Salvador Dali once said that Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings. There’s more than a grain of truth in that. No matter how good your ideas or your intentions are – you can’t make it to the top of the mountain without ambition.
It’s no surprise that our society sees ambition as a useful and important virtue. People who lack drive are often described as wasting their talents, and of course, nobody wants to be seen as a loser.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to sit next to someone at a dinner table that was drunk with success, someone who wouldn’t stop talking about his exploits, his achievements and his designs for world domination, then you’d agree that ambition isn’t always a pretty thing.
So is there really such a thing as too much ambition? If so, how can we know at what point ambition is no longer a virtue, but has become a vice instead?
Lessons on Ambition from the Classics
Ambition, good or bad, is a theme that you will find in some of the world’s best stories.
Aesop’s Fables come to mind: The dog who sees the reflection in a stream of the piece of meat in his mouth, and tries to snatch it, only to lose what he already had.
One of the most famous literary examples is from the pen of William Shakespeare in his play, Macbeth.
Spurred on by Lady Macbeth, and utterly sick with ambition, Macbeth plots to kill the benevolent King Duncan, and take the throne.
In the first Act of the play we watch as the tragic hero works himself into a state of frenzy. One part of him knows it’s wrong, but he just can’t help himself. Macbeth is consumed with ambition; it eats him up inside.
“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other. . . “
Macbeth, Act 1, scene 7. 25–28
As we well know, things don’t turn out too well for our hero in the end. His ‘success’ brings him no happiness, but instead he is utterly consumed by guilt. Madness and death soon follow.
Lessons on Ambition from History
Our history books contain plenty of examples of kingdoms that were ruined by overreaching ambition.
Ancient Athens lusted after the distant island of Sicily, and sent sixty ships to conquer and invade, but that turned out to be a disastrous mistake. Leaving their home base vulnerable was the beginning of the end for the Athenians.
The same happened with the mighty Roman Empire, one of the most powerful empires in history. In the end the Empire fragmented and dissolved because it was just too big, and the men who ruled in Rome were just too greedy for power.
The Roman army was spread throughout Western Europe, and each fragment wanted a different man to be in charge – it was a ruthless game of thrones, and at the heart of it was an unwholesome ambition.
It’s a theme that we see repeated over and over in history, and it still continues today.
Lessons on Success from Celebrity Disasters
Every once in a while the world gets to watch the meteoric rise of a brand new star, only to watch that same star become corrupted by success and ambition, lose control, and finally crash and burn in a very public spectacle.
Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus all followed the path of the tragic hero. Admittedly, some went a little further than others. A lack of good judgement, a few bad choices, and they’re on the road to self-destruction.
Lindsay Lohan started her acting career with the 1998 film The Parent Trap, but her rise to fame is now completely overshadowed by her spectacular public fall from grace. A crashed Mercedes Benz convertible, lots of alcohol, a little bit of cocaine, and multiple returns to rehab – that’s the story we remember.
Arguably the world’s best footballer, Diego Maradona went down the same route. From the age of 16 he thrilled fans with his almost uncanny skills with the football. When he was on form, Maradona was unstoppable.
At the age of 25, during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico the short, stocky Argentinian wearing the legendary number 10 seemed to defy what was humanly possible. Every time he took the ball, the crowd came to life. Watching him play was like watching an artist, not just a talented sportsman.
Skipping past one defender after another, he dominated the field and led his country to total victory. For many of his devoted fans he attained a god-like status. But it was not to last. Success soon became a sickness.
Maradona was an addict. Besides picking up a nasty drug habit, he was also unable to control his eating. More importantly, he was addicted to ambition, and it took a huge toll. By the 1990 World Cup he was already on a downward spiral, and in 1991 he was banned from the sport.
It took several brushes with death from heart attacks, and a long and difficult road to recovery before Maradona could finally find peace, not as a player, but as a mentor and coach for his beloved team.
The Addictive Ego at the Root of Unhealthy Ambition
The lesson at the core of all these stories: Addiction to ambition will ruin you.
The reason for this is that unhealthy ambition is linked to a mindset of insufficiency.
Think about it – what is ambition? It’s the desire to become, to get, or achieve. There always needs to be more and more. By its very nature, it implies that there’s something wrong with things as they are.
Underneath that drive is a sense of want – a giant hole that can’t be filled.
This kind of unhealthy ambition is wrapped up in a false sense of self – the ego. It’s based on fear. Somewhere inside there’s a feeling that something is lacking in you as a person, so you completely identify with ambition to make up for it.
It’s the belief that you’re not good enough, you’re not big enough, you haven’t arrived, and you’re not ‘somebody’ until you succeed. It’s based on the assumption that you can only be happy once you ‘get there’ – but you never do.
While it may provide the drive to succeed in the short-term, it’s ultimately doomed to fail as a source of happiness, because no matter what you achieve, you’ll still feel the same insecurities about yourself.
Cultivating Healthy Forms of Ambition
A better way to look at success is as an impersonal process. You might not have ‘arrived’ yet – but you’re well on your way – and that’s good enough for now. If you’re able to separate your ego, (your sense of self), from your ambition, it can turn out very differently.
If you operate from the assumption that you’re already worthwhile, ambition can be a useful virtue instead of a vice. You’re on a journey to achieve something – to climb that mountain – but whether you succeed or not doesn’t define you as a person. Failing won’t make you smaller, just wiser.
Your ego doesn’t need any pampering – you’re big enough just as you are.
Seen from this perspective, your ambition becomes an expression of personal power, and has a solid foundation. You’re out to make the world a better place for you and for those around you. You’re doing it to evolve as a person, to contribute something useful, not to ‘become’ something else.
Oscar Wilde sums it up this way:
“Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more.”