Ambition: The Good and The Bad

Ambition has long been associated with professional success, climbing the corporate ladder, and achieving a fulfilling career. But what if you have no such desire? It is often so closely correlated with success, the idea that those with ambition will undoubtedly achieve whatever they put their minds to. This traditional meaning of ambition is, and should be, evolving into something much more personal. Not to say that we are becoming less professionally ambitious, just that priorities are changing and our ambitions alongside them.


This change is most obvious in younger generations, with more people continuously prioritising their wellbeing above huge salaries and promotions and there is no doubt the pandemic accelerated this transition. The collective attitude towards success also seems to be changing, perhaps more so again with younger generations, however having ambitions beyond professional reasons is becoming increasingly more accepted and understood. Living in a society where the belief that people should constantly strive for more is so ingrained in our culture means it can sometimes come as a shock when people express little or no desire to move up the ladder but merely do enough to get by.


But these people do exist, and whilst they may be seen as having low professional ambition, this does not mean that they live unfulfilling lives. They simply prioritise other aspects of their lives, hobbies, family, friends and free time, over a career. For more and more people, the sacrifices made when chasing professional ‘success’ is simply not worth it anymore. Simone Biles dropping out of the Olympic final to focus on her mental health was a prime example. With the world watching, it created a huge discussion about priorities, wellbeing and ambition, and many people showed their support for her.


Ambition, particularly professional, requires an effort that some people are not capable or willing to make. Professional success and ambition ties into the culture of glorifying overworking, where appearances are everything and actual achievements and productivity are rarely measured.


Whatever motivates you and drives you forward, are your ambitions, whether they correspond with those of the people around you or not and personal ambitions are just as valid as professional ones. The habit of defining people by what they do, suggesting a job role is, or makes up a lot of your identity, feeds into the idea that without professional ambition you are unsuccessful or unhappy which is simply not the case. How hard you work, or how often, does not determine your validity. Happiness can stem from personal or professional success and looks different for each of us.




Good ambition vs bad ambition


Ambition can get you far in life, you can achieve great things, but it can also harm you, and others. Ambition is persistent, an intrinsic character trait, that can spiral out of control. So what is the difference between good and bad ambition?


It is often said that people who want to be in positions of power, shouldn’t be. Bad ambition is desiring power and status for selfish reasons, wanting to achieve things for personal gain at the expense of others is unhealthy. Good ambition helps others, or at least doesn’t harm anyone.


Unhealthy ambition disrupts your life, and throws your work life balance off, for a sustained period of time. Being constantly switched on, having no time for yourself or others, no free time and on the way to burnout is a sign of bad ambition. If it’s overtaking your life and consuming every waking moment, it is not healthy. When you have good ambition, you still retain perspective and a sense of balance between work and personal life.


Good ambition often inspires others, having supportive, caring people around you is a sign your ambition is healthy. If it is causing you to hurt other people, making you selfish with no compassion or empathy for others whilst you aim for achievement then it is bad.


Unrealistic goals are an example of unhealthy ambition, setting yourself up for failure, whether consciously or not, can affect your self-esteem. Having realistic goals is good, steady and reasonable steps that are well thought out makes your goals attainable.


Striving for perfection is a sign of bad ambition. Becoming obsessive can quickly become harmful to yourself and the people around you and affect mental and physical wellbeing. Perfection is unattainable, aiming for better is healthier whilst looking for perfection will only end in disappointment.


If your ambitions are your own, they are good. Often, we can strive to achieve goals for other people, which is not healthy and is not serving your best interests. Ambitions that we aim to achieve that are not our own can cause resentment and unhappiness when they should be inspiring us.


When ambition is taken too far it can go to your head, inflating your ego and leading you to compare yourself to others. It can creep in and alter your everyday behaviours and mindset, making it toxic to the point where you may not even realise it.


Ambition is meaningful, yet it’s important to maintain balance and perspective otherwise it can cause more harm than good.