Is Ambition Good or Bad?

Is ambition good or bad? Studies have found that ambitious people usually attain higher levels of education and income and, despite the nocuous effects of their ambition, report higher levels of overall life satisfaction. Still, is it beneficial to be ambitious or does it bring more harm? Lucy Kellaway, an FT contributing editor, and co-founder of Now Teach, an organisation that helps experienced professionals retrain as teachers, researched the matter and shared her findings.

The story of the friend’s father who strived to become successful in politics but never made it beyond junior minister and died with the thwarted ambition brought Lucy Kellaway to thinking about both the corrosiveness and the necessity of ambition. How much of it do we need to succeed, how to turn it off when it’s no longer useful, and how to stop it from doing us in. Striving for power, position or money, seeing people carried away with their ‘unhealthy’ ambitions, we come to despise this trait sometimes.

However, as a teacher, Lucy Kellaway found herself not only pro-ambition, but being forced to teach it to children. All successful people are ambitious. If you want to achieve anything, especially in anything competitive, you won’t get anywhere at all without ambition. “High expectations” are one of the government’s eight teacher standards each trainee teacher must provide evidence of to qualify — the idea is that teachers expect great things from every student so that they can expect great things of themselves. 

What a great job the school and their parents had done to make them all aim so high. …Aim high, but within reason. Just before the end of term, when Lucy was teaching GCSE Economics, she asked the Year 11 students to write down what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives. Some said they wanted to make a lot of money in the City and then start their own businesses. Others wanted to be neurosurgeons, professional footballers, astronauts, forensic scientists. One said he wanted to return to the country his parents were from and become a politician and help to resolve the civil war there. But it was a different story with some, for instance, one pupil who has struggled for three years to see the difference between fixed and variable costs had aspirations of becoming the second Elon Musk. 

What comes out of this are three thoughts:

1️⃣ Ambition is a good thing but it must be reasonable and proportionate. This is true not only of children of school age but of all of us — we should aim as high as we can, but within reason. 

2️⃣ If you do not get the success you want, you need to let go quickly, before the wanting destroys you. 

3️⃣ The trouble with ambition is not that it turns you into a ruthless, driven version of Macbeth, but that the striving, by definition, makes you dissatisfied with your life at present. Very often overly ambitious people are never satisfied by achieving the thing of their dreams, they merely concoct an even bigger dream.

To conclude, use your ambition as a tool to help you drive to the success and goals that you have, but never let yourself be driven or carried away by it. Let it help you study and aim high, but within a reason.