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Should You Be More Ambitious, or Less?

A Personal Perspective: Arguments for both sides.

Key points

  • Ambition is often touted, but one size doesn't fit all.
  • If the results of your ambition have been inadequate, there are myriad things to consider trying.
  • Per the song, The Gambler, the wise person knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
Geralt, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Geralt, Pixabay, Public Domain

We’re often urged to be ambitious. The argument against ambition is less often presented. This may help you gain clarity on how ambitious you’d like to be.

Pro-ambition: Ambition fuels motivation. As Goethe said, "Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move hearts."

Con: But achieving a significant ambition is hard and often fails. Statistically, you’re more likely to be happy and successful by not being very ambitious.

Pro: That depends on what your ambition is. For example, if you don't even get great roles in volunteer theatre productions, aspiring to make your living as an actor is a longshot. Conversely, if you were the star in your college plays and now are starting to get decent-paying acting roles, it's reasonable to give it a shot. As Norman Vincent Peale wrote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars."

Con: You’re ignoring the opportunity cost: What you otherwise could be doing with the time and money. For example, instead of that MFA, you could get an MBA or a master's in Social Work. Many MFAs (Master of Fine Arts) have a hard time even paying back their student loans let alone making a middle-class living from their art.

Pro: You’re ignoring the pleasure, the life levitation, that comes from following your dream. If your ambition fails, you can always move to Plan B. And if you even partly achieve your ambition, you’ll likely end up feeling better about how you’re living your life.

Toward becoming more ambitious

Let’s assume that you’d like to be more ambitious but haven’t yet sufficiently translated your ambition into successful outcomes. Maybe these ideas can help:

  • Map out the baby steps, use a checklist and keep it on your desk.
  • Find one or more mentors. They rarely come to you. Have you asked respected people for counsel? If you like a person's response to your first question, show your appreciation as well as ask another question. That’s the stuff from which mentorships are usually built.
  • Surround yourself with people who have achieved your ambition. For example, if you’d like to become a top-notch psychotherapist, go to a prestigious conference for psychotherapists, COVID safe, of course. Attend their sessions, ask respectful questions, and perhaps ask if they’d have coffee with you. Surprisingly often, they’ll say yes.
  • Solicit honest feedback. Don’t necessarily act on it, but consider it, even if it makes you defensive. Breathe, reflect, and perhaps enact.

Toward becoming less ambitious

If you’ve worked hard at your Ambition A and had dispiriting results and even tried Ambition B without sufficient success, it may be wise to consider the con arguments in the exchange above. On average, the odds of achieving a lofty ambition are small. The chances of finding satisfaction are greater if you're less ambitious and enjoy the fruits of a less striving life. Besides, many people who dreamed big and succeeded are no happier than many unambitious people, witness all the performers who have drug problems and even committed suicide.

Perhaps it’s time to focus your striving on appreciating the small stuff, the things that, for most people, lead to greater contentment: meaningful even if modest work, good relationships, health, and sensory pleasures, from sex to nature's wonders.

The takeaway

Now, we turn to you. In light of all this, do you think you should be more ambitious or less so? If so, what are the baby- or not-so-baby steps you'd like to take?

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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