Ambition can give meaning to life, but it can also take it away. It can add wings as much as it can clip them. How can we recognize if our driving ambition can be fatal? First, we need to know what drives our action.
Latin “ambitio” means a desire for recognition. We associate it with the desire to achieve success, goals, and development. And in fact, ambition is what motivates us, what makes us want more from life.
When does ambition start to be a problem?
When, despite the achieved goals, we still feel empty and unsatisfied, and we try to fill this void inside us with something from the outside – e.g. with recognition or splendour.
Excessive ambition is usually caused by comparing ourselves to others and wanting to prove that we are better or at least equally valuable. It is low self-esteem that makes us continuously prove something – to ourselves and others.
Timothy Judge, professor of management at the American University of Notre Dame, states in his research that
“(…) ambition was positively but weakly related to life satisfaction, there may also be negative consequences of ambition for individuals when a variety of dimensions of satisfaction are considered.” *
Psychology distinguishes three types of “I” – “real self”, “ought self” and “ideal self”. The imbalance in our interior leads to the growth of excessive expectations. Tory Higgins’ research has shown that the more discrepancies between them, the more problems. The divergence between the “real self” and the “ideal self” can lead to sadness, depression and burnout. On the other hand, the discrepancies between the “real self” and the “ought self” lead to shame, anxiety and fears.
It is an imbalance in our interior that leads to the growth of excessive expectations – to toxic ambition.
In its extreme form, ambition can be destructive. According to psychologist Sheri Johnson, excessive ambition is associated with the risk of bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
Indeed, I can see this pattern among my friends or co-workers. I can see a lot of it in myself -the pursuit of the unsurpassed ideal. So many people broke their lives because their bar was set too high. You know this type of people – they are the ones who say “all or nothing”. If something spectacular was not achieved, they treated it 100% as a failure. And yet from 100% to 0%, there is a series of ninety-nine digits …Is the result not the highest, but on a level above average, also a loss? For many people, it is. And this is what we call a sick ambition. Great results, although far from perfect, do not satisfy them in the least. It’s like those kids at school who cry because they got A and not A +.
Excessive ambition is a way of dealing with complexes through overcompensation. We feel worthy only when we achieve something big.
The best solution to overcome the havoc caused by excessive ambition is to look inside yourself and cultivate who you are. At the opposite pole of sick ambition lies gratitude and self-acceptance. This is where you should direct your thoughts. It is also responding to internal motivation. Only what flows from within can fulfil ourselves. Only desire from within makes us strive in the direction we set for ourselves, not looking at external acceptance.
Each of us is different, and each of us has a different internal mission. Only we can answer what this mission is. So what you choose – the pursuit of recognition, or maybe something truer?
* (On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition )