Ambition that drives success

Aligning work and life with personal goals and values
Dougteschner Feature
Doug Teschner

Listening to a recent NPR segment, “Rethinking Ambition,” reminded me of conversations I had with Peace Corps volunteers in Ukraine and African countries when I served as country director.

Exit interviews at the end of each one’s two-year overseas service included a question on what they planned to do after Peace Corps.

While there was often some uncertainty, most expressed confidence that was evident in their tone of voice and body language. Some, though, would describe a future plan (for example, going to law school) with a clear lack of enthusiasm. “I think this will be good for me,” or “My parents believe this will be of great benefit” were typical statements. I would share what I observed in their answer and dig deeper, asking more questions.

On the NPR show “1A,” Rainesford Stauffer, author of “All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive,” reflected on reaching academic and professional milestones. She asked, “What happens when so much of our self-worth is tied to how much we achieve?” I am “all in” when it comes to being ambitious and striving for success, but only after serious personal reflection and understanding your why. Spend time to identify your purpose and define what is truly most important for you to do and achieve.

Also, ask: Am I driven by my own values and goals, or focused on the expectations of others? Striving to meet somebody else’s definition of success is a sure-fire way to generate personal frustration and resentment.

One challenge is prestige: Our society gives more status to some professions. This is where we get sidetracked, caught up in storylines that do not align with our personal passions and goals. We all need to put food on the table, of course, but there are many ways to earn a living and stay true to ourselves.

When we are clear what we mean by success, ambition is much more likely to follow. When the purpose is clear, so is our drive to achieve it. A definition for ambition is “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” Yes, set high standards and work hard, but be sure to be moving forward in ways you truly embrace and believe in!

Your definition of success needs, too, to incorporate more than what you do for a paycheck. I sometimes hear a person described as “successful” with an implied focus exclusively on income and career. A better meaning of success extends to other aspects of life including health, family, friendships and community involvement — not to mention personal characteristics such as kindness, authenticity, courage, wisdom and treating others with dignity and respect.

For sure, it is hard to “have it all,” but having a balanced life with a clear sense of purpose is vital for true success. (As an aside, I find the term “work-life balance” far too limiting; after all, work is part of life, not separate!) The bottom line is that there is only one person who can define what is most important in your life: of course, that would be you!

Figuring this out takes time and effort.

Too often in our busy lives, we skim along life’s surface without being sure we are investing our energy in what is most important. But if we fail to invest the time, including periodic reviews and adjustments, we only have ourselves to blame when life boils over into inevitable frustration. Perhaps some coaching could help you get to a better place in life and work.

WebMD reminds us that true happiness is aligned to our sense of purpose and the satisfaction of pursuing our goals: “In the hurry of a busy day, it’s easy to lose sight of that. Happiness is about more than momentary pleasure.”

How are you doing when it comes to achieving success? Are you clear what is most important? Does your sense of ambition align with your personal goals and values? Would you benefit from taking some time to reflect more deeply on your goals and how to reach them? Write key ideas down and create a personal strategic plan for success.

We each have an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, including our own. Don’t underestimate your impact!

Douglass P. Teschner, founder of Growing Leadership LLC, can be reached at

Categories: Business Advice