Ambition is not a dirty word

There is a story about President Reagan in his final years, when he took a miniature White House out of a fish tank, and held it tightly. When his wife, Nancy, asked him what he had, he replied that he did not know, but he thought it had something to do with him.This story is so moving to me. I don’t focus on the sadness of the story — an older person forgetting what he accomplished. Rather, this story emphasizes the impact this important person had on history. In the end, he packed his life with meaning and impact, produced a million stories that will reside in our physical memories, and his reach will remain in history. He was an ambitious person. But what does that mean?I was talking to a graduate student about his future and what he had planned for his career. Basically, he was hoping to find a 9-to-5 job in a steady field of practice, so he could have an “easy” life. Sounds like the American dream, but I could not help feel a little sad for him. I’m not making a judgment about what he wants, because we all arrive at our ambition based on our experience. Yet, for some reason, my experience has driven me to find life exciting when I am in pursuit of something that has meaning, beyond being comfortable. The goals drive me, whatever they are, and it feels really good to accomplish them.To have a job based only on my time commitment to it, to me, is just a means to an end.Then there are the people who claim they are ambitious, and really do everything they can to actually be successful, but just as they are about to realize success, sabotage themselves.I know whole companies that unknowingly do this. They fight to develop a product or enter a market, but then just don’t execute.I became aware of myself doing this in my early career a long time ago. I was offered an overseas assignment, which was a career-maker and paid very well. I recall creating excuses to not take the position, and actually lied to myself about the reasons. I worked so hard, and there it was right in front of me, and I just let it go. My awareness deepened as I kicked myself years later. My subconscious told me I was not ready. I’ll never know.Finally, there are the people who are exceedingly ambitious, work extremely hard, but just do not get the break. Could be the wrong timing, not having the right connections, or just not being able to see the forest for the trees. Regardless, they tirelessly pursue the knowledge they need, start that book they always wanted to write, and find happiness in the attempt. They might not achieve everything they wanted, but they engaged in their journey.What are your goals?So what is the difference between an ambitious person who pursues having an impact, and those who don’t? Those who are willing to take risks and those who play it safe? Those who get the break and those that love the journey?I think the answer is our own personal measure of success. For President Reagan it was ending communism — a rather large goal. His ambition was shaped one advancing step at a time, always committed to what he was doing, and learning throughout his experience. For the graduate student, it may mean just having a stable job. Yet, that first assignment can lead to another, changing the student’s goals and expectations, and creating new meaning.The height of the goal can never be wrong. It is having a goal that might be the secret ingredient for ambition.In our popular management culture, we all assume that everyone has some level of ambition, and I think this is true. What we need to consider for ourselves and those that work for us is what are the goals? What are we ambitious about? What will be the result when we get there? And most important, as we achieve each threshold, what is the next threshold to pursue?I don’t think we ever really “arrive” at our potential, and if we keep going, keep pursuing what has meaning to us, we will not only be fully engaged with our career and life, we will be creating meaning for ourselves and those we helped.Dr. Russ Ouellette, managing partner of Sojourn Partners, Bedford and creator of The Future of Everything Project, can be reached at 603-472-8103 or