What Is Ambition and Where Does It Come From?
How psychology researchers define ambition, and why it matters.
Complacency rarely makes history. It rarely makes anything, in fact.
On the other hand, tomes are written about (and by) ambitious people.
For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt's most popular biography exceeds 700 pages. It details the American business magnate's journey from lowly, brawling sailor to steam boat captain to Wall St. powerhouse to railroad tycoon. Throughout his epic and controversial entrepreneurial journey, Vanderbilt “survived fistfights, boiler explosions, a train wreck, heart trouble, Nicaraguan rapids, exposure to tropical diseases, Atlantic storms, and wagon smashes." When he died in 1877 at the age of 82, Vanderbilt had amassed a dynastic fortune of ~$100 million (or $1 for every $9 in existence at the time). "Commodore" Vanderbilt was a swashbuckling, ass-kicking capitalist extraordinaire, fueled by a marked lack of regulation, unbounded opportunity, and unbridled ambition.
How ambitious are you? If you could snap your fingers and become as ambitious as The Commodore, would you dare?
These questions are hard to answer. Ambition is one of the most pervasive, yet polarizing and misunderstood concepts in Western culture. On one hand, the concept has been trounced for millennia in literature, history, philosophy, and theology ("God detesteth ambition" ― Geneva Bible, marginal note). Archaic warnings against ambition abound, for example, the Myth of Icarus : Failing to heed his father's warning, Icarus flies too close to the sun and melts the wax on his fabricated wings. He falls into the sea and drowns, becoming an enduring warning against hubris and untempered ambition .
On the other hand, Icarus was also warned against flying too low. And as Yale's William Casey King explains in Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue, so are we. Ambition, King reflects, is "widely considered to be a strong component of the American national character and intrinsic to the American mythos." Similarly, psychiatrist Neel Burton observes that "in the West, ambition is lauded as a precondition or precursor of success, even though the Western canon itself tends to fall against it."
I've spent my career training and coaching professionals in financial services and private equity. Across the industry, qualities like diligence, entrepreneurialism, intelligence, and excellence are constantly praised and promoted. But ambition, despite its ubiquity, is rarely mentioned, let alone encouraged. And outside of finance, we marvel at modern day techno-Vanderbilts and startup wiz-kids as some of them, as if living out a perfect metaphor, race one another to outer space.
As much as it's dismissed, condemned, and co-opted, the fact of the matter is ambition drives the American Dream.
Let's put aside for a moment any preconceived notions about ambition and reconstruct a definition, for ourselves, uncolored by ideology, propaganda, or popular culture. This is crucial because we must understand ambition before we can embrace, cultivate, and channel it, hopefully in the most positive conceivable direction.
"On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition" by Timothy A. Judge and John D. Kammeyer-Mueller is the de facto foundational source for empirical information related to ambition . The authors recognized ambition as a "pervasive yet poorly understood" concept and the subject of myriad and often fervid references throughout time and across domains. They identified the need for "clearer definitions and more comprehensive considerations of, first, the causes and, second, the consequences of ambition." The ensuing study provided unique insights into the ranging antecedents of ambition, the significant outcomes it helps produce, and the role it plays in mediating the two.
What is ambition?
After sifting through a litany of varied, often emotionally-charged descriptions, the researchers proposed one concise, integrated definition of ambition:
"Ambition — the persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment."
They distilled ambition down into its core, unbiased components, each of which we'll unpack in a moment. But before we dive deeper into how ambition is defined, let's discuss what exactly it is. A personality trait? A superlative? An affliction?
The authors posit that ambition is best understood as a "middle-level" or "Level II" trait. It's not a broad, first-order personality trait like, for example, extraversion. Ambition is a midlevel trait because it exists where certain personality traits intersect with specific contexts, influences, and perceptions of the world .
To risk oversimplifying it, we can imagine core personality traits and preferences as "nature," context as "nurture," and middle-level traits existing in between.
Middle-level traits give concrete forms to the abstract dispositions of personality. They are what people do with their personality traits in a given context. As we'll explore later, because of the influence of one's environment on middle-level traits, we can expect them to manifest themselves differently based on a person's setting, upbringing, self-perceptions, and so on.
Persistent & generalized
Like all middle-level traits, ambition has two important qualities: it is persistent and generalized.
In the 14th century, the Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenkō observed that "ambition never comes to an end." Centuries later, evidence from longitudinal studies showed that ambition does, in fact, persist over long portions of an individual's life. Someone with higher levels of ambition will generally remain that way, and there is arguably no "use it or lose it" quality. Naturally, this begs an important question: If ambitious people stay ambitious, are unambitious people "stuck" that way? Do we have a chance igniting the lasting flame of ambition in someone bogged down by inertia, or can we, at best, offer them momentary flickers of motivation?
Second, ambition does not pick and choose specific domains, it generalizes across contexts. So broadly speaking, if you are ambitious it will bleed into many areas of your life. Chasing accomplishment and striving to ascend hierarchies will be your default mode of operating, for better or worse, regardless of the endeavor. An obvious, albeit extreme example would be Arnold Schwarzenegger — to illustrate, let's look at an abridged version of his life resume:
Weightlifting champion (as a young teenager, no less)
Multiple time bodybuilding world champion
Real estate millionaire
Movie star (and at one point, Hollywood's highest paid leading actor)
Governor of California
So we're talking about something more than mere fleeting motivation. Ambition is a "habitual level of striving." But to what end?
Unsurprisingly, ambition is eminently outcome-oriented. According to the authors and consistent with many dictionary definitions, a cornerstone of ambition is the desire to achieve a certain status, rank, or level of success.
In a vacuum, pure ambition motivates an individual to value and resolutely pursue rewards, results, and recognition, irrespective of what is required to obtain such outcomes. By default the trait is neutral, but because human beings place such an emphasis on not only what is done, but how it is done, it's difficult to tolerate the moral ambiguity of ambition's outcome-fixation. As a result, it is so frequently prefaced with some type of loaded modifier (everything from ethical and valiant to blind and selfish) or described in an emotionally-charged way (e.g. "Ambition is but Avarice on stilts and masked." - Walter Savage Landor) that we assume the trait has some inherent valence, which is simply not the case.
Ambition is achromatic — it is what we make of it. But importantly, it orients us toward some distant vision. It motivates us to make sacrifices in the present in hope of a better future. And it is indeed potent.
While ambition is not necessarily "good" or "bad" in an ethical or psychological sense, it is, however, inherently powerful. The researchers hypothesized and demonstrated that ambition is a mediating factor between the "more abstract and general dispositions and characteristics" we've discussed already and "extrinsic indications of success." In the real world, higher levels of ambition consistently equates to better performance and higher levels of attainment. Crucially, this demonstrates that ambition, potentiates one's personality, talents, and intelligence, thus producing better outcomes. This gives credence to the old saying: "Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings." Ambition allows us to soar.
In the most rare and extreme cases, when integrated into the right (or wrong) system, history shows that ambition plays a role in producing both the best and worst of humanity. But for a vast majority of people, and for the purposes of this article, we can safely consider it a form of neutral potential, a mere ingredient in the inscrutable composite that is a human being. One which helps chart the magnitude, but not the exact direction, of our desires. And a forceful one that, in itself, produces higher levels of output and performance, contributes to the attainment of one's goals, and helps maximize human potentiality.
What ambition is not
In trying to understand ambition and where it comes from, it's important to explore some relevant but distinct psychological concepts.
Aspiration — Whereas ambition persists over time and generalizes across contexts, according to the researchers aspirations have specific targets (e.g. "I aspire to obtain my college degree"). Thus we can conclude that all ambitious people have aspirations, but not all those with aspirations are ambitious.
Conscientiousness — We'll dive into conscientiousness in more detail later, but in summary it is a broader, core personality trait that can include ambition, but also encompasses things like dependability, dutifulness, orderliness, and more.
Desire for power — Ambition is often falsely equated to a desire for power as an end in itself. Ambitious people are not motivated by the need for power, only by outcomes like status and accomplishment. Power is arguably the way in which a person yields (or could yield) their status or position once they have it, making it related to but firmly separate from ambition.
Achievement striving / motive — This is an especially interesting comparison to unpack given both concepts are so similar and interrelated. Achievement motivation represents not only an individual's success-orientation, but their desire to overcome obstacles and become skilled and competent at tasks in which they engage. An ambitious person, on the other hand, is more desirous of the rewards and outcomes this competence produces. It's easy to paint a false dichotomy here and say, "Ambition is bad because it only cares about the ends, and achievement motivation is good because it cares about the means." In reality, the two qualities are so closely correlated and intertwined that it's highly unlikely to find one without the other. Thus, most ambitious people will value success, in conjunction with the competence and perseverance required to obtain it.
Where does ambition come from?
We'll wrap up by exploring the factors that help dictate the dimensions of our ambition and how it shows up in the world.
Before we jump in, it's important to understand psychology's most popular model of personality: the Five Factor Model aka "The Big 5" or "O.C.E.A.N." The Five Factor Model includes five fundamental personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Each dimension is inborn, stable across the lifespan, and exists on a continuum.
While ambition doubtlessly interacts with each dimension, the aforementioned research, and thus this article, will focus on just three.
One antecedent of ambition is the trait conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is associated with qualities like prudence, dutifulness, and the ability to delay gratification. Conscientious people are drawn toward success goals based on their tendency to be diligent, motivated, and goal directed. They set goals more frequently and show higher commitment to their goals. Of the Big 5 personality traits, conscientiousness is the strongest predictor of ambition.
When I run training workshops that explore personality, I encourage participants to avoid thinking of extraversion as simply the "life of the party" quality. Extraversion is much more nuanced, and better defined as the degree to which a person is oriented toward and draws energy from their external world.
Sure, extraverted people tend to be more sociable and outgoing, but they are also more energetic, action-oriented, and attracted to breadth (vs depth). Research shows a strong relationship between extraversion and striving toward social position, status, and worldly success, as well as confidence within domains of occupational performance and achievement. Thus, it is another significant predictor of ambition.
If someone is highly neurotic in a technical sense, they are more prone to negative emotion. Neurotic individuals are more likely to be doubtful, prone to worry, and pessimistic about the future, and thus researchers hypothesized that ambition would be inversely correlated with ambition. The evidence supports this idea, although the relationship was weaker than anticipated. So the more neurotic someone is, the less likely they are to be ambitious, but it by no means quenches their ambition in the same way that a lack of extraversion or conscientiousness theoretically would.
Outside of personality, the research explores two more factors that reliably predict ambition: general mental ability and (surprise!) our parents.
General mental ability
"Intelligence" is an incredibly loaded concept in psychology. Researchers explore intelligence from just about every conceivable angle, but one frequently referenced construct is General Mental Ability (GMA). We can think of GMA as essentially the brain's horsepower — our ability to handle "all types of intellectual tasks." This mental ability influences and sustains our ambition because, according to the researchers, success begets success.
Intelligence can create a positive feedback loop: Individuals with higher levels of GMA will be accustomed to achieving success, for example in educational contexts, which will encourage them to set more ambitious life goals. That confidence, coupled with intelligence, will help those individuals achieve their life goals, which in turn motivates them to set even more ambitious goals. This was not only demonstrated in the research, but predicted earlier by Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory, and in particular, his concept of self-efficacy .
Unsurprisingly, our parents play a huge role in influencing our ambition. The researchers propose several possible mechanisms of action:
First, because children look to their parents as role models, they are likely to set high goals to emulate parental figures who set and achieve lofty goals themselves. Second, and in accordance with the aforementioned social cognitive theory, a child with successful parents might adopt a mentality of, "If they can do it, so can I," and thus feel enabled to be more ambitious. Additionally, one's parents may explicitly communicate high expectations. As explained by the authors, "families act as powerful socialization agents, shaping children's values with respect to occupational and educational success. Parents who value and achieve success in their own lives are likely to inculcate their children with these same values." Finally, because there is substantial evidence demonstrating the genetic transmission of personality traits and intelligence, the authors propose the possibility that "ambitious parents have children who are genetically predisposed to be ambitious."
These contextual ("nurture") mechanisms - emulation, enablement, and expectation-setting - had roughly the same influence on an individual's ambition as the inborn and genetic ("nature") variables.
Where do we go from here?
We've explored a few key questions about ambition, as well as a relatively small selection of sources. But in doing so we've opened Pandora's box — just this short analysis spawns countless questions and possible implications:
Can ambition be cultivated, or are we allocated a fixed amount?
What's the "right" amount of ambition?
What are the implications of ambition's generalizing quality, i.e. its tendency to spill into many different areas of life? Is it "healthy?" Is it "good" or "bad?"
What happens if a highly ambitious person fails to realize their ambitions? Keeping in mind our definition of ambition, is that even possible?
What if someone is ostensibly "low" in one of the aforementioned antecedents of ambition (e.g. parental influence)? Does that handicap their potential? Is that "fixable?"
Are there qualities and causes of ambition that we haven't explored, and if so, what are they?
Why does ambition get such a bad rap? Is it justified?
Is ambition fundamentally human and universal, or is true ambition only granted to only a "select few?"
How can we increase the likelihood that our ambition will result in actual positive outcomes?
I hope you'll join me in exploring each of these questions, and many more. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date as I release new articles, pose new questions, and discover new research — click here or enter your email below!
From a more Jungian perspective, Icarus is willfully ignorant of the rules and structures passed down by his benevolent creative father, i.e. orderly society, an analysis we'll save for another day.
Unless otherwise noted, the statements in this article are supported by this research. Where there are external references for additional context or color, these are notated or hyperlinked.
Other examples of middle level traits include: integrity, empathy, adaptability, creative disposition, etc.
The relationship between ambition and self-efficacy is fascinating, and as Bring Ambition regulars know, I can go on and on about this topic. But to keep this article from turning into a book we'll save this discussion for later.