I have a lot of it.

I will never be happy.

Any time I decide to have less ambition and to be happy with what is, I work less and get unhappy.  I’m happiest when a lot gets done.  But I will never be able to do enough.  It is very difficult to find a sweet spot. I go back and forth on this issue… do I want to work on working harder so I can achieve my never-ending goals or do I want to work on having fewer easier-to-reach goals. Or maybe I want to work on keeping those stretch goals but not stressing when I don’t reach them.

One of the problems with always being the smartest kid in the class (until high school, anyway) is that to keep myself from being bored I’d work on getting 100%. My sister was content with doing the minimum to get As and daydreamed a lot (until my parents sent her to Catholic school and the minimum to get an A was more than before), but I worked within the system. It is difficult to meet with challenges when you’ve been acing things with little-to-no effort most of your life, and it is difficult to separate ambition from feelings of worth.

Indeed there may be longer-term practical implications of the failure to meet your own targets, and these may not be trivial: Alan was not able to go to his first choice of university. There is a crucial distinction, however, between the practical implications of failure and its emotional impact. Gifted children can avoid many of the long-term emotional implications of failure if they have learnt that no given measure of your achievements can fully reflect your abilities or worth. Of course this is an important message for us all, not just for gifted children, but in their case it is particularly significant because high achievement can become so tightly bound up with a gifted child’s estimate of his own worth; and because gifted people are often cast as an infallible persona by those around them, making failure so much more difficult and shocking when it does occur. If we can help them to see beyond the confines of targets and achievements then, whether or not they have realized those dreams, they may be able to avoid the feeling that therefore they are worth more or less than would otherwise be the case.

Distin, Kate(Editor). Gifted Children : A Guide for Parents and Professionals. London, GBR: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006. p 40.

I have to keep reminding myself that if you don’t get rejected from time to time, it means you’re not aiming high enough.

We recently talked about a couple of our relatives who we’d like to enable to go to college. One common theme in the comments is that these girls need more ambition before they should be allowed to go. Poor kids who have a burning desire to go to college will go to college even with obstacles in their way. And the oldest did have a lot of ambition at one point… she wanted to be a voice actress and an animator and similar things. She’s older now and wants the practical reality of being a K-12 teacher. She may change her mind one day, but that’s her current plan.

I want to be someone. I want to achieve on a national and international level. I want to do solid work and figure out how the world works. I will probably be less content than the oldest once she’s employed and tenured with a family of her own. But maybe not. I enjoy the freedom and excitement of my job, as much as I hate the constant feelings of guilt and occasional feelings of failure. It’s hard mingling with people who are in the top percent of the top percent when you’re sort of in the bottom percent of that top percent… and if you just worked harder you could be in the middle percent of it. At the same time, it is thrilling to mingle with those people.

One of my favorite folktales growing up is about a moth who was shooting for the moon. Every night she would try to fly to the moon and every night she would get a little higher than she had the night before. The other moths would tease her, saying she would never get to the moon and she should stick to closer targets. But still she kept on, while her tormentors, one by one, flew too close to flames and incinerated. Moral: You’ll never make it to the moon, but you won’t be immolated either.

I think this email tagline from one of my students sums it up best: “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”–Les Brown

So I’ll work on keeping my ambition but do a better job of taking those failures in stride. After all, what you do after failure is what is important. Especially if we want to keep stretching and growing.

Update: Here is First Gen American on the topic.  And here is Watson Inc.

Where do you stand on the ambition question?

41 Responses to “Ambition”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I could have written this article. You sound just like me here. I don’t know if this happens to you, but if I’m not super challenged, I sometimes disengage completely and then I feel like I’m incompetent for being lazy. The result is that I pile on a bunch of challenges and then feel overwhelmed again. The balance is never reached for me. It’s just part of life’s journey.

    I definitely prefer to be the dumbest person in a room vs the smartest. I do remember the big fish in small pond syndrome in high school but I don’t know if I’d like that in the career world. I was told lots of times by ex-colleagues that going to another company was infinitely easier and slower paced. Some days it sounds nice, but other days it sounds like torture.

    I totally agree that failing and failing often is a good thing. Even as I became a middle career engineer, I still didn’t get that until I got into a sales role and everything is based on hit rate. Traditionally a hit rate in my industry is 20%. You have to kiss a lot of frogs (80% of the time) before you find your prince. I’m finally at peace with failure…I learned that I just have to fail more often and identify the losers quicker so that I can fish out the winners faster. Great article.

  2. Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom Says:

    I’m with First Gen and I am like your sister – if I’m not challenged and without the power to change things in some way, I mentally drop out. I cannot follow “this is the way we’ve always done it.” When I’ve had those job environments where I could effect real change and feel that I’ve made a difference, I’ve HAPPILY put in 70 hour weeks with no burnout. When I’ve done everything I can and the challenge is gone, I move on to try to get that fulfillment somewhere else. Last year when I burned out it was because I was doing too much volume and not enough quality or things that only *I* could do. I didn’t have enough minions.

    Re. never-ending stretch goals, I don’t focus on too many goals or areas like I used to. Within every area, there are a few things that will make a profound difference, and a bunch of busy-work / cannon fodder tasks or goals (Pareto’s 80/20). A couple of must have books for this were Tom DeMarco’s “Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency” and anything by Richard Koch.

  3. Everyday Tips Says:

    I am not sure where I am. When given a strong challenge, I become incredibly focused and neglect everything else. To have balance, I have to be careful with how hard I try because of my ‘all or or nothingness’. I would love to be something magnificent, I am just not sure what that magnificent thing would be.

    Being bored at work is absolute drudgery. My job has always mentally challenged me, although I have found it frustrating in a million different ways in how things are ‘managed’. (Incredibly unrealistic time lines, that kind of thing.) However, I know I have not reached my career potential because I have stayed at home so many years, and just been part time when I did work for a lot of the time. Not to mention I am nowhere near my dream career. I am just making money.

  4. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I’m pretty good at creating my own challenges… which is a blessing and a curse. And kind of necessary to be an academic.

    One job I cannot do is data entry technician. I would rather be a garbage collector than a data entry technician. I just cannot handle that level of boredom combined with the need for attention to detail.

    • Money Reasons Says:

      I don’t think technicians do data entry anymore. I think that profession died out. Now just regular clerks do data entry task.

      I remember in school having to enter sample set into a stats program, and I literally started to fall asleep while inputing the data into the software package.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Yes, I started falling asleep during a test for seasonal data entry clerks for the IRS, so I knew that job was right for me.

        I currently have one similar duty, and I have to keep crossing and uncrossing my legs to stay awake.

  5. HennaHonu Says:

    I used to like that Les Brown quote, but now it bugs me. It’s backwards. You should shoot for the stars, and even if you miss land near the moon… or something.

    You should be glad. I have always been in the top, but have never been an A student. I always distracted myself with additional work that was ungraded, or additional projects with no support. I did a History Day project without any help from a teacher/mentor/parent. I read outside material and literary criticism about the books we read in class – even in 7th and 8th grade. People who know me think I am an overachiever, but I rarely achieve my goals.

  6. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Me, I just shoot for non-immolation.

  7. Suzita @ Says:

    When I started down the path of becoming a type A kid (in late elementary school) my stepfather began rewarding me when I failed. He defined a “good failure” as something you really wanted and really tried for – and then failed at. When I had a good failure he’d give me cash for it, but more than that he’d celebrate it with me. Then he’d remind me of some of his good failures.

    It was such a helpful life-frame he gave me. I just wrote a blog post on what parts of his failure payment plan have stuck with me, but I had to write down some of my bigger failures to make the piece work. Ouch!

  8. LindyMint Says:

    When I was in high school I had a boyfriend who really wanted to “be someone important.” I always thought that was kind of weird. Isn’t it enough just to be happy?

    But that was when I was in high school and the top student in my little school and everything kind of came easily for me. Down the road when I entered the real world and stopped “getting good grades,” and started facing rejection is when I started thinking more like my old high school boyfriend.

    Failure is hard, but I’m often reminded that it is so necessary. I recently read a good post by The Naked Redhead in which she described an actor friend who made sure he was auditioning so much, that when the good parts were offered to him, he had forgotten even reading for them.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m not sure it’s important to just “be someone important” like I dunno, Kim Kardashian… but as we get older we’re more focused on how we want to be important.

      That’s an awesome story about the actor friend. I wish I were that productive!

  9. Money Reasons Says:

    I had to think about this one. I like to think I’m Goldilock’s perfect… not too ambitious, but not too much of a slacker either. :)

    I think if you believe in yourself, and keep hammering away at it, it’s entirely possible to be famous and do something great in society…

  10. frugalscholar Says:


    Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
    either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
    it is a prison.


    Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
    narrow for your mind.


    O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
    myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
    have bad dreams.


    Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
    substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.


    A dream itself is but a shadow.


    Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a
    quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.

  11. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    There’s *always* gonna be someone smarter/more accomplished/whatthef***ever than you, and if you drive yourself nuts pushing yourself to be the smartest/most accomplished/whatthef***everest, your life is gonna be miserable. I have come to a place in my life where I feel extremely confident that when I reach the end of the road and am done with my career, I am going to gain a lot more satisfaction from the knowledge that I have exerted my professional efforts in a manner that has enabled as many other people as possible to enjoy their own professional lives than from how “accomplished” I have been.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      CPP. You’re missing the point and simplifying. We’re mature enough to not be comparing ourselves to other people. And nobody said anything about being the “best” of anything. However, there are specific professional goals that we have.

      1. Stop worrying about stretch goals. Stop doing so much work all the time. Do the minimum to get tenure. Be miserable.
      2. Actually meet stretch goals. Work all the time. Create new harder to meet stretch goals. Be miserable.
      3. Work on reaching stretch goals, but be more accepting when not reaching them (yet).

      Not comparing oneself to other people doesn’t mean that we don’t want other people to think we are solid researchers. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t want to effect policy or do research that has real world relevance. Or find out more about our fields. Or be good coauthors. We could just stop working on research after tenure if we didn’t have any kind of professional ambition, but we do.

      I’d say more negative things but I’ve noticed that has a chilling effect on other peoples’ comments.

  12. Jacq Says:

    Err. Trying not to be simple minded but how about “have fun and when it stops being fun, stop and look at what you have to do to make it fun again?”

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I wish it were that easy! Some stuff is just inherently not fun! So that gets back to not meeting long term goals. Some things are really satisfying when they’re done, but not something enjoyable during the process of doing or that one would want to do again. And sometimes these take a long time to do or have lots of equally not fun steps. Necessary evils!

      Especially since the alternative (reading novels, watching Man vs. Food) is always way more fun.

  13. Jacq Says:

    I’m going to disagree with you there on the fun. Loosely quoting the dude who wrote Fight Club… “Writing is like sex, if it’s painful or not fun, you’re doing it wrong”.
    There’s a fun way to do almost anything. I’ve picked up dog shit in my yard and made it fun. Sort of. Done data entry and made it fun.

  14. Jacq Says:

    Carolyn Miller had a piece in Psychology Today on whether stretch goals were good or not – seems the research says yes.

  15. Debbie M Says:

    I think my approach on the ambition question is a rationalizing or, perhaps, a sour-grapes approach. I tried for ten years to get into the career I’d wanted ever since I was a kid (teaching) and no one would hire me, even for math. I now realize it’s partly because I don’t look like a disciplinarian, partly because I looked about twelve years old at the time.

    Meanwhile, I was working a state office job–in education (a university)–and I eventually decided that I liked this better. There’s less stress. I work far fewer hours and can leave my work at work. So I have more time for my millions of other hobbies. I’m well appreciated at my job. Plus, I just don’t have the charisma to be the sort of teacher I’d want to be, blah, blah, blah.

    And sometimes when I’m doing fun things that I suck at, like learning ballroom dance or trying to do a pull up while hanging with my friends at the track, I tell myself that a) I’ll never get better at this unless I practice and I have to start where I am, b) slow learners can still learn, and c) I’m helping everyone else feel better about themselves.

    I did used to be a perfectionist (they took my eraser away from me one year at school, for example). But somehow I escaped. It’s probably related to having lots of interests and liking lots of hobbies. I’d rather try out lots of things than focus on only one. And I also don’t like to put all my eggs in one basket (some people’s careers are their whole lives, and then they have an injury or their industry craters or for some other reason that’s no longer an option, and then it’s a real tragedy for them).

    On the other hand, I do occasionally get that bad feeling and think to myself, “When Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for fifteen years.”

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      With the teaching thing, it sounds like fate intervened! Like on the job market for me when I was second choice for all my first round interviews and everyone I know who got those jobs turned out miserable and ended up leaving in a couple years. My current job, on the other hand, though not as prestigious for various reasons, has turned out pretty awesome. I really lucked out. There are not many places with a complete absence of crazy colleagues, and we’re not as resource strapped as places in more prestigious parts of the country. And the town has been getting more ethnic food, which makes me happy.

      I do letter c a lot too (not necessarily with slow learners– I’m equal opportunity… everyone can feel better about me screwing up). :) Nothing like making other folks feel better about themselves!

      That is also awesome about Mozart. Poor guy, but so true!

      • Debbie M Says:

        Let me just make it clear that in dancing and pretty much anything involve gross motor skills, it is I who am the slow learner.

        Thanks for the story about your colleagues who got the good jobs that turned out to be miserable. Yikes!

  16. Debbie M Says:

    Just today I went to a seminar where we got two questionnaires. The first one had questions like these:

    * Name the five richest people in the world.
    * Name five Heisman trophy winners.
    * Name five Nobel prize winners.

    Then you’d talk about how many answers you got and how sure you felt about your answers.

    The second questionnaire had questions like these:
    * Name some teachers who helped you become a better person.
    * Name five people who helped you get through difficult times.

    Then you talk about how many of those questions you could finish and how sure you felt about those answers.

    The goal was to realize that even if you’re not famous, you can still make a real difference in people’s lives.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:


      But… what if your ambition is (and stretch goals are) to make a difference in peoples’ lives?

      • Debbie M Says:

        Like I said, there are lots of ways to make a difference in people’s lives. Heck, just let someone out of a parking lot into the street in front of you and you’ve probably made their whole day!

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