end of the day, meditating for five minutes, doing 20 pushups after each meeting, writing in your journal, or reciting a new mantra. These are the tip of the iceberg, but I think you get the point. These actions shouldn’t feel like chores. You should want to practice these because they bring you closer to who you are, how you want to spend your time, how you want to show up, or who you want to become.

Step 5 – Review and Adjust Your Ambitions

The fifth and final step is to write down your holistic ambitions, place them somewhere where you can see them on a daily basis, and review them regularly. Hang them on your wall by your desk. Place them on your refrigerator. Write them in the jacket of your journal. Make sure it’s in a prominent place where you can see and be reminded of them. I also like the mobile apps Streaks for tracking and Mind Jogger for notification reminders. These help me to recall the micro activity and then keep track of my progress each day. I also encourage you to set aside an hour at the end of the month to see how you’re doing in a non-attached way. Are you moving closer or farther away to your holistic ambition? What’s getting in the way? What are you learning about yourself and what you want?  

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers, and they’ll likely evolve the more you sit with these questions. The point is to get started, learn about yourself, and evolve your ambitions and practices with time as you and your life changes. And this is a deeply personal exercise and process. There’s no immediate need to shout from the rooftops and share with all of your friends. You should be comfortable honoring and owning these new ambitions privately before sharing them with the world. They are yours and no one can take them away from you.

You might be thinking, I’m not an ambitious person and this won’t work for me. You might also be thinking that ambition is still dangerous, even when applied to righteous causes. Perhaps this isn’t for you, but I’m just asking you to give this a try, because I believe holistic ambition can help create more meaning, purpose and balance in your life. It’s worth a shot.

Basker’s ambition is to live a good life. My friend Julian’s ambition is to have no ambitions. My ambition is to be a good, decent man who helps others succeed, and thrive. It can really be whatever you want. This is an exploration of who you are, what you value, and what you want to get out of your life. It’s less about being tied to outcomes and more about enjoying the processes and practices.

For the past year, I thought I had lost my ambition because I was changing. Earlier in my career, I thought ambition was something that was static and solid that I’d have forever, but I was wrong. I didn’t appreciate and realize that we have the power to shift our ambitions as we change, but we do! After going through this experience, I’m now more ambitious and balanced than I’ve ever been in my life, but work is no longer alone in the center. It’s a powerful idea and feeling.

I leave you with this. We don’t need less ambition. I’d argue that we need more today than ever before, but we need to direct it in other areas beyond work. Our families need ambition. Our bodies need ambition. Our communities need ambition. Our planet needs ambition. It starts with you.

Here’s what I came to appreciate through this exploration: ambition is about creating and living a multi-dimensional life worth living. Is there a higher pursuit than that?

2022ambition

Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.

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