Career Ambition

Everybody wants to achieve something in a career. Just “existing” isn’t enough for most people, and whole industries have been built on human ambition. There are training and support services, workshops, motivational power speakers, mentors, it’s a circus.

Ambition has a bad reputation. Hollywood has done a lot with “ruthless careerists”, the mad grab for power in a corporate career. Those people do exist, but it’s very much a matter of opinion if they deserve the kind of emphasis they get in career cultures.

Careers don’t come with a script. They have to be put together like a working machine. Ambition is the fuel. Many career-oriented people burn out early, through disappointments, frustrations, and the kind of career they choose.

Sales is a case in point. Sales careers are never anything but tough. Income and achievements are the keys. Some people really are born salespeople. Others couldn’t sell booze to an alcoholic.

The problem is career choice vs. ambition. Ambition can mislead. Image and fact aren’t the same thing, in a career.

Every career has a defined level of success.

That also, too often, defines ambition, which can be very unrealistic.

A classic case is the lawyer. Successful lawyers are portrayed as rich, influential corporate lawyers, partners in big law firms, with all the decorative elements of a professional myth.

The fact for 99% of lawyers is that they are not in that league, nor will they ever get anywhere near it. Lawyers are finding that partnerships are hard to come by, and that some forms of corporate law aren’t so much glamorous as sleazy. They can be doing petty litigation, civil damages, and other very unglamorous things for their whole careers.

Another case is the medical degree. The definition of a successful doctor is broad. The skilled surgeon, the dedicated GP, the specialist with a few ground breaking research papers published and professional acclaim are the images.

In practice, the surgeon is overworked, and the GP is snowed under. The specialist, if given time to breathe, has a tough time plowing through the obstacle course of vested interests in medical research.

Career ambitions are carrots, some bordering on mirages. The professions promote these images for obvious reasons. It raises their status, and their fees.

Some people do achieve incredible careers, and are truly in a league of their own, acknowledged as the best.

They all have one thing in common.


In any career, the truly inspired performances come from those with a good mixture of talent, ambition, dedication and pure competence. Those are the main drivers of career success.

The talent does the main job of personal performance. A virtuoso, in any profession, is a person with talents which have developed and survived the often weird methods and competitive nature of their industry.

Many “careerists” are purely competitive. Their own performance may not be great, but they can block talent. This is one of the downsides of ambition- it often works against talent in the professions. Other people’s talents get denigrated. Competitors are removed. Their talents are lost or undervalued.

So a good lawyer remains a serf to litigation cases, the surgeon remains on the conveyor belt, cures for diseases aren’t found, and the salesman doesn’t sell without the opportunities.

Talented people usually do overcome career obstacles, but this is where ambitions derail many people. Too many failures, too much obstruction, and if the talent isn’t there, that’s the end.

“Career goals” can be easily defined: Qualifications, titles, income brackets.

“Ambitions” are much more difficult. Sometimes they confuse the issue, and the lawyer who wants to be a “great lawyer” is left with figuring out what that means, and how to achieve it.

Job hunting and ambitions are joined at the hip.

A “good job”, for ambition, is one that goes somewhere it wants to go. The mind and the will are combined.

The talent will respond. Even the job interview will go a lot better, because the enthusiasm and drive are obvious.

A “bad job” is a go-nowhere, do-nothing, thing, no results, no leads, no incentives.

This is where ambition is a useful thing. It will be very negative to that sort of job. If it’s a really lousy job, it will say “No”, and probably be convincing enough to prevent what could be a serious career mistake.

Pay attention to your ambitions when they make sense in practical terms. Dreams are always good to follow, it’s getting there that matters. Make your dreams practical propositions, and you’ve done half the work.

Good luck.