A few years ago, actress Reese Witherspoon wrote an essay that was published in Glamour magazine about women and ambition. She observed that women are judged too harshly for being ambitious. Men with ambition are seen as powerful and appealing, while women with ambition are seen as selfish and less worthy of being hired or promoted than their male counterparts. The double standard had to end. “We have to change the idea that a woman with ambition is out only for herself,” she wrote.
I have never forgotten that article. Witherspoon’s sentiment has stayed with me ever since. Ambition gets a bad rap sometimes for bringing about negative reactions in people. But ambition is not to be feared. It is not to be hidden away, especially by women, who may have the desire to achieve meaningful things. “Ambition is simply a drive inside of you,” writes Witherspoon. “It’s having a curiosity or a new idea and the desire to pursue it.”
Other writers and creative types have weighed in on the topic. The famous artist Salvador Dali once wrote, “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” Without those wings, we might as well swim with the ducks.
Maya Angelou writes, “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” It takes more than ambition to be successful. It’s one thing to reach for the highest goal, such as publishing a best-selling novel. But it takes a truly wise person to write a novel that touches the hearts and souls of readers.
There are different ways to look at ambition. For many, it’s a negative trait best left under wraps. But then how will you ever achieve your greatest work? The true measure of creative genius is finding the right balance of ambition. Too little ambition and you risk undercutting your opportunities and underselling your talents. You come across as lacking confidence. Conversely, exhibit too much ambition or the wrong kind of ambition that doesn’t help the greater good and people see you as arrogant.
Where is the happy medium? As writers and creatives, it’s not only okay to be ambitious, it’s imperative. Without ambition, you may never accomplish anything meaningful. Ambition fuels your dreams and your passions. That’s the positive side of ambition.
But ambition has its darker side too. The dark side of ambition drives you blindly toward outcomes that not only hurt others but can ultimately derail your best efforts. Under the influence of the dark energy, you can become more focused on your competition – who is standing in your way of success. The key is to harness ambition’s positive energy without getting sucked into its darker forces. It can be all too easy to fall into that trap. You have to remember that it is just that – a mind trap.
Here are a few suggestions for making peace with the ambitious side of yourself so you can take advantage of its positive energy.
* Be aware of how you feel when you are ambitious. How do you describe your energy level – high, low, medium? Do you feel energized, determined and optimistic about the outcome of your endeavors, or do you feel angered, aggressive and driven to the point of madness? Higher energy and optimism are signs of the positive side of ambition. More important, it makes you feel happy about your work.
* Recognize ambition’s positive energy. Use that energy to create something useful, make a positive impact on others’ lives, or simply make other people happy. When you feel ambitious, it’s usually to DO something or to create something — climb a mountain, write a book, or build a business. Those are positive outcomes of ambition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it helps others. But if your ambition is to tear something apart or hurt someone, then you have fallen under the darker side of ambition. Always choose ambition’s positive energy.
* Don’t waste your ambition on people or situations that won’t respect or appreciate it. (Another pearl of wisdom from Ms. Witherspoon.) Once you recognize that there are people in your life (bosses, for example) who don’t appreciate your ambitious ideas, quickly move on. Find another company or project that will welcome your ambitious ideas.
* Recognize that everyone has some level of ambition. Some people have more ambition than others, but that doesn’t mean others have no ambition at all. It just means they haven’t tapped into it yet. While many people use ambition in healthy ways, others may subdue their ambition, believing (erroneously) that they are being selfish for wanting more than they have. Or they use their ambition to serve their own purposes rather than for the greater good.
* Being ambitious means taking a few risks. As someone once told me, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where all the best apples are.” Even if it means risking your well-being by falling out of the tree.
* Remind yourself that it is not selfish to be ambitious. If your ambition calls for creating meaningful work that people will enjoy, then it’s not selfish to indulge in your craft. If your ambition calls for you to leave behind your family so you can go to medical school in a different city, it’s not selfish to want to improve your education so you can help heal people who are sick. If there is an overriding desire to help others, then ambition can only help you achieve your goals.
When you learn to tap into the positive energy of ambition, great things can happen.