Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and Roman emperor 161-180 AD, said that ‘a man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions’. Salvador Dali believed that ‘intelligence without ambition is like a bird without wings.’ Ambition is held by many now and throughout history to be the key ingredient to a recipe for success and happiness.
I began thinking about the concept of ambition before attending a workshop that I found through a networking group I’ve been a member of since coming to work in London, myHRcareers. The event was entitled ‘Achieving Your Ambitions’ and purported to be ‘designed to stimulate participants to think about their dreams…’
Today we are repeatedly told that it is important for every individual to work towards long-term goals, to discover and define an over-arching purpose for their efforts that can give their day-to-day activities meaning, context and direction. Yet there are many for whom the entire concept of ambition is unnatural. Some fear that ambition will make them conceited or selfish, whilst others cannot believe they possess the skills or ability to realize meaningful goals. Some struggle to find an ambition that gives them the sense of purpose and drive they have been told about, whilst others fear that focusing on long-term goals will cause them to lose sight of the journey towards them.
I have always struggled to imagine my long-term future. When at school, the commonly asked question of, ‘what would you like to be when you grow up’ scared me. There was simply too much out there for me to weigh up the possibilities and permutations of all the options. What left me even more perturbed than being asked the question was the myriad of eager hands that shot up all around me. “Doctor…fireman…lawyer…professional footballer…prime minister…” And they all seemed so sure. The level of conviction among my peers made me always wonder if my inability to settle on any ambitions, career ones or otherwise, meant that I would be less successful than everyone else.
Many years later, as I walked into Greater London House, home of fashion company ASOS, for my evening seminar designed to help me map a path towards my dreams, I was once again struck by the same feeling. I was about to stand up in room full of young, HR professional, career-driven, high achieving strangers in Mornington Crescent and say, ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.’
Yet, as the evening progressed, I began to feel more comfortable. Whilst most of the room had a sense of where they saw their careers heading and had set some longer-term targets, there were some for whom these were the product of pleasant reverie rather than strategic planning. There were those whose conviction was inspiring, and others whose uncertainty was, for me, perversely reassuring. Led by leadership coach Juliet Fallowfield, the group was encouraged to visualize their career dreams and the path towards them, estimating the distance left to cover and the obstacles that stood in the way. As we moved around the room, it occurred to me that the focus of the evening was not necessarily the destination but the tools for the journey, and that the act of setting long-term goals had as much value as the goals themselves. Having broken into discussion groups, I listened intently to others’ accounts of their careers to date and their targets for the future and found myself thinking about why Jose Mourinho or Brendan Rogers were so cagey about stating emphatically that their teams were aiming to win the Barclays Premier League title. The moment you publically state your ambitions, you have created a context for success and failure. And nobody wants to fail.
The fact that these people were, for the most part, complete strangers to each other made the process of sitting among them and telling them my goals much less intimidating. These people would most likely never know whether I failed or not. As I began to verbalize my thoughts, I started to feel that there were things I wanted to achieve. None could be described as career defining, but all represented making progress, giving me more skills and experience and targeting areas I found interesting. I arrived at ASOS with trepidation and foreboding, I departed feeling more relaxed and confident about my ability to forge a successful career path in my chosen field of HR. Moreover, I left having broadened my network with people who, it turned out, were going through a similar process. Just as the kids in my class were. We all have ambitions, some big and some small. What scares us, and what stopped my from raising my hand as a child, is not complexity of choice but the prospect of failure in front of others whose opinions we value. As Wilfred Owen said, it would appear that ‘ambition may be defined as the willingness to receive any number of hits on the nose.’
So is the answer simply to have ambition, but not to tell anyone?
Did Mourihno really believe that his team were incapable of finishing at the top, or was he simply too conscious of the potential effect of public failure to say that they could? Did he tell his staff and his players of his ambition to win the league in private and simply refuse to tell the public or the media to protect them?
It was the act of voicing and discussing my ambitions with a group of perfect strangers that gave me renewed confidence to find my path towards success. However, it seems important to choose your audience carefully to protect yourself. I am incredibly grateful to myHRcareers and to Juliet for giving me a vehicle to start the process and an environment in which I felt safe to do so.