Are you striving for wealth or fame? If so, it sounds like you might be ambitious. But how exactly do we define ambition? And where does it come from? That is a trickier question. Luckily, a recent study (Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller, 2012) explains what ambition really is, where it comes from, and where it leads.
The authors define ambition as “The persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment,” and explain that it usually involves setting and tracking goals. This differs from conscientiousness or the need to achieve. Ambition is specifically concerned with outcomes like money or prestige, whereas people who feel a need to achieve are more interested in developing skill and competence, and are less concerned about material rewards. How is ambition different from aspirations? Aspirations refer to a very specific goal that a person strives for. Ambition is a trait, which means it refers to behavior which is consistent over time. The ambitious person continues to find new goals for which to strive.
SOCIETY VERSUS RESEARCH
The authors note the divergent attitudes society has taken toward ambition. Historically, some writers have viewed ambition as a good thing, because it seems to lead toward hard work and success. However, others have considered ambition a vice, because its over-emphasis on the pursuit of external wealth leads to inadequate emphasis on internal fulfillment and happiness. So what does research say?
In this study, the authors used more than sixty years of data from the Terman life-cycle study, which led them to the positive side of ambition. First, they identified several underlying factors related to ambition. These include conscientiousness, extraversion, low neuroticism, general mental ability, as well as parents’ occupational prestige. This makes ambition a mid-level trait, meaning it is a combination of these more fundamental factors, and is more directly related to behavior and outcomes.
So what outcomes does ambition predict? The authors found that ambitious people achieved higher levels of education, had more prestigious jobs, and had higher income. This eventually led to modest increases in life satisfaction and longevity, but not the dismal curse of emptiness and discontent that might be expected.
What does this study mean? While it is easy to take common vague terms like ambition and invoke the expression “I know it when I see it,” doing so might not always lead to good practice. I-O psychologists have higher, research based standards. Studies like this highlight the importance of well-defined traits, as well as the need for exploring the role of specific traits in workplace success and happiness.