Where do we make a distinction between “ambition” and a seemingly innate need for – a drive toward –  excellence? In the heart. Where our passion and love of complexity and beauty drive all aspirations. Where there is no space for lying or ladder climbing, for making others small or ‘less than”, or for hurting anyone – those we love and those we are getting to know.  In the heart. Where we have the capacity to truly understand the value of connection. – to know that the “I” standing on the podium represents dozens or hundreds of others who may go unrecognized.

What does ‘ambition’ feel like to you? In your body, your emotions, your mind?  To me, ambition feels brittle.  Sharp.  Desperate, mean, and blinkered.  The fuel that drives ambition feels tainted (or perhaps loaded) with the neurochemicals of fear and anger.  A fight to the top. Hand holds and foot holds are guarded well.

I heard an interview recently with a well-known public figure previously working in the justice system.  He had, apparently, experienced a ‘breakdown’ many years ago.  As he told it, after decades of climbing ladders, attending important meetings, making a name for himself, and rising to reasonable levels of apparent authority, he stopped.  Like an over-revving car doing doughnuts in the parking lot, his spinning ended abruptly when the ambition that ‘drove’ him broke. Bang.  Just like that.

So why was this man being interviewed on national radio some decades on?

Because that break with the drive of ambition freed him to do amazing work in areas that remained (and remain) dear to his heart, without breaking him.  As he simply said “When I gave up ambition I discovered I could give up lying”.  !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  (exclamations added).  When he gave up ambition he could give up lying.  Simple, profound, important. When the fuel of ambition isn’t the driver, so much can fall away.

My work (and play) with gifted, creative and otherwise out-of-the-box humans puts me in touch with people who have lofty ideas, strong morals, loads of skills, huge capacity and the ability to deal well with incredible complexity.  The stuff of ‘future success’ in our western narratives.  Unsurprisingly, many are saddled with expectations for high achievement and (yes, that dreaded word) ’eminence’.  Seeds of expectation are often planted early, and so their inner narrative is often loaded with ‘should be’s’ and ‘must be’s’, while the external paths are simply laid out as ‘of course’.

And yet.

What I have consistently found is that, when it comes to the guts of it, the gifted, creative and OTB people I know and work with are not naturally driven by sharp and blinkered ambition.  Yes, just like the intelligent man I heard interviewed, they strive for excellence, notice needs, find jangles in patterns and know how to (re)create harmony.  They easily see solutions, work diligently and often seek to have the authority to do what is needed. In their pursuit of excellent solutions and creations,  they can, and often do get caught up in the games of ambition, albeit usually unwittingly.   And when they do (and this is important) they get ill.  Soul ill.  Heart ill.  Body ill.  Breakdown ill.  “I’m a failure” ill.

When we are driven by toxic fuel, we get ill.  And we break down.

When we give up the fuel of ambition, we stop lying.  (and . . . and . . . and . . .)

And when the very authentic and heartfelt momentum toward excellence and harmony and beauty and justice is fueled by passion and values, we stop the games.  We stop the competition that wounds us all.  Connection and collaborations become opportunities rather than threats, and things get done in ways we would never had expected.   And we stop getting ill.  Sounds like success to me!


If you’re interested in my research on this subject, check out this video:

“We Are Not That”.