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Why Ambition Matters, And How To Develop The Right Amount Of It

When it comes to leadership, few traits are more misunderstood than ambition. Ambition is key to achieving your goals, and ensuring that you maintain the motivation necessary to work towards them. But many hear the word and cringe, thinking of the “get there at all cost” leaders who climbed over others and left a wake of bodies behind them on the way to the top.

Still, ambition is more highly valued today than ever. A study by TIME found that among women, 48 percent of women in their 20s considered themselves “extremely” or “very” ambitious, and nearly 50 percent said it was not acceptable to be unambitious. This far outpaced results for older women, clearly indicating that emerging professionals see ambition as healthy, and necessary.

Of course, it’s not just among women where we see this increased emphasis on ambition. The rise of side hustle culture means that today’s ambition often takes on an entrepreneurial angle.

But while ambition can be a powerful tool for good, finding the right balance can be a challenge.

Why Ambition Is Important

Ambition is what drives people to new heights. It’s what creates the motivation to improve oneself, to grow a business or accomplish other meaningful goals.

In a recent conversation with Faris Lodin, CEO of AxeHedge, he explained, “Ambitious people are willing to put in the work or find the tools that will allow them to reach their goals. They know that much of their growth is dependent on their own efforts, so they are always watchful for opportunities that will help them reach new heights. They aren’t content with the status quo, and this enables them to accomplish so much more in the long run.”

Ambition is what drives innovators to create new products, or for everyday workers to take steps to improve their financial standing. Without some sense of drive or ambition, things would remain essentially as-is. But getting overly ambitious can come with its own drawbacks.

Too Much Ambition Can Be Dangerous

Most people are familiar with the mythological story of Icarus. After his father created wings using candle wax and feathers, Icarus set out on a flight across the Mediterranean Sea to escape imprisonment.

Icarus’s father warned him not to fly too high or too low, as the heat would melt the wax and the ocean would soak the feathers. However, after Icarus began his flight, he ignored his father’s warnings and ambitiously tried to fly higher and higher. As his father had warned, the wax melted and Icarus plunged to his death.

In our day, many executives have been warned to “not fly too close to the sun” with their ambitions. Writing for Psychology Today, Carl Beuke, Ph.D. notes that over-ambition can cause people to skip crucial steps rather than focusing on the basics, as well as setting unattainable or improbable goals.

When this happens, an individual’s hubris can get in the way. They become reckless and ignore the advice of others. They may allow other areas of their lives — such as family physical well-being — to suffer as they relentlessly pursue a work-related goal. Others may come to perceive them as self-interested, entitled or unrealistic.

While their drive can deliver results at first, it will eventually come crashing down. Leaders, in particular, must strike a healthy balance in how they manage their ambitions.

Know when you’ve under or over-reached

Earlier in my career I spent several years working overseas in multiple countries. I decided I wanted to learn to speak a different language so that I could communicate with the people with whom I was working, instead of always forcing them to speak English. But rather than just picking one language to learn, I decided to try and learn three languages ​​at the same time so that I could communicate within the countries I was working. Unfortunately, the result was not positive. Within six weeks my efforts faded. In hindsight I realized I had set my goals too high. Had I just focused on one language, and simply worked on becoming conversational with it, I would have had a much higher chance of success.

It’s important to make sure you know how high to aim when setting your sights on new ambitions. It turns out, our brains are wired to thrive when we feel appropriately challenged. We naturally enjoy the experience of overcoming challenges to reach her goal. If something is too easy, we will likely get bored and eventually give up. Likewise, if something is too difficult, as was the case with my trying to learn three languages, we are also likely to give up because we lose faith in our ability to overcome the challenge. Here’s how you can make sure you aim for just the right level of challenge when reaching for your ambitions.

First of all, pay attention to any sense of boredom you feel while working towards your goal. There will certainly be times when the discipline of working towards something important feels tedious. But if the time you spend working on your goal consistently feels monotonous, that could be a signal that you aren’t appropriately challenged. If that’s the case, try and increase the level of difficulty of the work so you feel more challenged by it. For example, if your goal to run a certain distance is easier than you thought, try increasing the distance. Or, if your goal was to master the ability to speak in public so you could one day earn money as a professional speaker, and you quickly became comfortable speaking to smaller groups, find an opportunity to speak to a larger crowd.

On the other hand, it’s also important to pay attention to your avoidance. If you find yourself procrastinating when it comes time to work on your goal, filling the time with other tasks, it may be a sign you’re not enjoying the work because it’s more difficult than you thought. When I was trying to learn those three languages, I had set aside every morning to study and practice. But after about four weeks, I knew I wasn’t retaining much of what I’ve learned, and so every day became every other day and eventually only once or twice a week.

Remember, setting the right degree of challenge for your goal isn’t something you do once. As you may progress, gain new skills, or reach new milestones, you should continue to calibrate the level of difficulty of your goal. There may be times where it’s appropriate to increase the level of challenge, and there may be seasons where you need to decrease the level of challenge in order to sustain progress. Maintaining a level of enthusiasm, commitment, and eagerness to keep working towards your goal, even when it’s hard, is the ultimate gauge of having just the right amount of challenge.

Developing A Healthy Level Of Ambition

In my own research, I’ve found that cultivating a healthy level of ambition comes down to focusing on three key areas: performance, achievement and growth. Leaders must aim to develop these areas equally in themselves and others, while still respecting the desires of those they lead.

As Faris explains, “Focusing on the ambitions of those who are impacted by your decisions is a great way to balance your ambitions. When you develop a more empathetic view that considers what your employees or family want to accomplish, you can align your efforts to achieve the greater good for everyone. When you come to truly understand the aspirations of others — not just your own — you create win-win growth.”

Performance ambition focuses on realizing greater results for yourself and your organization. It emphasizes setting goals you can realistically achieve on your own, as well as goals you can realistically guide your organization to attain. Such goals require extra effort, but they aren’t unattainable based on your current capabilities.

Achievement focuses on your desired rewards. What do you hope to gain from your efforts — such as money or a secure retirement? What rewards do your team members hope to gain? Understanding everyone’s desired rewards helps provide focus to your efforts.

Finally, growth ambition emphasizes improving technical and personal mastery. This is where you identify the skills, knowledge and self-management you need to acquire or improve to help you better achieve your other goals. Identifying the need for continuous growth will give you the necessary skills to turn aspirations into reality. This sense of humility ensures that you will be willing to learn from others and keep your ambitions in check.

Finding The Right Balance With Ambitions

By developing your ambitions in the dimensions of performance, achievement and growth, you can be better equipped to reach your personal and professional goals. Additionally, by understanding appropriate ways to demonstrate your ambition — and knowing when to hold it in check — you’ll ultimately be happier and more fulfilled.

Like Icarus of old, finding the appropriate level of ambition — not too high, and not too low — is what will lead to safety and success.

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