Ambition tends to get a bad press. We often link it with greed and selfishness with a ruthless drive towards achieving a goal at any cost. And when that goal is attained, a new one will always emerge. The ambitious person will never be able to get satisfaction, as Mick Jagger still sings. Unsurprisingly, ambition seems to be irreconcilable with happiness.
This idea is not new. As early as the third century BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus laid the foundation for a way of thinking that extols the virtues of living simply and avoiding fame and (political) ambition. Zen Buddhism is also generally associated with contentment and happiness, not least because it seeks to limit cravings like ambition. The American writer Thomas Merton, who studied Buddhism, didn’t mince his words: “Where ambition ends, happiness begins.”
If this is true, the world of work faces a serious dilemma. On the one hand, enlightened employers are well aware of the positive effect that having engaged, happy employees has on customer satisfaction, staff turnover and productivity. But on the other hand, organizations need people to want to strive for improvement. An organization in which people don’t look for ways to do things more efficiently, or to offer customers a better deal, is likely to stagnate and to wither away.
Is the only solution to go for a weak unsatisfactory compromise, in which employees are a little happy, and a little ambitious?
I don’t think so. Excessive ambition (like excessive chocolate eating, excessive exercise, or anything in excess really) is unlikely to contribute much to happiness. It’s quite the contrary. If the ultimate goal is never reached, all that results is persistent frustration. And if all that significant but futile, effort comes at the cost of sacrificing one’s social and family life to pursue constantly moving goals. It is not difficult to see how such levels of ambition lead to unhappiness.
Self-actualization or Depression
But to vilify ambition per se is to deny the profound need for self-actualization that pretty much every human being possesses. Not having a sense of aspiration means that we have no interest in progress, in achievement, in improvement, or indeed in the future itself. That way depression lies ahead. It is precisely experiencing progress, realizing a goal, and getting better at something that make important contributions to how happy we feel.
If our ambitions are within reach, then we have a good chance of fulfilling them. And when we do (or even just get close) we reap the emotional rewards. This applies in our work and in our leisure time. We can derive happiness just as much from successfully completing a DIY project, cooking a delicious Bolognese sauce or finally playing a Bach prelude without hesitation, as from delivering a development project on time and on spec, leading our team towards a successful bid, or getting positive feedback after training a bunch of colleagues.
Choose your aspiration
As an employee, choosing your aspirations wisely will give you the kind of job satisfaction that is depicted so vividly in the wonderful little book Fish! for example. But managers in an organization also have a crucial responsibility here. Staff development and staff engagement go hand in hand. Good managers not only understand the ambitions of their team members, but also help them shape and pace these aspirations so that they are realistic, but challenging – or challenging, but realistic (either way works!).
This means that there is no dilemma. There is no choice to be made between either happiness, or ambition. Happiness and ambition can and do coexist in a joyful, mutually reinforcing symbiosis.