In the midst of a global pandemic, many people are reevaluating their daily race to achieve (or overachieve)—which, over time, has come to be understood as ‘normal.’ Personally, I’ve had some extra time to think about the difference between ambition and aspiration. Which is better? Do they go hand in hand? 

“Ambition” and “aspiration” are often treated as synonyms because both are used to describe a projection into the future. Projecting allows us to map out or imagine the state that we wish to reach in said future, the way we would like to live, or the things we would like to have accomplished.

But though people often use the terms interchangeably, there is a key difference. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, ambition is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power,” while aspiration is “a strong desire to achieve something high or great.”

Ambition’s bad rap

There are some who insist “ambition is the root of all evil,” a line that made its original appearance in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Insofar as ambition is a source of greed, I would have to agree that it is not a force for good in the world.

But, since the world as we know it is never accurately portrayed in broad strokes of black and white, it would be superficial to say that ambition is ‘bad.’

I believe the truth of the matter is that while ambition can be a positive driver, it can sometimes overshadow our aspirations, which are more directly connected to our innermost desires.

For instance, one’s ambition of one day becoming a lawyer (or even a judge) might easily push one’s aspirations to work toward a more just and equitable society to the proverbial back burner. The fact is, trying to balance one’s dreams with earning a livelihood, and possibly also with earning the respect or admiration of one’s fellow humans is no easy task.

The question then, is this: how can ambition become toxic, and how can you draw upon your own personal wellspring of aspirations to rediscover balance?

How to tell if your ambition is becoming toxic

While a dose of healthy ambition can actually help you to fulfill your aspirations and accomplish things you can be proud of, for the sake of one’s mental, emotional, and physical health it’s important to strive for balance: between humility and the drive to succeed, between determination and a grounded perspective.

How can you tell if ambition is getting out of hand? Consider the following 6 signs of harmful, addictive ambition:

1. You’re unable to enjoy the present moment

If your present reality never seems to measure up to the future you imagine for yourself, if you often feel like you’re waiting impatiently for success that never comes—chances are you’re forgetting one simple truth: life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

John Lennon said that. Not only are you missing out on the present by focusing too heavily on the future, but chances are, without an adjustment of perspective, you won’t ever be truly satisfied— regardless of how much ass you kick. And that’s a crying shame.

2. The destination seems more important than the journey

If you’re hyper-focused on outcomes at the expense of actual experiences, you may find you’re altogether unhappy. Chances are, other people affected by your decision making may also be feeling the strain.

Whether it’s a romantic relationship you wish to transform into a marriage, or an effort to get elected to office, the how is just as important as the what, if not more so. Remembering that is everything.

3. You crave high speed

Are you avoiding people, places, and situations that seem too slow, calm or balanced because they seem weak? If you’re always rushing and yet you always feel like results are too slow to appear, you’re living in a perpetual state of impatience, and that’s not good for anyone.

This is where the addictive nature of ambition really starts to show its face. Slow and steady starts to seem lackluster. Your desired growth rate, however, is likely unsustainable, and burnout is likely. Forward motion is never a constant: it’s a rule of the universe.

4. You’re anxious and/or depressed

Many among us who live life tethered to ambition ironically do so in order to free ourselves from the clutches of insecurity and vulnerability. In a way, it’s natural to feed one’s ambition as a way of conquering the anxiety and looming depression that uncertainty, confusion, and a palpable lack of agency can generate.

And, to this effect, it’s understandable to want to tackle each day with seriousness. The problem? This leaves very little room for celebrating one’s successes and laughing at oneself—both key ingredients in any successful trajectory.

5. You’re jealous of the successes of others

Ever hear of someone else’s success and not only fail to feel happy for them, but instead feel an active welling up of contempt? Particularly if the success you’re chasing is playing out on a competitive landscape, disdain for said competition along with the tendency to dismiss and denigrate any previous gains one has made as insufficient are a recipe for eternal misery.

6. You avoid interactions that won’t further your goals.

If you find yourself prioritizing interactions you think can help you get where we want to go while avoiding or de-prioritizing interactions you’ve decided are somehow peripheral to your ambitions, you’re inevitably going to damage your relationships, be they personal or professional.

Treating people like known quantities never works, because people are much more wonderfully complex than that, and that includes you! You do yourself a disservice by thinking otherwise.

Bottom line: if you feel your ambition has morphed into a craze which is no longer in your best interest (if it ever was), it’s high time you dare yourself to remember your original aspirations.

What were the ideals that led you to want to succeed? What were the qualities you wanted to possess and why? Who did you want to help? How did you want to feel? That last one can easily lead you back to yourself, if you let it.

If I’ve learned one valuable lesson in my time on this planet thus far, it’s this: that which is done out of love is always more successful in the long term than that which is done out of fear—be it fear of loss, fear of failure, or fear of lack. It ain’t easy being human, but I would argue that we’re currently living an important opportunity to reevaluate what’s most important and make the necessary changes.

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