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Motivation

Are You Ambitious Enough?

You don’t have to become a backstabbing monster to achieve success, but you do need to admit your ambition – if only to yourself.


Admit it: you’re ambitious.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to proclaim your ambitions in the comments. But if you read the 99U and use the Behance Network, you’re here because you want to learn, you want to improve your professional skills, you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the creative industries. You want to compare your work with that of your peers and emulate the success of your heroes. You want to succeed.

But it’s not really the done thing to say so, is it?

These days, “ambition” is a dirty word. People who are “ambitious” are viewed as either selfish or unrealistic. (“That sounds a bit ambitious” is code for “you are going to fail.”) Yet it wasn’t always this way. The poet James Fenton points out that 500 years ago in Renaissance Florence, artists had no qualms about admitting their ambitions. Here’s Fenton discussing Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Andrea del Verrocchio:

I take these stories about artists, from Baldinucci and Vasari, because they date from a period when it appears that one could acknowledge straightforwardly motives of which we would today be obscurely ashamed. Verocchio observes that there is much to be gained in the field of sculpture, so he becomes a sculptor, and when he feels he has won the honour that is going, he turns to painting with the same motive, but when he sees his way blocked by Leonardo he turns back to sculpture again.–The Strength of Poetry by James Fenton

In Renaissance Florence, there was no shame in seeking glory as an artist – only glory. Even if you failed, it was still regarded as a noble ambition. Of course, there was an ugly side to this: Fenton says that “the Italy these artists worked in was a place of the most vicious rivalry and backbiting.” But I still think we lost something important when we made a tacit agreement to keep quiet about our ambition. (Of course we didn’t get rid of it.) Because if you don’t acknowledge your ambition – even to yourself – you risk choking it. You risk not only falling short of the best that you could do, but not even attempting it.

We lost something important when we made a tacit agreement to keep quiet about our ambition.

And I don’t think you have to be a Machiavellian monster to realize your ambition. If you’re ambitious purely for yourself – for your fame, status, riches, and place in history – then clearly ambition is going to corrupt you. But if you’re ambitious primarily for your work – for how far you can take it, for what you can achieve, for the impact it can have on others – then I believe it’s still possible to think in terms of a noble ambition.

I remember the day I realized I was ambitious, right down to the very moment. The train was pulling into the platform, the sun flashed from the windows as they rolled past, and it suddenly struck me that I had big ambitions. I wanted to do things on a larger scale, make more of an impression, more of a difference than I had done before.

And once the cat was out of the bag, I was committed – to hard work, to pushing through the wall of fear, to somehow finding a way to make it happen. (This was years before I discovered Web 2.0 and the possibility of reaching a global audience from my laptop, so that last part wasn’t clear at all.) The upside was that once I admitted my ambition, I opened the door to a marvelous adventure – to the fun of creating and connecting with like-minded people, and to delivering outsize results for the effort I put in.

You don’t need to turn into an egomaniac. You don’t need to walk over people or stab them in the back. You don’t need to spend hours admiring yourself in the mirror and polishing your awards. You don’t even need to tell your ambition to another soul. All you need to do is admit it – to yourself – and give yourself permission to pursue it.

And do it soon. It may feel as though we’re going to live forever, but for each of us there’s a window of opportunity that will close if we wait too long. How late are you going to leave it?

You and Your Ambition

Do you agree that we should be more eager to pursue our ambitions?

How can we distinguish between a noble ambition (for the work) and an ignoble (self-centered) one?

Comments (49)
  • Debaser

    I must say that this is some kind of article. Interesting and well written. Also good study in here. Nice, very nice

  • Kim

    Thanks for the great post!

    I agree with you that ambition has seemed to have turned into a dirty word, though maybe people are ambitious without always realizing it. However, I believe that acknowledging one’s drive and passion to make a change and do things differently (as you did) causes he/she to become re-energized in his/her passions and he or she can see that those ambitions can actually be accomplished!

    I think we can separate noble ambition from ignoble ambition when we look for patterns, and ultimately motive, in said ambition. If the goals set to reach the ambition, and the ambition itself, seems to be concentrated on how much recognition one can receive, then that ambition might not be so noble.
    I believe true noble ambition to be focused on quality of the work, on improving things in the industry so that the industry itself becomes better, and on serving the clients, co-workers, etc. to the best of one’s ability. Noble ambition is focused on being the best that you can be in your work so that you can pass that on to others in many different ways.

    That’s my two cents.:) Thanks again for the post – really gets me thinking!

  • Yesenia

    Great post, particularly given that I’m just starting to give myself that permission to admit my own ambitions, something not often well-regarded for Latinas.

    I was having a conversation with my aunt this weekend about our own mortality where at one point I said, “I’d better get busy.” Her response – “Why? We’re all going to die anyway.” Sad to think that she is in the majority – most people figure there’s no point if we only have a limited time here. My response – “Why not? We only have a limited time here. May as well make the most of it.”

  • stripeyhorse creative

    I believe the biggest question this raises is how humble are we? Everyone has ambitions, its a fact, whether a simple ambition or a big one. I think the difference is how we present our goals to others.

  • Justine Musk

    If ‘ambition’ is a dirty word, then for women it is absolutely filthy. There’s no real narrative or model for an ambitious woman to follow (aside from “marrying up” or social-climbing, which of course is a sign that she’s an evil whore and must be reviled) that doesn’t seriously question her character in some way (ie: she’s too selfish to live).

    A noble ambition is, I think, about the work. About the process. About the contribution. Which gives life such charge and passion and direction.

    I recently came across the term “rage to master”, which (according to the speaker) is what truly ambitious people have, what keeps them persevering through all the years of toil and frustration and cost. If you have it, you know it, and if you don’t have it, congratulations, you get to lead a much more well-rounded life. But I think that emphasis on “master” is key — the road to mastery involves the love and commitment to some kind of process.

    Great post.

  • Dave Benton

    i find it interesting that you say you don’t have to tell anyone else, in Dcott’s book (making ideas happen) and even more notably Kanye west went on record saying tell people about your ambitions and goals to hold yourself accountable the more people you tell the more hands are there to help and the more driven you will be not to fail.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks everyone, glad it struck a chord.

    @Yesenia – Yes, we can look at mortality as a reason for lethargy or urgency. I know which I prefer.

    @Stripeyhorse – I don’t think there’s a contradiction between humility and the kind of ambition I’m describing. The most inspiring leaders are often the most humble.

    @Justine – I hadn’t thought about it in relation to women specifically, but sadly I think you’re right. Interesting that there isn’t a female equivalent of ‘mastery’ in English. How about ‘Misstery’?😉

    @Dave – Yes, telling others is a great way to commit and hold yourself accountable. In my article, I was thinking of the very first step, which is about acknowledging the ambition to yourself. Sometimes it can take a bit of getting used to the idea before you’re ready to ‘go public’.

  • Dennis Salvatier

    I think a noble ambition is one that serves not only you, but those who can help you. If you take on a servants heart to achieve your goals you can never fail. At that point it’s just a matter of who you serve to reach your goals.

  • theaxx

    hmmmm… I DO agree. Without goals, ambition and a furious drive, some of the greatest things, ideas, inventions would have never been created. The wright brothers had ambition to fly, bill gates to build personal computers, obama to be president… and so the list goes on.

    Sometime I think if we’re deeply involved in our own story it’s difficult to tell if our own ambitions are purely selfish ones or if they are of nobler purpose. In this case, I say follow a little motto I have… “Do the best you can in the time available, as long as you’re not hurting someone along the way”. If you stick to this, then you will produce innovate and exciting work to the benefit, rather than detriment of others!

    Ambition is what drives us forward to do better.
    And better, is, well, better… isn’t it?

    :)

    Anthea
    (Spoonful zine)

  • Grace Oris

    I still remember when I was in fifth grade my teacher said “it is not good to be ambitious.” I figured she viewed ambition as negative (ignoble) and didn’t consider that one can also be nobly ambitious. Because without ambition, how does one expect to get anywhere? As long as pursuing your ambition does not involve hurting or putting down other people, it’s a good thing.

    And I agree that you don’t have to tell everyone about it. I think I’ll be happier to tell everyone after I have achieved something, “this WAS my ambition.”

  • MariaS

    A really nice article… but I was under the impression that society in general, particulary the American one, is all for ambition, driven even to extreme… and that the shark pool was the only way to succes. I was under the impression that just being good wasn’t enough, nor was just focusing on you art. Get web presence, be everywhere, comment to get commented, struggle, shout that you are the best, advertise in all ways possible, learn to use catch phrases, sell yourself.
    (and if you are a woman, being a cheerleader somehow helps – ok, that’s just me being evil)

    Please tell me I’m wrong. Please tell me I watch too many movies.

  • David Price

    if ambition is simply admitting that you sense your own potential, your own talents, and working hard to realize them—what’s the problem? Little seeds of big things need cultivation and the proper environment. Creating an inflated sense of identity is of course a common downfall, and must be nipped in the bud through attention, not only because it incites jealousy in others, but because it diverts you from gifts given to you that you must pass on to the world. The definition of the word “ambition” means to some “self-centered overreach”, while to others operating at a different simpler level of consciousness it means focusing personal creative energies on a big task.

  • AppleOrchard

    In my mind, Ambition, Life’s Focus, One’s Purpose, Raison’d Etre…… in the end, they are all the same thing and they provide us the essential inner energy, inner fire that support out happy contented lives.

    Of course, one can live without ambition, focus or purpose; there was a time in my life, I did not have any of them, and I felt depressed and lost. I felt the days, years, passing meaninglessly.

    Now belatedly, at my mature age, at last I found my purpose of living, or ambition, I feel much happier, when I’m making a conscious effort for it.

    If only I knew this earlier…

    Well. I have to make up the lost time and ”fight” for the rest of my life…

  • AppleOrchard

    ……. so sorry, let me correct my typos in the previous comment; it should have said:

    Ambition……. provides us the essential inner fire that supports OUR happy, contented lives.

    (please pardon me).

  • sifats

    very true..u have to realize and admit that u truly want smthng..in other words to be ready to risk anything to achieve it..to overcome the obstacle of fear&humiliation….vry helpful tips fr sm1 like me who is just clueless abt what to do but rlly want to do smthng…

  • Marcy

    Mark,

    “All you need to do is admit it â?? to yourself â?? and give yourself permission to pursue it.”

    I am giving you a virtual bow.

    This article goes deep and makes you think. I have read it a couple of times and I agree we should be more eager to pursue our ambitions. Why is it hard to admit it to yourself?

    In my opinion, an ambition is a mission. It is an adventure and a fight. A constant struggle to stretch yourself, push through the wall of doubt or naysayers and refuse to allow obstacles to get in the way for a noble ambition. The need to continue to believe, because you know the difference it will make and how many lives it will touch.
    You know it, you feel it and you envision it.

    However, I agree there is a need to question your motives for pursuing an ambition.

    In my mind’s eye, I see a lot of different people and different ages. They appear happier, lighter and less burdened. There is no one person who stands out in the crowd. I am not in the crowd, but as if I looking in from a distance. If I close my eyes now and picture it – I feel satisfied.

    The journey, the pain, the struggle, the hurdles are all worth being satisfied.

    I’m not a poet, but here’s my heart.

    To be Satisfied

    I endured

    I persevered

    I laughed

    Meaning, I had good times

    I cried, a lot

    It felt like I lived

    and, Oh yes, I died

    I Survived

    And my work was good

    I’m Satisfied

    Marcy

  • Theo

    Great article, it mades me think about several thinks…what are we without ambitions ?

  • Teri

    I have always felt a tad afraid of the word ambition… It seems to follow a negative path.
    Reading this was an eye opener. Like anything, ambition as a Machiavellian negative is only one side of the coin..
    Thank you…

  • Christy

    Although I hole-heartedly agree that we need to be more
    ambitious about our ambitions, I find that this my love of this article
    doesn’t get me beyond the ever begging issue that nothing we do is
    in absent of Self-centeredness. Even if it is the cause that I have the ambitions for, it is still I that want to love it forward and potentially it is my ambitions. But I still struggle with it being me that is ambitious for the cause

  • Eric Jackson

    I’m constantly pushing myself to improve as a designer, a photographer, editor…but I find that it’s necessary to take time away from all of this because it becomes too much. I feel like I’m carrying some of the weight of the world on my shoulders. There are only 24 hours in a day. I want to keep my dreams big, shoot for the stars, but I don’t want to let my ambition consume my life. So I’m trying to learn when I should push through being tired because I need to get things done…and when to give myself time off before my body shuts down anyway.

  • Deirdre Morrison

    I agree with Mark that ambition is a word we have a love-hate relationship with. The ‘greed is good’ mantra with which it is synonymous is still to fresh in many memories, and anyone with half a heart or a conscience doesn’t want to be that parasite.
    However, there’s something even less attractive that I feel more at home with than ambition – opportunism. I remember my moment of realisation about my less than latent opportunism….And I recognise it in others. It’s an instinct, like a cat grounding a passing swift. The diem is well and truly carped. It’s a case of believe I can do it and work out how after. This approach hasn’t failed me yet, touch wood, and has taken me through five fairly massive career shifts.
    Neither opportunism nor ambition are intrinsically bad things – unless we make them so.
    Thanks for your article!

  • Mark McGuinness

    “The diem is well and truly carped.”:-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    Well I guess that’s part of being an embodied being, but I don’t have a problem with feeling good about doing something worthwhile. Isn’t there a saying about giving a gift being its own reward?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Marcy, beautiful words. And yes, the motivation is critical – and only the individual knows that.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Exactly. Better to make the most of the time that’s left than lament the time that isn’t!

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