An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame or power.
The object or goal desired.
Desire for exertion or activity; energy.
What is ambition?
If questioned, most of us would give similar answers.
A desire for money. Fame. Adulation. Recognition. Achievement. The top spot on the podium. Our name in lights. A New York Times bestselling book. A Nobel prize. An obituary in The Economist.
Is that ambition? I don’t think so.
Look at the dictionary definition. An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame of power.
It’s mildly amusing that even the dictionary assumes the thing you want to achieve is fame or power -- but the point stands is that ambition is just a strong desire to achieve something.
That’s the key. You get to decide what that something is.
Narrow vs whole ambition
Last time out I talked about my philosophy of type-B ambition: my desire to have a satisfying career in which I make an impact, as long as I can still be home by 6pm most nights and don’t have to sacrifice my health, family life, or hobbies to do it.
This stands in contrast to the more typical type-A ambition: the relentless charge for promotion, more money, a bigger business, political office, being starting point guard for the Lakers, or a seat on the board of a Fortune 500 company.
In response, my friend Nick Parker, a guy who is both the author of the wonderful book On Reading, and a much better writer I am, responded:
I think there’s a ’naming problem’ with all of this. The Ferris-Productivity-Hacker types get to set the standard. Their style of ‘ambition’ is A, while we’re B. I think that’s wrong. Their ambition is narrow. Your ambition is whole.
I agree. So let’s rebrand it.
Type-A ambition is narrow ambition. It’s a desire to achieve, above all else, career success. Achievement in one domain of life, usually at the expense of other domains.
Type-B ambition is whole ambition. It’s a desire to achieve success across multiple or even all domains of life at once, while refusing to sacrifice success in one domain for more success in another.
Narrow ambition is legible. It’s easily defined in terms of university degrees, job titles, salaries, and awards.
Whole ambition is illegible. It’s hard to see from the outside who has or hasn’t achieved it.
Narrow ambition is simple: when you’re faced with two options, pick the one that pushes more towards career success.
Whole ambition is complex: when you’re faced with two options, you must consider the degree to which each will impact not just your career success, but your health, your wellbeing, your family, and so on, ultimately trying to decide which option gets you closer to the life you want to live.
Narrow ambition is applauded. Bestseller lists. MVP awards. The cover of TIME magazine.
Whole ambition is either ignored, misunderstood or, at best, seen as ‘settling’ or ‘finding your level.’
The question that sent me down the wrong path for three years
A few years ago, I found myself at a party talking to a friend of a friend. She was an incredibly intelligent, hardworking, type-A ambitious management consultant in London. In contrast, at the time I’d just come out of getting fired from a startup while simultaneously moving to a new city, and as such had taken the first job I got offered, which happened a mid-level finance role at a small company in Darlington.
(If you’ve never heard of Darlington, that proves my point.)
We were talking about some problem she was trying to solve for a client, and during that conversation I discovered she’d moved to London from France. Always wanting to show off, I switched into my rudimentary French and carried on the conversation, at which point she interjected (in English).
“Wait -- what do you do for a living again?”
“Oh, I’m an accountant for a small company up in Darlington.”
I paused. I didn’t really know how to answer the question.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you clearly have some level of talent -- you’re engaging, you can talk as well as anyone about the business stuff, and you speak another language -- why aren’t you down here in London doing something more important?”
That question needled me for a couple of years. Why am I not doing something more important?
I didn’t know how to answer that question at the time.
Testing the life of narrow ambition
I wondered -- and worried -- for a while that my lack of type-A ambition was a coping mechanism. That I’d rejected that path because I wasn’t good enough, because that was something that people smarter than me did. When I was 17, I’d applied to the best university in the country, and got rejected. I was concerned that this rejection had left a permanent chip on my shoulder.
So the next time I switched jobs, I decided to put myself to the test. I moved to a company full of type-A ambitious people, where most people had degrees from elite universities, long work hours were expected, and six-monthly performance management cycles dominated everyone’s thoughts.
And I was great at it! I put in the hours, did high-quality work, and got excellent performance reviews and a rapid promotion. I proved to myself that I can play at that level, in that type of environment.
I also realised that I don’t want to.
And now I know it’s not a coping mechanism. I know I can play at that level. I just don’t want to be in the type of job where I get an email on Saturday morning, asking me to update a PowerPoint deck ahead of a meeting at 9am on Monday. That doesn’t fit into the ambition I have for my life.
That’s what I understand now that I didn’t understand a few years ago. When my friend of a friend asked me, “why aren’t you down here in London doing something more important?”, what she was really saying was, “don’t you have narrow ambition?”
And my answer is: no. I have whole ambition.
Work is a huge part of my life. I love being good at my job, and I love helping my company succeed. At the same, it’s not my whole life, or my identity.
LOVE this reframing Andrew. That self-doubt is such a common thing when you've consciously and deliberately stepped off that corporate ladder, or rejected any desire to build a unicorn.
I'm reminded of the GB rowers' mantra of boiling every decision down to "Will it make the boat go faster?" - possibly the purest definition of narrow ambition.
One other aspect of whole ambition is that it is deeply personal. We each must write our own definition of the "something" we're trying to achieve. For me it's financial freedom, thriving kids (and grand-kids), inner peace, and a long life. But I'm the only one who can measure whether I've been successful at that.