Are You Ambitious Enough?

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?

More insights on: Achievement, Career Development

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a coach who helps creative professionals create more, suffer less and attract more opportunities. He is the author of the popular blog Lateral Action and the book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.
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