Ambition gets a bad rap. The trait that pushes someone toward success can sometimes turn into a game where winning isn’t about achieving; it’s about beating the other person. Channel it correctly, however, and ambition can bring great results.
“On average, ambitious people attain higher levels of education and income, build more prestigious careers, and report higher overall levels of life satisfaction,” says Neel Burton, psychiatrist and author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions. “Many of man’s greatest achievements are the products, or accidents, of their ambition.”
The key is to pursue healthy ambition: “People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and strength to control the blind forces of ambition, shaping [it] so that it matches their interests and ideals,” says Burton. “They harness it so that it fires them without also burning them or those around them.”
Nearly anyone can be ambitious given the right internal and external stimuli, says Jason Ma, author of Young Leaders 3.0: Stories, Insights, and Tips for Next-Generation Achievers. Here are six things you can do to harness your ambition and focus on success over competition:
Ambitious people are goal-oriented and are always striving towards the next accomplishment, but healthy ambition involves keeping your goals private, said entrepreneur Derek Sivers in a 2010 TED Talk “Keep Your Goals To Yourself.”
Psychologists have found that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen, Siver explained: “Any time you have a goal, there are some steps that need to be done, some work that needs to be done in order to achieve it. Ideally you would not be satisfied until you’d actually done the work. But when you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge it, psychologists have found that it’s called a ‘social reality.’ The mind is kind of tricked into feeling that it’s already done. And then because you’ve felt that satisfaction, you’re less motivated to do the actual hard work necessary,” Siver said.
Ambition takes a willingness to step into fear and anxiety, says Burton. “Some people are better able to tolerate this fear, perhaps because are more courageous, committed, or driven, and can minimize the fear,” he says. “Ambitious people act with purpose, but allow themselves room to explore, experiment and discover.”
“Don’t be surprised if a breakthrough emerges from a well-managed crisis,” adds Ma, who is also CEO of ThreeEQ, a firm that mentors high-achieving teenagers and adults. “Ambition is the act of being an innovative change-maker.”
Ambitious people break away from consistent groupthink, and expose themselves to new ways of thinking.
“Talk with and learn from people different from you,” suggests Ma. “Be open to dialogue with acquaintances and even select strangers, as you may uncover interesting opportunities.”
Burton says ambition makes people resourceful: “It forces us to grow, often in unexpected ways,” he says.
Often people spend the most time working on building their skill set and researching solutions or possibilities. While it’s wise to craft and execute a strategy for any given type of important vision or outcome you want to achieve, ambitious people put the main emphasis on pulling the trigger.
“An executer is one who gets shit done,” says Ma. “If your execution is poor, nothing matters.”
Your biggest competitor should be yourself, says Ma. “Avoid the trap of comparing yourself with others, and measure success only against what you are capable of achieving,” he says. “Nothing beats hard work with focus and passion. Stretch yourself.”
Finally, Ma suggests applying the “power of proximity” by networking with clusters of successful people.
“[The late entrepreneur and author] Jim Rohn said: ‘You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,’” says Ma. “Find role models. Befriend and learn from mentors. Make friends with people smarter than you and more successful in fields you are interested in.”