The Problem with Ambition: Sometimes You Don’t Need It to Succeed

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We often think of ancient Rome as a patriarchal society. That may have been true then, but from what I’ve seen, in Italian culture it’s been the women who run things. Whether its grandmothers, mothers, or wives, they represent the backbone of the family and the community. Sure, it seems like the men are in charge, but that’s exactly what the women want them to think. In reality, if the men are the pillars, it’s only because the women are the solid foundation.

Do you recall one-word themes of your youth that have forever shaped you?

Growing up, my grandmother regularly imparted to me and my brother her formula for success. It wasn’t enough to possess talent, you had to possess the ambition to use that talent (but only in ethical ways). It wasn’t an option, but a moral imperative. “God gave you special talents and it’s your responsibility to share them,” she would often say, sometimes more sternly than the phrase implies. Perhaps that’s why the command “Share!” remains indelibly etched in my mind.

Our mother directed us in more subtle ways. Using a strategy she learned as an elementary school teacher, she showed us how to use our innate talents to accumulate the knowledge to forge greater talents. The mental exercise didn’t stop there. She would always follow-up with a challenge: “Now, think how you might use what you’ve just learned to achieve something in real life.” Unlike my grandmother, my mother repeatedly used a pleasant smile as she nudged us towards success. For this reason, “think” has everlastingly been planted in the creases of my brain.

How have your childhood memories inspired similar ambition within you? It’s very common to feel your parents and grandparents would do anything to leave you with a better life than they had. For you to have that better life, though, they knew, ultimately, only you could provide it. For them, then, success as a parent or grandparent meant giving you the tools you needed to succeed on your own. Nothing stands out more among those tools than the self-confidence of acquiring the very drive to succeed: ambition.

Here’s something your mother (or grandmother) never taught you: Sometimes you don’t need ambition to succeed.

Setting aside the lame bromide “success means different things to different people,” let’s for the moment assume we all agree success means the same thing to everyone. Let’s define it simply as “getting something you want.” It could be a raise, a promotion, or a part in the play. It could be wealth, notoriety, or a larger audience for that play you’re performing in. Whatever the actual goal, we’re hard-wired to know that, without the ambition to succeed, those goals will linger only as unrealized dreams.

Only thing, that’s not quite true. How many times have you really worked long and hard to convince someone to buy something from you only to have another swoop in out of nowhere and steal the business from you? Does this remind you of the time someone else got the award even though, unlike you, they did nothing to earn it? Worse, how about the people whose lives proceed effortlessly without a hitch while, no matter how intensely you try, you continually struggle with obstacles and unwanted diversions?

Unfortunately, just like talent alone doesn’t always win the race, ambition, by itself, doesn’t guarantee success. Sometimes – and this is awful to admit – it all depends on luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Or worse, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, should you throw in the towel and forsake ambition. No. Ambition will eternally prevail as the surest path to success (or defeat if it’s unbridled – remember my grandmother’s caveat). It’s important, however, to recognize luck (bad or good) can trump ambition.

When you find yourself on the losing side, don’t fret. Think. How can you channel ambition to overcome this loss?

You gain nothing blaming Lady Luck. After all, it is the women who run things.

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