The Dark Side Of Ambition Isn’t What You Think It Is

Let’s be clear. The upside of ambition is success. Plain and simple. 
Ambition is what gets us places.    

Sure, the term itself is also associated with social-climbing, ruthlessness, and the pursuit of fame, fortune, and status.    

But we all know that. Just as we know it isn’t only those motivations.    

I suggest there’s nothing hidden or shadowy about ambition aimed at honor and riches, nor that which seeks influence of any kind.  

No, that stuff is pretty damned obvious, and if that’s your jam then I say have at it; as I said, ambition leads to success because that’s what ambition aims for.    

The dark side of ambition has way less to do with all the things that ambition has earned a crappy reputation for – unabashed aggression and unrestrained competition.    

The unspoken of harm that ambition inevitably leads to is Inauthenticity.
Not impressed?    

Let me see if I can convince you of the peril here.     

Just Do It!

For years the signature line of my email was a remark attributed to the greek, Epictetus:   


“Tell yourself who you would be,
then do what you have to do.”


It’s both profound in its application and beautiful in its simplicity.    
It is also, I believe, the formula for ambition: decide what the goal is and do what it takes to attain it.   

But the wording of this translation reveals a subtlety. 
“…who you would be” strikes me as an almost ancient formulation in its use of ‘would.’

‘Would’ reminds me of could but also of will – there’s a ring of Destiny in that phrase, of Fate, of Fortuna. It has a similar vibe to: “What do you have it inside yourself to be?”    

I once heard the saying, “Hell must be to meet the person you could have been.” And who doesn’t have the sense that your potential is so much larger than you’ve actualized? 

So, why the gap between potential and actual? 


Sometimes we behave as cowards. I know I do. And when I do, I end up undershooting what I could be, my greatness. So there is the second part of ambition: the willingness and follow-through to “…do what you have to do.” 

In short, those who epitomize the quality of ambition are clear on what their goals are and willing to do whatever it takes to get to where they’re going. Great clarity + supreme tenacity. 

In other words, a go-getter. And you might just be one. 

But what of the shadow side, the non-obvious potential for downfall that ambition expressed lays us open to?
It’s in there, you just missed it – easily done, and that’s the point.    

Your Inner-Game

To be successful at anything, in particular, anything difficult to accomplish, we need both to do what it takes but also be what it takes. We must do the right stuff and be the right kind of person. 

Sure we can fake enthusiasm by acting-as-if, and with sufficient talent some of us will reach heights even if halfhearted about the ascent. 
Yet neither of those counterfeits is ambition. 

No, ambitious describes attitude just as much as action. It’s a package deal and that inner stance is crucial. 

It’s also our weakness, in that attitude can disguise Inauthenticity.    

Attitude is the expression of motivation and perspective. In other words, your attitude should rightly be the expression, in fact the vehicle, for the stuff you value.

Doesn’t always work that way though does it? 

Plenty of us has pursued something only to discover we didn’t really want it after all. I’ve known a bunch of people who acquired their first degrees in that way.   

Yes, we want what’s valuable, that which is worth having, but those values were worked out way before we arrived on the scene.

Indeed, the process of growing up, of becoming civilized – so-called socialization – requires of us that we tamp ourselves down in order to maintain our connection with those we need; family and friends. We know we would be lost without them.   

The upshot? We take a personal hit for the team, over and over, in order to belong. We trade our own desires, our wants, our truth, for love and approval.   

Jerry Colonna sums it up: 

“Learning to lead ourselves is hard because in the pursuit of love, safety, and belonging, we lose sight of our basic goodness and twist ourselves into what we think others want us to be. We move away from the source of our strengths―our core beliefs, the values we hold dear, the hard-earned wisdom of life―and toward an imagined playbook listing the right way to be”

(p. 47, REBOOT)

“An imagined playbook listing the right way to be.” That’s inauthenticity.  


Doing whatever you need to do, on a foundation of being whoever you need to be, can carry you a very long way indeed, off-course.   

“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” 

— Steven Covey

The shadow side of ambition is it’s capacity to fuel our self-deception by warping not just our behaviors and lifestyle, but our very identity and perspective on who we are and what’s worth our while to pursue.    

I once had a client who was a highly accomplished concert violinist. Imagine the work! She could woo even the super discerning music critics with her virtuoso performances.

Thing was, she didn’t much care for violin, certainly never listened to classical music on her own time, and disliked practice. 

Her father was the one that wanted her to be a soloist.
She worked with me because she was successful, and miserable. 

So what do you want? What fuels you? 
And where did they come from, those values – ‘they truly yours? 


Rudyard Kipling apparently said the following, nothing short of brilliant:  

“If you did not get what you want, it’s a sign either that you did not seriously want it or you tried to bargain over the price.”

Ambition will always get us places but who is choosing the direction? There is often a price to be paid in the pursuit of things hard to attain, so pay particular attention to what that cost is. 

A challenge may cost us our weakness or our halfheartedness, or the price might be to lose touch with our own values, our own hard-won wisdom. 

Conceivably, only you can know for sure. 

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