Ambition vs Gratitude

Dr Rebecca J Jones

I have been thinking a lot recently about ambition. More specifically, where and how ambition can fit in with gratitude. In my younger years, I would say that perhaps my most defining characteristic was my ambition. I was hungry for success and had a laser sharp focus on achieving this. The benefits of ambition are that when we know what we want, it can give us the future focus needed to understand how to get there. Ambition gets us thinking about the steps we need to take. Ambition gives us the passion, persistence, resilience and focus needed to stick to that path in the face of adversity. However, ambition can also leave us feeling unsatisfied. Once we achieve the end-point, the highly driven individual may have a tendency to quickly move on and focus on a new end-point. There is always a bigger and better goal to pursue. Ambition can also lead to burnout. The passion and energy for our goals might keep us going, working longer and harder in the service of those goals, however nobody is immune to burnout and eventually this relentless drive can lead to sheer exhaustion.

Identifying your strength

Recognising the dangers of my own raw ambition, I have tried hard to balance it and I think I’ve done pretty well. I asked my husband recently: “I think I’m much less ambitious now than I used to be, what do you think?” Ten minutes later, when he had finally stopped laughing, he replied “No dear, you are just as ambitious as ever”. On reflection, he is probably right (don’t tell him). Yet, I know that something has changed in the way that I think about success and my ambition in relation to it.

This leads me on to another recent example. During a workshop for my MSc in Coaching & Behavioural Change at Henley, we were delivering a session on strengths and I was working with a group of my post-graduate students. The exercise involved us identifying a strength that we had observed in another member of the group. As I was participating, one of the students identified a strength they had observed in me, which was gratitude. I took this as a huge compliment. To experience gratitude, in terms of being thankful with a readiness to show appreciation, I feel, is an admirable quality to have, although not one which I would have ever described in myself. I consider myself to be pretty self-aware so I pondered on why others had observed this quality in me that I did not recognise in myself. This is where I feel that the two qualities: ambition and gratitude come together. Perhaps the reason that I did not recognise myself as being particularly grateful is because this is a somewhat new strength. In attempting to foster balance in my ambition, I have inadvertently fostered gratitude, whilst still maintaining my ambition.

What does this mean in practice?

It means that whilst there is still a strong desire and determination to achieve success, there is now the realisation that success comes in many forms. For gratitude and ambition to co-exist, success must not be measured in comparison to others. Instead, ambition is more about success in relation to our own self-improvement. How can we be the best version of our self? Not in relation to what anyone else is doing, but in relation to where we have come from and in the context of our own values and priorities. In a society where comparison with others and competition is so deeply ingrained, this is hard to achieve. However, if we constantly measure our success against the achievements of others, it is almost certainly a recipe for an ungrateful, unhappy life. There will always be someone who has done ‘better’ or achieved ‘more’ than us. This can lead to us asking ourselves ‘if they have managed it, why couldn’t I?’ The inevitable answer to this is that there must be something ‘wrong’ with us which meant that they could achieve what we couldn’t. This focus on others also means that we are constantly striving for more, always focused on the future and what is next, rather than feeling grateful for what we have in the moment. So how do we achieve this balance between ambition and gratitude? Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers, however I do have five suggestions based on my scholarship in this area:

  1. When formulating goals, ensure that these are focused on learning rather than comparison against others. Therefore, the goal ‘For my team to be the top performing sales team’ turns into ‘For my team to learn what it takes to build on their performance’ or ‘I want to be better than my peers at communicating with difficult employees’ becomes ‘I want to understand how to be a better communicator when dealing with difficult employees’
  2. Whilst many of us are unlikely to explicitly put in our goals that our performance is in relation to others (i.e. to be better than my peers), how often is this actually the case in relation to how we are judging whether we have achieved that goal? Instead of looking to others to gain data on how we are performing relative to their performance, monitor your own performance over time so that you are able to compare whether you are performing better in relation to how you were performing in the same area previously
  3. Take control over situations that can lead to unhealthy comparisons, in particular with social media. Are there certain people you find yourself consciously or unconsciously comparing yourself to? Can you ‘unfollow’ or ‘mute’ them on social media? If viewing this content is not bringing you joy, then don’t do it!
  4. If you find yourself competing against others, take a moment to remind yourself that the word ‘compete’ actually derives from the Latin word meaning ‘strive together’. We are more successful together than against each other and it can be helpful to remember this when we start to fall into old habits of competing against one another
  5. Practice feeling gratitude by developing your skills in being mindful. Being mindful, or present in the moment, means that we are fully able to appreciate what we have in the here and now, which brings balance to our desires for future success

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