How to Be More Ambitious

Recently I got an email from a reader asking how he can become more ambitious. He feels like he could do more with his life, but he doesn’t have strong desires for the usual sorts of things that seem to motivate people: wealth, success, fame or prestige.

I thought about this question a lot, because in some ways it’s semi-paradoxical.

It’s perfectly normal to want things (e.g. “I want to be rich”). It’s also normal to not to want things you’re unlikely to obtain (e.g. “I wish I weren’t so hungry right now”). But it’s odd to want to want something you currently don’t. It almost feels like asking for an itch so you’d have something to scratch.

My suspicion is that this question conceals a more complicated intent. The person who is asking to be more ambitious does want something. He wants approval, an interesting life or the feeling he imagines would come with a great ambition.

The problem is simply that he doesn’t have much drive for the usual objects of ambition (fancy cars, prestigious credentials, etc.), and so, seemingly, can’t get the motivation to pursue the things he really does want (an interesting life, social acceptance, etc.).

Should You Be More Ambitious?

There’s certainly an argument that ambition is socially beneficial. Scientists who sacrifice their entire lives in the pursuit of a Nobel prize might benefit humanity more than one who was predisposed to taking Saturdays off. Inventors who toil, hoping to make it big, may create the next breakthrough when a more contented person might maintain the status-quo.

Whether ambition is a positive externality or negative one depends a lot on where it is directed. I believe in earlier times, when technological spillovers were low, being more ambitions usually just made you more cruel. Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan all had enormous ambitions—but they did so mostly by killing thousands of people.

I tend to think the incentives have aligned so that ambition is more often positive than not in today’s society. Capitalism, for whatever it’s flaws, tends to reward people for doing things that other people value. This isn’t universally the case (Bernie Madoff certainly had ambition), but it seems more likely than in pre-modern times.

However, I’d like to put aside the supposed virtue (or vice) of ambition on a societal level, and just focus on the personal case. Forget whether ambition is good for the world or not, and just ask, is it good for you? If it is, is it possible to cultivate more ambitions?

How to Cultivate More Ambition

Let’s go back to our story from the start. This person doesn’t feel like he has ambition. But, it’s clear that’s not because he doesn’t want anything (people perfectly content with things rarely complain about it). Rather, the problem is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in the intermediate products of his ambitions that seem to drive other people.

In this sense, his self-perceived lack of ambition isn’t really a lack of ambition, but a frustration that there doesn’t seem to be any available path for him to reach the things he wants in life.

Thus, I think the question of cultivating more ambition is more about redirecting the feelings you already have, so that they are less frustrated and more fulfilled, rather than generating desires you don’t actually feel inside.

I can see a few possible approaches to resolving this problem:

1. Widen Your Ambitions.

Some people struggle with this because they have an overly narrow conception of what they ought to strive after in life. Maybe their parents told them they need to study hard, get a good job, have 2.5 kids and buy a big house to be a success in life. Maybe society doesn’t care about the things they find most interesting.

In this sense, a lack of ambition is really that what you think of as ambition is overly constrained. Maybe you don’t want to go to school right now, but you’d rather travel the world, make art or have a great social life.

Your ambitions should be tuned to creating the kind of life that you want. Not the life that other people want for you. Widening the scope of what things you could orient your life around may free you from some of the frustration you experience when you can’t bring yourself to strive after the things other people push upon you.

2. Get Onto a Positive Feedback Loop.

Another possible reason for lacking ambition might be, again, not the total lack of desire, but because all your intermediate paths seem to be surrounded by large walls of negative feedback. These reduce your motivation to pursue things, but also cut you off from the bigger picture life you still crave.

A good example of this might be school. You didn’t do terribly well in school, and every class is a struggle. Yet, you know you need to graduate if you’re going to pursue a career you’ll find interesting. Thus you’re stuck—between your long-term desire to have an interesting job and your short-term frustration with school.

The only way out of this seems to be to tunnel a new positive feedback loop. This isn’t easy to do, but it can be done with sustained effort. A positive feedback loop is one in which the difficulty of the task is lowered enough that you can surmount it and build more confidence. From confidence comes competence and so you can slowly get to a point where the barrier of frustration is reduced.

You may not become a brilliant scholar overnight, but if you worked on your dislike of studying by setting up easier tasks and accomplishing them, you may reduce the frustration enough that graduating becomes possible and you can reach your further goal.

3. Get Started, Let the Ambition Come Later.

In some ways, the problem of a lack of ambition is like procrastination. You know you need to do something to get a bigger thing that you want, but you don’t have the inertia to get you going.

In these cases, the problem might simply be that you need to move forward along a path, even if you don’t find it terribly inspiring, so that you’ll pick up motivation as you go along. This is part of the career advice of Cal Newport in his excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, where he argues that passion is overrated and tends to follow behind being really good at something rather than precede it.

If you see it this way, ambition is more likely to result once you’ve already put in some time and gotten good enough at something that you start to get better opportunities. Bootstrapping this process is tricky, but the idea is to just start by showing up and eventually you’ll be good enough that you’ll enjoy it, given more time, that skill will translate into opportunities.

It’s Okay to Want Less

All of this discussion started on the comment from a reader who complained about his lack of ambition. I took it for granted that this was a problem that needed solving.

However, what if you genuinely don’t have much ambition and don’t feel deprived because of it? Should you be scolded into working harder, sacrificing more for some long-term goal?

Again, whether ambition is virtuous or not depends a lot on the context. But, from a purely selfish aim, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being less ambitious. There are many ways to live life and many possible values to hold. Those who obsess and toil constantly for a big dream, and those who live quietly and contently with things as they are. It’s up to you to decide who you want to be, not for me or anyone else to dictate it to you.

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