[Article revised on 18 January 2020.]
Ambition can be defined as a striving for some kind of achievement or distinction, and involves, first, the desire for achievement, and, second, the willingness to work towards it even in the face of adversity or failure.
To be ambitious is to achieve first and foremost not for the sake of achievement itself (which is to be high-reaching) but for the sake of distinguishing oneself from others. Were we the last person on earth, it would make little or no sense to be ambitious.
Ambition is often confused with aspiration. Unlike mere aspiration, which has a particular goal for object, ambition is a trait or disposition, and, as such, is persistent and pervasive. A person cannot alter their ambition any more than they can alter any other character trait: having achieved one goal, the truly ambitious person soon formulates another at which to keep on striving.
Ambition is often spoken of in the same breath as hope, as in "hopes and ambitions". Hope is the desire for something to happen combined with an anticipation of it happening. In contrast, ambition is the desire for achievement or distinction combined with the willingness to work towards
it. The opposite of hope is fear, hopelessness, or despair; the opposite of ambition is simply "lack of ambition", which is not a negative state.
Perhaps it is even the preferable state. In many Eastern traditions, ambition is seen as an evil that, by tying us down to worldly pursuits, keeps us away from the spiritual life and its fruits of virtue, wisdom, and tranquillity. In contrast, in the West, ambition is lauded as a precondition or precursor of success, even though the Western canon itself tends to fall against it.
For instance, in the Republic, Plato says that, being devoid of ambition, good men shun politics, leaving us to be ruled by bad men and their ambitions. Even if asked or invited, a good man would refuse to rule. To force good men into positions of power, Plato goes so far as to propose the introduction of a punishment for refusing to rule.
Aristotle had a more nuanced take on ambition. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he defines virtue as a disposition to aim at the intermediate between excess and deficiency, which, unlike the excess or the deficiency, is a form of success and therefore worthy of praise. For example, those who run headlong into every danger are rash, while those who flee from every danger are cowards, but courage is indicated by the mean or intermediate.
For Aristotle, to be virtuous within a sphere, one has to be close to the mean between the excess and the deficiency in that sphere. And so, while it is possible to fail in many ways, it is possible to succeed in one way only—which is why failure is easy and success difficult. By the same token, people may be bad in many ways, but good in one way only.
Aristotle goes on to discuss the principal virtues and their associated vices. In the sphere of "minor honor and dishonor", he names "ambition" as the vicious excess, "lack of ambition" as the vicious deficiency, and "proper ambition" as the virtuous mean.
To this day, people still speak of ambition after Aristotle, as "healthy ambition", "unhealthy ambition", and "lack of ambition". Healthy ambition can be understood as the measured striving for achievement or distinction, and unhealthy ambition as the immoderate or disordered striving for such. Healthy ambition is individually enabling and socially constructive, while unhealthy ambition is inhibiting and destructive, and more akin to greed.
In the Politics, Aristotle avows that men’s ambition and avarice are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice. Several centuries later, Francis Bacon refined this proposition: as long as ambitious men go unimpeded, they are busy rather than dangerous; but as soon as they are obstructed or demoted, they become "secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased, when things go backward". Bacon advised rulers to be cautious in engaging ambitious men, and to handle them "so as they be still progressive and not retrograde".
Highly ambitious people are sensitive to resistance and failure, and experience almost constant dissatisfaction or frustration. As with Sisyphus, their task is never accomplished, and, as with Tantalus, their prize is always out of reach. Just as Tantalus had a rock dangling over his head, so ambitious people have the noose of failure hanging about their neck.
Indeed, it is the fear of failure that checks the ambition of all but the most courageous, or rash, of people. For just as mania can end in depression, so ambition can end in anguish and despair. To live with ambition is to live in fear and anxiety, unless, that is, the weight of our ambition can be relieved by gratitude, which is the feeling of appreciation for all that we already have. Although gratitude is especially lacking in future-focused people, ambition is much less toxic if even without climbing life can still seem worth living.
People are not truly ambitious unless they are willing to make sacrifices in the name of their ambition—even though the end of their ambition may not be worth their sacrifices, and not only because it may never be reached or even approached. It could even be argued that with pure, naked ambition, the end is never worth the sacrifice. Happily, ambition is rarely pure but usually intermingled with unselfish aims and motives, even if these may be more incidental than deliberate and determining; and it may be that our greatest achievements are all, or almost all, accidents of ambition.
In that much, ambition is like the dangled carrot that goads the donkey that pulls the cart. Studies have found that, on average, ambitious people attain higher levels of education and income, build more prestigious careers, and, despite the nocuous effects of their ambition, report higher levels of overall life satisfaction. Owing to bad luck and poor judgement, most ambitious people eventually fall short of their ambitions, but that still lands them far ahead of their more unassuming peers.
Why are some people more ambitious than others? To cut a long story short, ambition is a complex construct borne out of a host of factors including but not limited to parental role models and expectations, birth order and sibling rivalries, feelings of inferiority or superiority, fear of failure and rejection, intelligence, past achievements, competitiveness, envy, anger, revenge, and the instinctual drives for life and sex.
From a purely psychological perspective, ambition can be thought of as an ego defence, which, like all ego defences, serves to protect and uphold a certain notion of the self. Rather than ambition, which is a fairly sophisticated ego defence, people who lack the strength to take responsibility for their actions are more likely to respond with less mature ego defences, for instance, by rationalizing that "life is unfair" or that they are "less of a diva and more of a team-player". If their ego is much bigger than their courage, they might become dismissive or even destructive, the latter also being a means of attracting attention or sabotaging themselves to provide a ready excuse for their lack of success: "It’s not that I failed, it’s that I was derailed."
One ego defence that merits particular exploration in the context of ambition is sublimation, which is among the most mature and successful of all ego defences. If John is angry at his boss, he may go home and act out his anger by smashing some plates, or he may instead run it off on a treadmill.
The first instance (smashing some plates) is an example of displacement, the redirection of uncomfortable feelings towards someone or something less important, which is an immature ego defence. The second instance (running on the treadmill) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of unproductive or destructive forces into socially condoned and often constructive activities, which is, of course, a much more mature ego defence.
An example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is the person with sadistic or homicidal urges who discharges these impulses by joining the army or, like Justice Wargrave in Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, becoming a hanging judge. At the end of the novel, in the postscript, a letter is found in a bottle just off the Devon coast. The letter contains the confession of the late Justice Wargrave, in which he reveals a lifelong sadistic temperament juxtaposed with a fierce sense of justice. Although he longed to terrify, torture, and kill, he could not justify harming innocent people. So instead he became a hanging judge who thrilled at the sight of convicted (and guilty) criminals trembling with fear.
In life, few things are either good or bad. Rather, their good and bad depend on what we can or cannot make out of them. People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and strength (strength that is often born of insight) to control the blind forces of ambition, that is, to shape their ambition so that it matches their interests and ideals, and to harness it so that it fires them without also burning them or those around them. The highest understanding, born out of humility, is perhaps that it is not necessary to be ambitious to be high-reaching, or indeed to feel alive.
People shrink or expand into the degree and nature of their ambitions. Ambition needs to be cultivated and refined, and yet has no teachers.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
Plato, Republic, Bk. 7.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 2.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 4.
Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 2.
F Bacon (1625), Essays, Of Ambition.
Judge, TA & Kammeyer-Mueller, JD (2012): On the value of aiming high: The causes and consequences of ambition. Journal of Applied Psychology 97:758–775.
Aristotle, Rhetoric, Bk. 2.
A Christie (1939), And Then There Were None.