Is Ambition a Good Thing? Thoughts on Striving Without Selfishness

Ambition is a concept that gets mixed reactions.

Some people see it as the essence of progress, virtue and character. Those with ambition take action, set goals and build meaningful things. Without ambition, nothing would get done. In this sense, ambition is synonymous with vision, the opposite of laziness.

Other people view it as the essence of corruption. Those with ambition take from others, cheat, swindle and are ruthless in getting what they want (especially to those who get in their way). Without ambition, the world would be a kinder, gentler place. In this sense, ambition is synonymous with greed, the opposite of contentment.

To me it seems that the latter problems of ambition are mostly because ambition is a selfish pursuit. In other words, ambition is bad when it centers around your ego and self-aggrandizement.

Is Selfless Ambition Possible?

Ambition is a motivation to achieve things. Motivations can have many possible sources.

It could be from a creative urge. An ambitious novelist might craft an engaging epic because the vision pulls her forward.

It could be from a desire to change the world for the better. An inventor may develop a new energy source, transportation mechanism or just a better mousetrap because they want to improve the world they live in.

Alternatively, it can also come from a desire to become wealthy, famous or respected.

Some people argue that these selfish motivations truly predominate. That our more virtuous intentions are merely social masks we put on to conceal our ego-driven intents. Ambition, in this view, is always ego-driven, whether we recognize it or not.

Others would argue that, it is true that most motivations are selfish by default, this is not the only option. Turning down your own craving can allow nobler motivations to take over. Thus an ambition to serve might flourish in a mind that isn’t constantly plagued by its own dissatisfaction.

Cultivating the Right Type of Ambition

I think that ambition combines a few different qualities, some of them good, others more questionable. Which predominates can tell you about the kind of ambition they pursue and whether or not it will benefit them or the world around them.

Confidence seems to be a common ingredient in ambition. Believing one can do things which are hard to accomplish seems to be a prerequisite for any kind of ambition.

Vision is also important. Being able to imagine an alternative state of affairs and create it in enough detail so that you can venture forward and realize it is also essential.

Tenacity and persistence matter too. No truly ambitious effort will succeed without friction, so if you stop at the first sign of resistence, you won’t achieve anything.

These three qualities seem rather positive, or at least not obviously negative. However ambition also gets tied up with a few other drives:

Hunger and greed. Ambitious people often want more than others. This greater appetite may drive good deeds, but it can also gnaw away on the inside as they are ever dissatisfied with what would satiate normal people.

Ruthlessness and immorality. Ambition can also be seen in people who are willing to cause harm to others, or sacrifice other values to achieve their ends. In moderate cases this is the person who works non-stop and neglects his family. In extreme cases, this is the person who will betray a friend or harm innocent people to reach her goal.

My sense is that virtuous ambition tends to promote the former three qualities, while minimizing the latter.

Are Purely Selfless Motivations Possible?

I don’t know whether it’s possible to achieve genuine selflessness. There’s a strong argument that many behaviors we feel are virtuous conceal a selfish interior. Charity, being nice to your family, following rules and helping society, may boil down to a selfish calculus beneath our conscious awareness.

Regardless of whether this is the case, however, I think there’s definitely different qualities of motivations. Even if all motivations have some grounding in selfishness, there’s a world of difference between giving to charity in the unconscious desire to appear generous, than stealing from others to enrich yourself.

For ambition to be without ego, in my view, it would avoid these latter types of selfish motivations.

The Goal of Ambition Without Ego

My own sense is that what motivates your actions tends to come from how you feel inside. If you feel contented, satisfied and happy, you’re more likely to pursue ambitions that come from desires to serve, create or challenge yourself. If you’re deprived and dissatisfied, your ambitions may come from a deeper need.

While I think there’s a lot of flaws in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this does roughly correspond with the pyramid he first set forth:

The only difference of opinion I would note is that it seems many people are still obsessed with “lower level” needs well beyond what they technically need to sustain themselves. The person who eats to excess, constantly depends on approval of others or wants to seem successful, may have objectively filled those lower requirements long ago, but keeps chasing the same desires.

Living well, therefore, seems to involve a kind of double strategy. One, we need to strive to meet our expectations so that extreme deprivation doesn’t turn us nasty and brutish in our motivations. At the same time, we also need to cultivate a kind of ambition that doesn’t depend on renewing already-sated hungers for its motive force.

Impossible Standards: The 3-Step Process to Reach New Heights in Your Work and Life

A few years ago my friend, Ramit Sethi, invited me to record an interview. He flew me out to New York, had an entire studio rented with a huge team and thousands of dollars of fancy equipment to record it.

I remember feeling awestruck that my blogging friend was putting in such production values in his work, and thought about my own courses. Until that point, I had made most of my living from offering Learning on Steroids, which was mostly handmade PDFs and videos I recorded in my apartment and edited myself.

My feeling at the time was twofold:

  1. There’s no way I have the funds or experience to pull something like this off.
  2. This is the standard I should aim at.

There’s an obvious tension between these two different feelings. The easy way to resolve it is to simply dismiss the standard. That it’s too difficult, out of your league or “impossible” for you, and to lower your expectations to something more reasonable.

The hard way is to expect that the standard is probably something you can’t reach, but you should still hold yourself to it regardless. That you’ll make more progress in your attempt to reach an unrealistic standard than to settle for something easier.

Choosing the Hard Way

Keeping this as an ideal, I remember talking about the possibility of doing video like this with Vat Jaiswal, who helped me on making the videos for the Year Without English. Although my initial estimates of the total budget we would need were well beyond what I could afford, he started looking into it anyways.

Eventually, we found a setup that ended up being pretty good in terms of professional quality, but costing only a fifth of what some of my other friends had suggested doing such a shoot would cost.

The end result was that in my next courses, Top Performer and Rapid Learner, we had much better video quality than I had done before. This, on top of many other similar examples of higher standards set for the courses, resulted in greater sales. My business grew, and eventually expanded from a mostly solo operation to one with a small permanent team.

The Science of Goal-Setting

It’s not just my own experience of setting standards that upholds this idea. Goal-setting theorists, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham argue in their review of the psychological experiments that have been conducted on goal-setting that “specific high (hard) goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals.”

The challenge of course, is that if you set a goal too hard, you may reject it psychologically because it is too difficult. Thus, the key to this method seems to be in maintaining the tension between the goal you’re striving after and the disbelief you have that you can achieve it without resolving that tension by simply lowering the standard.

If you can stick with it, however, the pattern often goes more like this:

  1. You observe something incredible, clearly beyond your current skill level, resources or imagination.
  2. Instead of dismissing it as being unrealistic, however, it sticks in your mind and you follow it through as if you might actually reach it.
  3. In the end, you get much, much closer to the standard than you would have originally thought. Often you can get around obstacles that seemed insurmountable before and end up with a level of quality that you wouldn’t have imagined possible earlier.

Another time this happened to me was with learning languages. When I was in France, I dismissed the idea of pure immersion by not speaking English as impossible. But after meeting Benny Lewis and seeing his aggressive language learning challenges, I thought I might be able to strive to do the same. My own project to stop speaking English to learn languages ended up being much more successful (in terms of eventual fluency) than I had expected, in part because the standard was higher.

I applied a similar process in writing my upcoming book. Instead of just writing it as I would a normal blog article, at my current level of ability, I picked a few books written by great authors and experts and decided to model what I wanted from the book on that process. I can’t say whether this one will pay off yet, but I do think I pushed my writing ability a lot more than I would have otherwise.

How to Leverage This Effect For Yourself

A lot of people would label this kind of pattern as “confidence” or maybe even “arrogance” when it comes to taking on goals. You simply have a lot of confidence that you’ll succeed, and that will manifest its own success.

However, my own experience tells me otherwise. Instead of confidence, taking on steps like this is usually full of doubt, insecurity and fear.

Instead, what I think it depends on is not rejecting a higher standard, just because you might not be able to reach it. Hold that tension in your mind, and quite often you’ll be able to close the gap much more than you would have previously believed possible.

I think there’s a simple three-step process you can repeat to have the same kind of effect:

  1. Identify an exemplar. In all cases where this has worked, I’ve been able to point to a concrete example and say to myself, “that’s what it should look like.” How I should run my business. How I should write. How I should study.
  2. Don’t reject the exemplar, just because it’s impossible to reach. Most exemplars you find will have advantages, assets, abilities and resources you don’t. Maybe a lot. That’s fine. Just don’t reject the standard—keep it in your mind, even if you will never reach it.
  3. Ask yourself how you can get closer. The more you think about it, the closer you’ll get. You’ll find shortcuts. Ways around obstacles. Problems that seemed insurmountable suddenly reveal loopholes.

It’s not the case that every time you apply this method you’ll accomplish impossible things. However, I think the average outcome of applying this method many times will be a greater improvement in your performance than simply trying to “do better” or “improve” without setting these unrealistic expectations.

Think about your own life right now. Where are there examples of people doing something truly extraordinary that could serve as an exemplar for your life? How far could you go if you didn’t dismiss their achievements as being unrealistic?