This post examines the virtue of ambition. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
Is ambition a virtue or a vice?
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault.
―Mark Antony, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
“Ambition” has undergone a shift of meaning over time. Today, ambition is often associated with positive things like having lofty goals, drive, initiative, aspiration, being a hard worker, not settling for mediocrity, and that sort of thing.
But it wasn’t that long ago that “ambition” was almost always a bad word that described a vice. It was more associated with a blinkered and ruthless pursuit of power, influence, and position. Lady MacBeth might be thought of as the poster child for this sort of ambition.
So, as was the case with the virtue of prudence, which also had a shift of meaning over time, we need to be especially cautious when we read about the virtue (or vice) of ambition that we understand what the author had in mind.
Aristotle ran into a similar problem when he tried to identify the “golden mean” concerning ambition (φιλότιμος) or lack of ambition (ἀφιλότιμος). In Greek, both of those words had either good or bad connotations depending on context. If someone was being ambitious to an unseemly extent, you might compare them unfavorably to a properly unambitious person. But if a person failed to set their sights high, you could also chastise them for not being ambitious. Aristotle complained that “as there is no recognized term for the observance of the mean, the extremes fight, so to speak, for what seems an empty place.”
Several years ago, Swimmer963 shared a couple of insightful posts about how she wrestled with ambition. She noted that the ambition-is-evil sense of ambition can discourage people from developing the good kind of ambition:
I can’t trace the roots of this idea completely, but for whatever reason, I spent a long time thinking that being ambitious was in some way immoral. That really good people lived simple, selfless lives and never tried to seek anything more. … [I]t’s a way to feel superior to people who’ve accomplished cooler things than me, of whom part of me is actually jealous, and that’s not the person I want to be.
What is ambition?
Ambition, in the good sense, seems to have these components:
- You have a goal and a strong desire to reach that goal.
- That goal is not merely a wish or hope for a future outcome, but is something that necessarily involves your own effort. So your strong desire comes packaged with an intent to follow through and do the work earnestly. (This suggests a role for the virtue of determination.)
- The goal, to be an ambitious one, should be challenging to meet and high-impact in its results.
Sometimes people define ambition such that the goal is necessarily about yourself: for instance a goal to be an Olympic swimmer, or a successful entrepreneur, or to win an Emmy. But I also see ambition used to describe other sorts of goals: someone who decides to end world hunger, cure cancer, etc. could be considered to be ambitious, even if they did not have as part of their goal that they be personally honored or acknowledged for having accomplished those things.
A question I have is whether ambition is properly to be thought of as a virtue of its own, or whether improperly-tuned ambition is more a symptom of failures in other virtues. For example, if you do not show enough ambition, this may be because you have a fear of failure or of responsibility, you don’t have faith in yourself, you give up at the first sign of trouble, or you are lazy. Those are things that implicate virtues like courage, boldness, confidence, endurance, or industriousness. If you are ambitious in the bad way, this typically demonstrates itself through ruthlessness, betrayal, dishonesty, and things like that (doing whatever it takes to get ahead). These things also implicate virtues like honor, loyalty, honesty, and so forth. It may be the case that if your other virtues are well-tuned, proper ambition will just naturally arise as part of the package.
Ambition and aspiration
Philosopher @AgnesCallard contrasted ambition with aspiration (Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming, 2018). To oversimplify (and I haven’t read her book yet, only some interviews about it): Ambition has to do with acquiring things of already-ascertained value: money, power, fame, and the like. Aspiration is more transformative: it anticipates that one might radically change one’s own values and viewpoints; it is more unsure about where it is going and what it will find there.
In ambition, you know what the answer is (e.g money, power, fame) and set out to get it. In aspiration, you know you want the answer but you’re not sure what that answer is, so you set out to find out.
For example, one might have the ambition to become a professor because you like the idea of people listening to you lecture, being able to dole out grades on your whim, having a respectable job, and that sort of thing. But you might aspire to become a professor because you anticipate that you will be transformed by that role in unexpected but beneficial ways. The ambitious person will be consumed with questions like “how do I get tenure?” or “how do I impress the hiring committee?” while the aspiring person will be consumed with questions like “how does a professor think?”, or “how does one ‘profess’ well?”
You may, for example, aspire to appreciate jazz because you expect that you will find it valuable, even though you don’t really get it yet. Over the course of learning about jazz and listening to jazz, you discover the things that are valuable about it and so you acquire an appreciation of those values, but those were not things you originally had any ambition to acquire, simply because you had no idea what they were. Or maybe over the course of learning about jazz, you learn that you really prefer blues, or you really like dimly-lit cocktail bars whatever happens to be playing, or you come to value improvisation and spontaneity. Your quest is more tentative: you are still actively driven, but more flexible about your destination.
Ambition and honor
Ambition is sometimes defined as the love of honor.
The megalopsyche or great-souled man that Aristotle describes (and that I recapped in my post on the virtue of honor) is someone who values honor above all else, and is single-minded in pursuit of it. Aristotle suggested that megalopsychia was something like ambition on a grand scale, in the same way that an extravagant display of philanthropy might be considered generosity on a grand scale.
When genuine honor is not what is being sought, but only the fame and admiration that go along with being honored, then the ambitious person is vulnerable to being taken in by flattery and other sorts of counterfeits.
This seems to be one example of a broader ambition failure mode. Other examples would be having a goal of being a rock star instead of making great music; of being a best-selling author instead of writing a great novel; of being a hero instead of doing something heroic. Such mistakes mean that you are more likely either to leave your ambitions stillborn at the daydreaming stage or to seek for shortcuts that leave you short of a really ambition-worthy goal.
This could also be described in terms of Callard’s ambition/aspiration distinction: The ambitious person wants to be more or less the same person they are now but with the added prestige of being a rock star; the aspiring person wants to change who they are such that they become the kind of person who makes excellent rock music.
Ambition and certain other virtues
Ambition can be more or less wise. Knowing which goals are realistically attainable (if only with difficulty), and knowing to avoid adhering to ambitions that come with unacceptable risks, are skills for which prudence (both in the sense of practical wisdom and in the sense of caution) is helpful.
Ambition can be thwarted by a nihilistic sense that nothing really matters much anyway. Why put in extraordinary effort to achieve some difficult goal when free will is an illusion, everybody dies, and the heat death of the universe is only a few aeons away? For this reason, virtues like hope, reverence, enthusiasm, a sense of purpose, and optimism may come to the assistance of ambition.
Ambition can also fall victim to poor self esteem. Who do you think you are, anyway, to have such ambitions? What makes you think you’re special, to think you can do something extraordinary that other people aren’t doing? So self-worth, self-respect, self-esteem, and pride can also come to the aid of ambition.
Ambition is also assisted by the virtue of confidence. One way to become more confident is to do more things successfully. But if you only do things at which you confidently succeed, you aren’t really stretching yourself in an ambitious way. If you do stretch yourself ambitiously and fail, this may mean you take a hit to your confidence which may tend to make you less ambitious. This dynamic may seem like something of a dilemma, but can probably be better characterized as a difficult balancing act. Some suggestions:
- Try not to fail traumatically. Choose ambitions such that if you fail, the failure will not be so catastrophic that it will scar you and leave you overly-timid.
- Try to recharacterize failure as a less-awful thing. The “fail fast” buzzword is an example of this: it characterizes failing skillfully as a variety of successful outcome.
- Learn from your failure. If you do not simply turn away from failure in anguish, but try to wring as much experience as you can from it, your failures can make you more confident rather than less.
- Beware of the fallacy of overgeneralizing from a single failure. Sometimes people fail at something and then immediately jump to the conclusion that they aren’t the sort of person who succeeds at things. If you catch yourself doing this, notice the fundamental attribution error you are making and correct for it.
How to know if you need to adjust your ambition?
Swimmer963, in her series of posts on developing ambition, noted:
In other words, a good heuristic for whether or not you’re sufficiently ambitious is whether or not you’re failing occasionally. If you never failing, you’re probably not challenging yourself as much as you should.
I don’t think that we can expect this heuristic to work in reverse. If you fail very often, that might mean that you’re too ambitious, but it could also mean that you lack follow-through, are easily-distracted, lack the patience to develop skill in the things you attempt, are unwilling to endure setbacks, unwisely choose goals that are inherently unattainable, or fail for a number of other reasons.