In a world where ambition is sometimes frowned upon, why should you explicitly focus on such a habit and more so, consider it a virtue? Consider this definition of ambition by Ayn Rand: “the systematic pursuit of achievement and of constant improvement in respect to one’s goal.” By this conception, we can envision a positive aspect to ambition. Most of us want to improve my understanding of the world. We want to improve our financial situation. We want to improve our abilities. We want to improve our relationships. We want to improve our enjoyment of life.
It is imperative to have and pursue goals in order to stay alive. When these goals are based in reality, we have the framework for developing goals towards higher and higher achievements that are fulfilling and meaningful. I could not and would not be satisfied with my current income level for the rest of my life – not because my current salary is insufficient to enjoy life, but because a flat income would be a sign that my life has become stagnate. Once I achieve today’s goals, I set my bar higher for tomorrow’s goals. As I continually push myself to be the best that I can be, I increase my enjoyment of life, both in terms of the process of accomplishing the goals and in terms of enjoying the fruits of completed goals. If I am a better professor, I enjoy my day-to-day activities better and enjoy an increased research productivity and teaching effectiveness. If I find ways to increase my income, I am better able to experience today’s wonders and be better prepared for tomorrow’s emergencies. If I am a better husband, I will have a more fulfilling relationship with my wife. If I am a better father, I will have a better relationship with my children, both now and when they become fully independent, virtuous, and happy adults. Ambition is this desire to be better.
Ambition turns for the worse when our goals become irrational (i.e. political power, prestige, etc.). It’s not that ambition is wrong or a vice, but the goals are wrong. The dark side of ambition rears its ugly head when we reject reason and seek second-handed goals. Not success by our own measure but success that can only be granted by others. Doing this puts happiness and success outside of our immediate control. The only means to gain control in these cases is by manipulating others or demanding sacrifice, either of oneself or of others. Neither option works. Think about the person who seeks prestige for prestige sake. How can they accomplish that? Prestige is not something that is granted without a reference to extraordinary skill or ability worth granting recognition too. If someone seeks to master a skill just to gain prestige, what happens when someone better comes along? The prestige seeker is suddenly unsuccessful. Suddenly unhappy. Their life would be thrown into turmoil. In a world with 6 billion people, how easy is it for someone better to come along? The prestige seeker will be constantly on-edge because their prestige could fade away. They would have to focus energy, not on improving their life, but on maintaining their prestige, investing inordinate amounts of time to convince people they are worthy of recognition. If they reject this recognition, the prestige seeker’s life would be in shambles.
Instead of second-handedness, ambition requires goals tied to rational selfishness. This allows us to live a happy, purposeful, and successful life.