What does it mean to be ambitious?
When you imagine an ambitious person, you might think of a Fortune 500 CEO, a celebrity actor, or an Olympic athlete. It’s probably people who have reached the top level of their respective fields.
But “ambition” isn’t just about wanting to be the best. Instead, it’s about relentlessly pursuing your own version of success — whatever that may be.
Maybe you want to be a high-paid part-time consultant so you can spend time with your family. Or maybe you want to maximize your income so you can retire early. You might even be an athlete striving for that Olympic hardware.
All of those goals are valid. But what sets successful people apart isn’t the nature of their goals; it’s their determination to reach them.
Think about what it would take to achieve your own version of success. What steps would you need to take, and are you really willing to do the work? Herein lies the secret to how to be ambitious.
What is ambition?
For most people, ambition isn’t about achieving massive wealth, fame, power, or influence. Rather, it’s about doing whatever they can to achieve their own version of success.
The idea is to work hard and focus on the life you want to build. Ambition is about staying motivated in the face of adversity, all in pursuit of your personal and professional goals.
It starts from within
An important prerequisite to being ambitious is knowing yourself and setting goals true to yourself and your life. Otherwise, you risk losing your way and neglecting your personal well-being in the process.
It’s tough to drown out the noise. You might want to quit your job and be a stay-at-home parent but you’re afraid of what your colleagues or future hiring managers will think. But if you give in to fear, you risk losing valuable time with your kids.
Understanding your personal values can help in this dilemma. If you wholeheartedly decide your family is your top priority, making your decision will be that much easier.
The same holds true if you value your career. You’re not wrong for wanting to pursue your next promotion or become an entrepreneur. But you have to be sure you’re doing it for reasons important to who you are.
Balancing ambition with mental health
You should also be mindful about how your ambitions affect your mental health. As it turns out, the relentless pursuit of power and influence can be a sign of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder. One study also found that 75% of high-achievers come from a difficult background and had unmet needs growing up.
Take a moment to check in with yourself. You may find it makes more sense to step back to protect your mental health, or to balance other priorities in your personal life.
BetterUp can help you in your personal development. With the help of a coach, you can identify your true motivators and build your self-confidence. Learn to let go of fear of failure and supercharge your self-improvement.
Top characteristics of ambitious people
Let’s assume you’re now clear on your goals and based them on your core motivators, beliefs, and values. What do you need to reach them?
Here are some characteristics common to ambitious people:
1. They’re always looking to improve
Ambitious people always try to improve in some way. They’re comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone because they know they’ll learn something new. This could mean taking on new projects or professional development courses at work. At home, it could mean signing up for a dance class as a family or undertaking a new, more efficient chore schedule.
2. They have a strong work ethic
Every facet of life requires hard work at some point or another. For most goals, you must be willing to invest time. So if you want to be a part-time consultant, you’ll have to start by proving your salt in your industry — which might mean working full-time until you can find clients who will accept your rate.
3. They’re willing to learn from others
Every person is a trove of knowledge. Ambitious people ask questions and learn from other people’s perspectives and experiences.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your boss, an employee, or a friend at a party — genuine curiosity can lead to surprising outcomes. You never know when you might learn of a higher-paying job opportunity, tricks to boost your efficiency, or a lesson about how to balance work and life. Let other people’s life lessons become your own.
If you can, try to find a mentor who has similar values and ambitions to you. Knowing someone who has already accomplished your dreams will provide you valuable insight on how to reach the same place.
4. They accept failure as part of the process
Ambitious people recognize that failure is a fact of life. You might say something hurtful in an argument, make a mistake at work, or be rejected from a dream job. These moments can leave you feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and deflated.
But it’s all part of the process. It’s okay to take risks and make mistakes so long as you learn from them and move on.
How to become more ambitious
Some of the above traits might not yet resonate with you, and that’s okay. They’ll solidify as you find your ambition in life.
Here are some tips to help you along the way.
1. Find your motivation
Why do you want to be more ambitious? This is the fundamental question. Your answer will set the foundation for the rest of your decisions going forward.
Clearly define why you want to focus on your goal, no matter what it is. You may want to buy a house because you want to raise a family, become a leader in your community to improve the lives around you, or increase your salary to be comfortable when you retire.
Write down your goals and why they’re important to you, then post them where you can see them. When you start to falter, they’ll remind you why you embarked on this journey in the first place.
2. Set goals
Ambitious people use the SMART method to set their goals, which helps them succeed. SMART stands for:
- Specific: You know what your end result will look like.
- Measurable: You can easily quantify your results so you know when you’ve crossed the finish line.
- Achievable: You can reach your goal with your current skills and resources.
- Relevant: Your goal serves your wider life ambitions.
- Time-bound. You have a clear deadline for your goal.
You can use this method for your personal goals, career goals, and short, medium, and long-term goals.
The trick is to organize your targets like a trail of breadcrumbs: smaller milestones you need to achieve on your way to your larger goal. Setting a series of small goals will provide you with manageable steps you can take to achieve your larger goals. Each of these should build on the last until you reach your desired endpoint.
3. Get to work
Identifying your motivators and setting ambitious goals can take time. But try to be wary of falling into analysis paralysis. You might find yourself in an existential crisis, unable to make any decisions about your life.
To exit this rut, it helps to try things. Say “Yes” to that job you’ve been on the fence about, go out with that friend, and take that vacation. Your path will become clearer as you try new things.
4. Invest in yourself
Take a course, read a book, listen to a podcast, find a mentor — investing in your personal and professional development is rarely a bad move. Even if your learnings aren’t directly related to your current situation, they might be useful in the future.
5. Improve your focus and concentration
Take care of your body, eat well, sleep more, and perform mentally stimulating activities like meditating or reading. These actions can improve your focus and concentration. In the long run, this will help you complete the work required to realize your ambitions.
Ambition in the workplace: finding the right balance
The qualities of an ambitious person can help you in the workplace, too. Being a motivated and goal-oriented employee will help your career while benefiting the rest of the organization.
But it’s important to strike a balance. Too much ambition at work can make you unpopular with your colleagues. You might appear selfish and arrogant, unafraid of putting your needs ahead of others. If you’ve ever had a toxic boss, you might already be familiar with this behavior. This kind of ambition can hold your career back in the long run.
On the flip side, too little ambition can make you appear lazy and unmotivated. More than that, you risk falling into a rut of mediocre performance, boredom, and a sense of futility in your work.
Having a clear sense of your goals, motivators, and ambitions will help you avoid these two extremes. You’ll know how to collaborate effectively while staying focused on where you want to go.
Ambition vs. greed
In a culture that often defines success in terms of money and power, it’s easy for ambition to transform into excess and greed. People with this affliction are willing to bulldoze over others to reach their goals.
But being ambitious is different from being greedy. Healthy ambition is about motivating yourself to pursue your own meaning in life. Extreme ambition is about acquiring as much money and power as possible, regardless of the cost
Psychologist Sheri Johnson explains that extreme ambition could indicate underlying mental illness. In a study of more than 600 young men and women at Berkeley, she found that one’s perceived social status was at the heart of various conditions.
For example, the people most at risk for mania — a condition defined by extreme mood swings — cited the pursuit of power as an important part of their identity.
If you find that power and excess are important parts of your identity, it’s worth questioning why. A mental health professional can help you work through any complex emotions.
But if your ambitions don’t harm other people, your conscience can rest easy as you pursue your goals.
Rising up to the task
There’s nothing wrong with learning how to be ambitious. If your heart is in the right place and your motivations are clear, having the drive to achieve your goals is a gift.
Along the way, you’ll learn about yourself you wouldn’t have known otherwise. New experiences will challenge you to grow; you’ll forge new connections with colleagues, friends, and family members; your goal-setting will help you be more efficient and productive.
It won’t be easy. But if you’re willing to put your head down and do the work, the sky’s the limit.