Ambition is a sanctified ideal in the folklore of successful careers. Just the word – as in “She has always had a lot of ambition” – evokes a degree of respect and admiration.
Job Tip: However, in practice, ambition is like most icons. It is not inherently a good and a positive force. Ambition may be embraced or ignored; used or abused. It can even become an excuse for failure. It all depends on how it is employed.
There’s some good career advice to be learned from the way Clifton, a young man I knew early in his career, mismanaged his ambition.
Clifton had been in his job less than one year, and was restless and frustrated by what he saw as his lack of progress.
“I am ambitious. I will be a success, but I will never make it doing these little insignificant things day in and day out. I could do a lot more; they just won’t give me a chance.”
He repeated his complaints to anyone who would listen.
Career Advice: Constant Complaining Is Deadly
Clifton had demonstrated he was well educated to make a good career in sales. Joe, his supervisor, believed the young man had potential, which hopefully could be developed and saved for the organization. But his constant complaining was getting to be a problem.
Joe called Clifton in for a performance evaluation and career counseling. The meeting soon turned into a confrontation when Clifton began to push his case.
“I am still doing the same old things. I know I’m paid less than the others in the department. It’s just not fair,” he began, ignoring the compliments he had been paid at the beginning of the conference.
“Clifton, you have been with us for only eleven months,” Joe replied. “You are the newest salesman; everyone else has been here at least three years. They’ve worked their way up the ladder.
“You are making fine progress, but, let’s face it, you are still short on experience. Give it a little time. You are at the beginning of your career path.”
Joe complimented Clifton again and went on to suggest that his work habits needed some improvement.
“Clifton, you are late most mornings, and you are out of here right at five o’clock. And, frankly, I think you could improve your performance by devoting a little time at nights and on weekends to learning more about your job.”
“You are not being fair,” Clifton bristled. “The company is not paying me as much as it pays the rest of you. I work the hours you pay me for. Sure, I see you and the others staying late, but I don’t have anything to do, and besides, as I told you, I am not married to this company. You pay me and I will show you what I can do.”
Clifton’s Expectations Over The Top
“I am ambitious. I expect to be a Group Manager in six months. I just can’t wait around forever.”
Joe saw the discussion was dead-ending, but he still believed Clifton had potential. He made what he thought was a fair offer.
“Let’s expand your responsibilities. You become an Assistant Group Manger. Work with Bill Davis. You will learn a lot from his experience. We’ll provide you some special training. However, I can’t give you a raise now, since out budgets are frozen, but if you do as well as I know you will, I can promise you an increase in three months.”
“That’s not fair,” Clifton charged. “Everyone in the department knows Bill is past his prime. I would just be running his errands. That would make me the laughingstock. I don’t think that is much of a promotion, certainly not what I deserve.”
Clifton never recovered from that discussion in the eyes of his supervisor and the department head. He soon left the company.
The experience taught Clifton little about the real meaning of ambition. He used it as an excuse for his failure, telling everyone things hadn’t worked out at that company because he was “too ambitious to wait around there to be promoted.”
Unfortunately, he has never changed his stripes. He has gone from one company to another, always wearing his stated ambitions as a badge of distinction, but always failing to convert his feelings into the kind of sustained efforts that produce solid results for him and his employer.
Had he used a little common sense and listened to the career advice he was offered Clifton could have learned that true, productive ambition goes beyond the dictionary’s definition of the word, which is “an eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame or power; the object or goal desired.”
Job Tip: Ambition Is Not Dreaming
Clifton would have been better advised to embrace what Craig Douglass, a hard charging advertising executive and friend of mine, had to say on the subject:
“Ambition is not dreaming and talking about where I want to be and when I want to be there. Ambition is knowing where I want to go, how to get there, and being willing to do what it takes to reach the goal. The key is to combine ambition, which means desire, with initiative, which means action.”
Clifton would have learned that combined with focused efforts ambition can be a healthy and productive force; whereas, ambition combined with an unrealistic appetite for rewards can be destructive.
The young man would have learned that real achievers guard against mistaking restlessness for true ambition. At times, the feelings may be the same, but common sense tells us they are different. Restlessness leads to career problems. Ambition, coupled with initiative, leads to career success.
He would have learned that the fulfillment of ambitions requires patience on the career path. Shortcuts between a person’s ambitions and their fulfillment rarely exist. A person of true ambitions may be able to influence the timeline and push it to its outer limits by focusing primarily on the tasks at hand while preparing for the next step up the ladder. But ultimately the timetable is determined by a multitude of influences, most of which are beyond the control of the individual player.
Another lesson that Clifton would have learned is that the realization of true ambition requires a combination of two ingredients, which seem contradictory. One is strong, aggressive confidence. This asset manifests itself in the belief “I can get the job done and when I do my ambition will be fed.” The other is healthy humility, which translates to a willingness to admit “I have a lot to learn; I will make my best effort to learn so that I earn and I am prepared to make the most of my next opportunity.”
Clifton should have learned that ambitions will not be satisfied so long as they are defined as the hopes and expectations of a single individual. To pay off, ambitions have to be defined as the goals of the enterprise.