Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Ambition?

Our resident psychiatrist dispels the notion that ambition is a bad thing.

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Q: Can I be too ambitious?

Ambition has a bad reputation. Many think of it as an on-ramp to dishonesty, greed, selfishness, and, ultimately, dissatisfaction. John W. Dean’s famous book, Blind Ambition, about the Watergate scandal, captures the suspicion we have about ambition. So does Macbeth. The moral of these stories is the same: Unbridled ambition is reckless and ruthless. Plus, it doesn’t end well.

While a relentless quest for more money, more status, more power, and more stuff is a dead end when it comes to leading a full and happy life, ambition is far from a fatal character flaw. In fact, there are a number of positives associated with ambition. Ambitious people tend to be better educated and have more successful careers. Young people who have ambitions about their future are more likely to go to college than those who don’t. And contrary to the negative stereotypes, ambitious people are not miserable or haunted by an unquenchable thirst for more. Simply put, as long as ambition doesn’t become blind ambition, it is more of a virtue than a vice.

That said, many women feel uncomfortable displaying ambition. Research suggests
that men and women are equally ambitious but women downplay their career ambitions in certain contexts. For instance, a study that appeared in the Harvard Business Review found that single women minimized their professional strivings out of concern it would make them less desirable to potential partners. Or they fear coming off as too assertive or too pushy in the office and, as a result, dial down their aspirations.

Thankfully, ambition ambivalence among women is evaporating. Successful role models like Tory Burch (who launched global initiative Embrace Ambition) and Rihanna are empowering women to be more open about their ambitions. It isn’t only about career; we can be ambitious in parenting, health, and our communities as well. Ambition also looks different at different stages of life. Just because you don’t have the same ambition at 30 as you did at 20 doesn’t mean you’re no longer ambitious, it just means you’re channeling it differently. No matter your age, accept, cultivate, and embrace ambition. As long as you don’t pursue it with tunnel vision, it will help you see what you want more clearly.

Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positiveprescription.com.

This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Marie Claire.

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