5 Things I Learned After Studying Ambition

Ambition is a powerful force. It can drive you to reach unimaginable heights of success — but it can also be your greatest downfall, leading to stress, burnout and a disconnected personal life. This dilemma is what propelled Nicolai Chen Nielsen to embark on his new book, Return on Ambition, with co-author Nicolai Tillisch. Following years of research, he shares key insights on what he’s learned about ambition and how it can be harnessed to forge a meaningful life of both accomplishment and connection.

Sitting in Dubai’s International Financial Center in 2014, my friend and co-author Nicolai Tillisch and I were sipping espressos and pondering a book together. Our ambition? To bring developmental coaching to more people by creating self-coaching tools that were easily applicable and effective. As we discussed who our target market could be, we had a creeping suspicion that ambition was an un-tapped area in the personal development space. We turned out to be right.

We have both grown up in ambitious environments and have had the opportunity to work with thousands of professionals across different age groups and industries. We have seen first-hand how one’s ambition can both be a towering strength, but also lead to tunnel-vision, stress, and regrets. In our research over the course of more than 5 years, we found, for example, that over 60% of ambitious people struggle to balance to achieve their aspirations while maintaining their personal growth and well-being. Similarly, about 4 out of 10 ambitious people doubt whether their ambitions will serve them well in the long run, and they wonder whether all their hard work will pay off in the future.

Here are 5 things I learned while researching and studying the topic:

1. Ambition is an inherent part of human nature. We define ambition quite broadly, as “a powerful yearning and drive to attain a future state that is different from today and challenging to reach”. According to that definition, we found that the vast majority of professionals across industries would characterize themselves as ambitious. Some people call it ambition, while others call it an intention, purpose, or dream — but we all have ‘something’ that we aspire to reach in life. Nonetheless, ambition is still often misunderstood and, in some cultures, even stigmatized. It is therefore essential that we understand and normalize ambition, and seek to help individuals manage it better, rather than shunning it in the first place.

2. There is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ type of ambition (as long as you do not harm yourself or others). Ambition means something different to each individual person. Some people want to build a big company, some people want to build a small, local business. Some want to alleviate poverty, while others are driven by money. Some focus on being the best mother or father they can be, while others are focused on pursuing hobbies that they are passionate about. Oftentimes, ambitious people are driven by a myriad of aspirations at the same time. Specifically, we found that ambitions vary across 4 dimensions: specificity, uniqueness, relative size, and priority. As such, do not assume that other’s ambitions will be similar to your own. In the same way, it is important to define your ambitions according to what is personally meaningful rather than be swayed by what others are doing.

3. The different aspects of your ambition are all interdependent. Ambitious people who are successful and fulfilled over time do not focus exclusively on one aspect of their life, such as career, or family, or hobbies. Instead, they nurture a careful balance between their levels of achievement, growth, and well-being — all at the same time — and ensure that any imbalances are deliberate choices and short-term. Interestingly, we found that drops in any one of the areas begins to affect the other two over time. For example, while a lack of well-being is often cited as the biggest cause of burnout, recent research has shown that a lack of personal development and growth can be an equally or even more significant cause. Furthermore, low levels of achievement often lead to feelings of stagnation and boredom, which diminishes motivation, well-being, and effort to grow.

4. Ambition often gets in the way. Ambitious people share similar mindsets and behavioral attributes that can help propel them forwards. For example, the ability to handle challenging tasks independently, to adapt to new situations, and to compete and win are all strengths and “friends” of ambition. However, the exact mindsets of ambitious people, precisely because they are so ambitious, can also turn into “enemies” — such as the risk of not including others when needed, to work yourself too hard, or to try and win at all costs. The result is what we call the “Frenemies” of ambition, which can manifest negatively, and often subconsciously, if you’re not careful. It is critical that you’re aware of your Frenemies and manage them, instead of letting them manage you.

5. Managing your ambition takes a structured and deliberate effort. It’s hard to change habits and behaviors. Even with the best intentions, we often fall short. Many of our survey respondents and interviewees stated, for example, that although they would like to spend more time reflecting on their ambitions, they fail to do so regularly. One of the primary reasons for this is not knowing where to start and what process to follow. We found that weekly routines and rituals are absolutely critical, and one of the tools we present in the book is the Weekly Deliberation. By identifying and reflecting on the 3 priorities that will make the biggest difference to your overall ambition each week, you will have 36 personal ‘learning loops’ over the course of 12 weeks. This process can accelerate your level of awareness regarding your Frenemies and help you achieve your ambitions in a more seamless way

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Ambition is a complex and often misunderstood topic, and our research shows that it pays to be diligent and deliberate in managing it. Do so by continuously optimising your levels of achievement, growth and well-being, while nurturing ever-deeper relationships with Frenemies. It is also a lifelong journey rather than something to be “solved”, and for many of us, we’re just getting started.

Nicolai Chen Nielsen is the author of Return on Ambition and a Partner at the Supertrends Institute, where he focuses on the intersection of cutting-edge technology, global trends, and the implications they have on organizations and leaders. He is also the author of Leadership At Scale, and a former Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company.