Can You Be Too Ambitious?

The happiness secret for high achievers

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Pop quiz: When will you reach success?

A)    When I lose track of the zeroes in my net worth

B)    Never

C)    I’ll know it when I feel it

If you picked any of those answers, then you probably have…


“More” is your mantra. “Enough” is for losers. You may be a talker (“I’m gonna be rich one day!”) or a quiet worker, silently grinding away. You may come from a high-achieving family or a blue-collar background. But one thing you definitely have: The belief that great things can happen—and what’s more, that they can happen to you.

YOUR POWER: You can achieve big because you dream big

Ambitious types burn rocket fuel. Research shows they’re more likely to succeed in hard-to-attain careers, persist in difficult tasks and achieve high accomplishments in the arts. They’re highly creative. And they demonstrate ingenuity in the workplace.

“It makes sense,” says Sheri Johnson, Ph.D., the clinical scientist at the University of California Berkeley who conducted the research. “There’s a long literature that says one of the better predictors of success in schoolchildren is their willingness to set high goals.”

Those children come from a variety of backgrounds, but one thing they share—they’ve all been made to feel like bigger things are possible, says psychologist Sharon Saline, Psy.D. Maybe they had a mentor, a coach, a teacher, or a family member who they felt believed in them, who made them feel that there was something else.

Ambition and motivation are different, says psychiatrist Michael Freeman, M.D., who studies entrepreneurs. “Ambition is the big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Freeman says. “Motivation is the psychological state of mind that you're in to reach your ambition.”

Motivated people are usually ambitious, but on the flip, plenty of ambitious people lack motivation. “They end up watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and trying to win the lottery,” Freeman says.

Motivation requires access to knowledge and resources, Saline says. If you’re ambitious and an achiever, you likely had someone showing you the ropes along the way. But hailing from a high-achieving family isn’t a free ticket either. While Johnson’s research does show that ambitious people tend to have ambitious family members, she also recalls the time an audience member at one of her presentations challenged this finding, saying “Well, you didn’t grow up with a Nobel Prize winner in your family!”

“You can imagine growing up with a family that’s not only ambitious but also very successful in those ambitions has a different flavor,” she says.

Ambitious types may be drawn to (and enabled by) entrepreneurial culture. Rob Siegel, an entrepreneurial expert at Stanford Graduate School of Business, points out that the narrative in the press is always about success—even the failure stories.

“The press talks about ‘Well, Steve Jobs failed’ and ‘Thomas Edison failed.’ Yeah, those people still transformed society!” Siegel says. “The problem is they’re 8-sigma to the right of the mean. They don’t count.”

Such “hero culture” prioritizes very high accomplishments that most people will never achieve. And it can breed extreme ambition. Before you know it, you’re Elon Musk, espousing goals that amount to nothing less than changing the world.

YOUR WEAKNESS: You beat yourself up—a lot

Of course, what goes on under the surface is anyone’s guess—but if choking up at a New York Times interview is any indication, for Musk it’s likely not good.

Musk has been taking some criticism lately, but how much of that criticism is coming from within? If he’s like other ambitious types, then the answer is a lot.

When ambitious people fail to achieve their ambitions (which let’s face it, is likely when your goals are crazy-high), they see themselves as mediocre, says Freeman. That’s one thing an ambitious person never wants to be.

Ambitious people deal in extremes—and that’s something that Johnson, who collaborates with Freeman, knows something about. She has found that ambition is consistently elevated among those diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Holding yourself to such high standards gives you more room to feel defeated,” Johnson says. “It makes you more likely to minimize it when you do have small successes that other people might savor.”

Golan Shahar, Ph.D., a professor of clinical-health psychology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, has been studying self-criticism for over 20 years. He sees this pattern in his patients.

One university student glossed over her high score on an exam that she had worried about for weeks. When Shahar pointed that out to her, she replied, “Yes, but it was a very easy exam.”

“That’s what people do,” Shahar says. “They minimize their successes.” After all, if they achieved those successes, then the task must not have been that hard after all.

Many high achievers are very self-critical, but they don’t have to be, Shahar contends. Self-criticism, he says, is not a prerequisite for success. In fact, the self-critical predisposition that he studies is actually associated with failure because it “derails” achievement over time.

That proclivity starts in the younger years, adolescence in particular. “It’s a developmental period during which people discover their sense of self,” he explains. “Teens start to derogate themselves as a result of this natural fascination with their identity and the misconception that they need to do that in order to regulate themselves.”

“There is a reason why rates of depression and suicide are skyrocketing,” Shahar says. “We are all preoccupied with constant success. That feeds self-bashing, and that ultimately kills us one way or the other.”

THE PIVOT: Celebrate your accomplishments, and focus your ambitions inward (not outward)

1. Practice the 10 percent rule

You have a grandiose goal—figure out how to get 10 percent of the way there, Freeman says.

Climbing a mountain can seem overwhelming if you focus on the peak in the distance. “But if you focus on ‘Let’s take 2,000 steps and then reevaluate,’ you’re highly likely to finish the 2,000 steps,” Freeman says. “Then you have an option. You can look at the top of the mountain again and feel overwhelmed, or you can turn around and look back at how far you’ve climbed.”

2. Game-ify your accomplishments

In a video game, you get coins and tokens and stars for finishing a level. So for every 10 percent you achieve, give yourself some tokens. “See a Broadway show, go to a movie, or do whatever’s personally rewarding and meaningful to you,” Freeman says. It could be as simple as listening to your favorite song. Just give yourself a boost. Taking the time to recognize your accomplishments reminds you of what you’ve achieved. That can help your self-esteem.

3. Check your reasons

Research shows that “intrinsic” motivations (being loved, being connected) lead to much more happiness and satisfaction over time than “extrinsic” motivations (power, wealth), Johnson says.

Combine this with a twist on Freeman’s 10 percent rule: “If your ambition is to have more love in your life, instead of focusing on finding that one perfect person, pick the 10 closest people in your life," says Freeman. "And if you make each one of those relationships 10 percent better, a year from now you’ll have 100 percent more love in your life.” Awww.

4. Count your blessings

For Shahar, this is different from showing gratitude. “In my world gratitude is when you appreciate something given to you by someone else,” he says. Counting blessings is harder because “you have to appreciate what you’ve given to yourself.”

It takes practice, says Shahar, who has his patients write down five things they’re thankful for, including things they’ve provided for themselves. “Self-critics are afraid if they count their blessings they will rest on their laurels and become underachievers,” he says. That doesn’t happen—but what does happen is you disrupt the endless spiral of satisfaction-seeking.

5. Put a loved one in your position

If your child or sibling or best friend failed at something, would you love them less? Of course not. Would you want them to feel worthless because they didn’t make $100 million? Hell no. “Almost immediately you find there’s no way you would apply that to someone you love,” Johnson says. “But somehow it’s easier to apply it to yourself.”

That realization may help you find some self-compassion.

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