Most successful people are go-getters. They have one key trait — ambition — that motivates them to keep working even when their circumstances are tough.
But there’s a difference between good ambition and bad ambition.
Good ambition sets a high bar, but it is directed to just a handful of priorities. It is focused and simple, and it draws clear boundaries. It is sequential or linear, meaning that you don’t set new goals until you’ve reached your original ones. This doesn’t mean that you can’t reprioritize as circumstances change or you grow, or that you can’t be working on multiple projects at once if you have time. It’s OK to quit sometimes so you can move on to something better. But the approach stays generally as first-in, first-out (FIFO).
By contrast, bad ambition takes on every opportunity that comes knocking, even if your original work isn’t finished yet. You take on so many goals that they interfere with other areas of your life, such as your health or relationships. Instead of the benefits of the goals driving you, fear — e.g., of loss, judgment, etc. — does. You might accomplish some good things for a while under this model. But eventually, the demands become so high that you can’t keep up. You burn out trying to get everything you think you want or need.
The culture problem
Culture can make bad ambition look pretty darn good. You can get the message from a boss, for example, that you should lead yet another committee so you don’t “waste” your potential. Friends and family can tell you that security is possible only if you say yes. Posts on social media can make it seem like you’re always $0.99 to everybody else’s dollar. You can go through hardships so severe that your perception of what’s required becomes dramatically skewed.
3 tips to ensure your ambition stays positive
To keep yourself from confusing the two kinds of ambition even as culture screams at you, do three things:
- Connect to what your deep, true values are. Don’t let anyone else define these for you. Once you’ve defined your principles and beliefs, every time an opportunity comes your way, ask yourself whether it adheres to those values. If it doesn’t, then pass. No return is worth sacrificing your integrity.
- Ask yourself whether the activities involved in the opportunity really are fulfilling to you. Even if a goal adheres to your values, it might not give you enough of a reward to keep you engaged. Good goals should create excitement, not just a sense of “must” or growth/learning potential.
- Ask where the opportunity fits in the larger path you want to walk. If the goal is nice but doesn’t align with the main picture for your life that you’re painting, then say no. Know exactly how you need to develop or what you need to obtain and make sure that your tasks stay relevant.
Ambition can be a terrific asset. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to or should. Stay selective and use the three steps above to stay out of the weeds.