Get More Out of Business, Career, and Your Personal Life
Get More Out of Business, Career, and Your Personal Life
Many moons ago a senior director at my old company sat with me talking about my career and said,
“Peter your problem is you have no ambition.”
That felt like a slap across the face because at the time there was no one working harder than I was and prior to coming to the head office – where I was when I had this conversation – I had been promoted almost every 18 months.
I was so stunned that I didn’t know what to say and the conversation soon turned to operational business matters, but it bothered me enough that I brought it up with my boss who dismissed the comment as the errant rambling of an out-of-step executive.
It wasn’t until I left the company a few years later that the issue resurfaced for me. Especially when in my continuing education a teacher of mine brought up the question: What does it mean to have ambition?
In common parlance, ambition is referred to as a drive to succeed, and it is evidenced by hard work. This is why that executive’s assessment of me as having no ambition made no sense to me, as I was one busy manager. I was focussed on getting results and for most of my career I did get results that mattered.
As I remember regarding the so-called ambitious people in my life, the conversations that people had about them were along two-major themes: (1) they were hard-working and (2) they were willing to do whatever it took to get ahead.
Make no mistake, hard-work is essential for success; the point being made is that you can work very hard and not get anywhere except tired and burnt out. I know because I’ve been there. Take a look at the people around you. How many people do you know that work very hard, and are not happy with the fruits of their labor? You know them; they are often very nice well-intentioned people yet they complain about how difficult life is and all of the sacrifices they make and how little they get in return.
Another conversation often associated with ambition has the theme of the willingness to kill, or cut people’s throat to get at what ever is the object of their ambition. Ambitious people are thought to be highly political and willing to do or say whatever is necessary to get ahead, even if it means the political assassination of someone else’s career.
While such behavior may be exhibited by many ambitious people these characteristics are not inherent to being ambitious. Such “ambitious” people have adopted a certain code of ethics that they believe is necessary to achieve their goals, and to the extent that it gets results they perceive such methods as deceiving, maneuvering and eliminating other people as effective strategies to win. Sadly, they are, but at a cost that is not clear to them – that’s for another post.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
“Do you know why grown-ups always ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up?” asks Paula Poundstone the comedienne.
“Because they are looking for ideas.” She answers.
I always smile whenever I think of that scene from her stand up routine. Like most good humor there is an element of recognition of the truth in our lives. Not that adults really are looking to little kids for ideas of what to do with their lives, but rather that adults are not satisfied with what they have become and have stopped asking the question of themselves.
The strongest evidence that basic education has failed us is that it has taught us to value answers more than questions. As a result we have stopped asking ourselves this one fundamental question “What do we want to do with our lives?” or “What do we want to be when we grow up?”
Drive or the drive to succeed only makes sense within the context of what you are driving towards.
What are you trying to succeed at?
What is your goal?
Only now do I recognize what that executive was pointing to when he said I had no ambition. He didn’t mean that I wasn’t a hard worker or that I didn’t have the capacity to succeed, he was pointing to the fundamental part of anyone’s ambition, I had not crafted my own story of what I was driving towards. I was thinking at most just one step ahead: the next promotion and not towards any bigger picture of where I wanted to be in my career either at that company or elsewhere.
Without having your answers clear on what you wish to achieve, and become in life, you cannot have ambition. How could you? You have nothing you are working towards?
Except of course surviving.
Most people have answered the fundamental question. Their answer to “What do I want to be when I grow up?” is
“A survivor. I want to be a survivor”
It is not uncommon to hear people loudly proclaim this in their everyday experience of life’s trials and tribulations. They say “I am a survivor.” “I will survive.”
And the strategy to be a survivor is the easiest of all, you deal with what life throws at you when life throws it. No need to plan too far ahead, you’ll worry about it when it comes. Yes, the survivor’s strategy is the easiest of all, barring one: die. So we choose the clearly better option: to survive
No judgment as to what your answer to the fundamental question is or the strategy you choose. There really is not a right answer to this question, and strategies either work or don’t. But it all begins with your answer to the fundamental question and you should take care not to make two common mistakes when answering it.
This is the beginning of having ambition. You may well have gone through an exercise of planning out your future once or twice before in your life, but where is that planning? Where have you recorded your thinking about where you are in life and where you want to go? How often have you read it? If you’re not using your answers to that question as a means to guide your actions you have no ambition. You’re like sailor without a compass.
It was incorrect of that executive to say that I had no ambition if you believe that ambition is merely a drive to succeed, as demonstrated by my willingness to work hard.
He was correct if you accept that ambition is much more than a drive to succeed. Ambition is a practice of crafting your answer to the fundamental question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you’re well into adulthood of course your question is more appropriately “What do you want to be or do with the rest of your life?”
Then there is the significant matter of making it come true, but you can’t begin unless you first craft the story of the rest of your life.
This is easier the younger you are because most of your life is still ahead of you. The older you are the more difficult this exercise may be, because you will not only confront your most fundamental beliefs about what’s possible in life, but you may go down the road of judging your past life and career as wrong or wasted in some way.
Don’t do that.
You can’t change the past, but you can begin to live regardless of your age today. So craft a story for the rest of your life, craft the story of your ambition. Just get out a pen and write. Discuss with your spouse or best friend.
Like everything about living your life as a practice, don’t look for a quick fix, or a magic bullet. It’s a process of creation that will go on for the rest of your life. Don’t put it off another day. Time to become ambitious.
What is your concept of the truth, and why is it germane to the practice of your life? Well think about it.If you live your life according to things that you believe are true, and they’re only partially true or flat out wrong, what do you think the impact would be on your life? PrettyContinue Reading