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Marilyn Monroe dreamt about Hollywood, as did “thousands of girls sitting alone like me”. But those other girls didn’t trouble her: she “dreamed the hardest”.
In 1968, a seven-page letter was mailed out on behalf of the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Polar Centre to extremely wealthy yacht owners, horse breeders and airplane owners, inviting them to participate in a round-the-world trip at the hefty price tag of around $65,000 in today’s currency. The letter promised “some discomfort” and “danger”. The adventure would be an opportunity, as expressed in the sales letter, to experience the “rare privilege of taking part in a mission of great significance for the United States and the entire world”, an expedition which had “never before been attempted by man”.
All available spots were sold.
But not everyone is motivated to achieve more, as Monroe and the folks who went on the aforementioned expedition clearly were. Somewhere along the line, those without ambition made the decision that they would ‘settle’ for whatever they were given in life. So they remain in the same dead-end job for years or with the same toxic friends. They unwittingly choose to be “stuck”. Renowned thought leader Seth Godin eloquently argues in his book The Icarus Deception (paid link) that we have been taught to set our ambitions to “low”. What’s more, he says, by “settling”, you not only short-change yourself but also those who might benefit from your work.
Ambition unlocks your ability to make an impact and removes all the excuses between your current status quo and where you want to be. Ambition also frees you to be yourself. Blaming the “system” is the default position for those without ambition: it lets them off the hook. It’s easy and convenient to whinge and whine and moan and groan about the unfairness of life and the power players who pull the strings. But why not become the solution? Why rely on the “system” in the first place? Sure, you can choose not to be ambitious, but that would be a shame, not least because, as Godin describes in this pithy post, ambitious people get to eat nicer biscuits.
And you? Are you ambitious? Read on to find out if you have these common traits of truly ambitious people.
1. They have goals but don’t talk about them
If that sounds like faulty advice to you, it’s not. In fact, don’t take it from me – take it from bestselling author, entrepreneur and motivational speaker Derek Sivers who expounds on this in his outstanding TED talk “Keep Your Goals to Yourself”. The gist of it is this: speaking to someone about your ambition makes it less likely to be realized. Whenever you have a goal, there are typically steps that need to be taken in order to achieve that goal and you’ll naturally feel a level of satisfaction when all that work is done. But according to psychologists, when you tell someone your goal and they acknowledge your goal, this results in your mind being “tricked” into believing that the goal has already been achieved. And the satisfaction that ensues from this “social reality” makes you less motivated to put in the actual work required to fulfill your goal.
Ambitious people resist the temptation to trumpet their goals; they delay the gratification that the acknowledgement generates because they know that they are committing to a process and to a direction of travel, not to a result. They know that talking is not the same as doing, that talking can be cheap. Ambitious people would rather spend their time building their skill set and researching opportunities and solutions and then executing, pulling the trigger.
2. They expose themselves to risk
Ambitious people don’t dream about moving up someone else’s ladder. Compliance and maintaining the status quo are anathema to them. These guys aren’t afraid of flying solo or threats of danger; they commit to the frightening realities of risk and failure, exposing themselves to places they’ve never been before, all in pursuit of their goal. In other words, they act with purpose. So they’ll break away from accepted orthodoxies and expose themselves to new ways of thinking.
They know that it’s not how much they have, but how brave and courageous they are prepared to be. Most ambitious people get a buzz from uncertainty, difficulty and risk. They don’t want things easy; they don’t want to take the wide road. And they get to experience the rarefied satisfaction and pride of going beyond the ordinary.
3. They believe in better
Whereas others work for a company, truly ambitious people work for a cause. They don’t see the world as broken or fixed. They see it a series of rich opportunities. They keep asking, “How can I make the world a better place?” or “How can I give more” or “What would make this thing more interesting?”
And they have the confidence, guts and drive to follow their curiosities through. In contrast to their safety zone-adjusted, comfort zone-aligned colleagues, the truly ambitious are seldom comfortable with the status quo. They believe in better.
4. They aren’t driven by what you or anyone else thinks
So driven are ambitious people by their ambition that they need little else by way of motivation. Unlike others without ambition, they don’t need external motivation to show their best self – doing so would be tantamount to shedding some of their own personal responsibility and giving it to someone else, which runs contrary to ambitious people’s sense of personal pride. Moreover, the popularity contests of me-too coworkers or the distraction of pleasing others which can so easily become an addiction in itself. Ambitious people stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the popularity of their ideas. Though they may seek specific feedback, they are not driven by it: feedback is merely information that they can accept or reject.
5. They know the key to success
It’s what award-winning American psychologist Angela Duckworth from the Duckworth Lab describes as “grit” (nothing to do with cowboys), and her name is now synonymous with the term. Duckworth describes grit as a “tendency to sustain interest in an effort toward very long-term goals.” Her superb TED talk on the topic describes grit in more detail, but it has the following core elements of those who have grit: perseverance, which arises from their believing they have no choice if they are to achieve their goals; resilience, which allows them to turn difficulties and challenges into learning experiences; and commitment, which ensures that they do not waver from their goals.
Ambitious people are driven by their passion, and they are totally focused on what they want to achieve. They are the courageous ones among us, the ones who dare to be and dare to do. They’re the “yes, we can” people who really do change the world (think Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson). They have chosen to live a life by standing out, not ‘settling’. We’re lucky to have them, but the world needs many more of their kind.
Are you an ambitious person? Or were you once an ambitious person who put the lid on ambition some time ago? If so, why not share your comments and thoughts about ambition in the comments section below?