The True Cost of Ambition

Ever since I was young, I remember having strong desires. 

To do specific things, to have specific things, and to become a specific type of person. 

However, growing up in my community, having overt goals, dreams, and ambitions was not something people looked kindly upon.

I often wondered why people around me seemed embarrassed about wanting to achieve something. 

Most people around me would only admit to wanting to be ‘happy’ or ‘successful,’ but that was about it. Yet, when it came to openly discussing their goals and life plans, they kept quiet.

It took me a few years to realize why people were so clandestine about their ambitions: they had to risk judgment, ridicule, and possible failure if they said they wanted something.

The topic of ambition and why we have it is the purpose of this article. However, I also want to explore the cost of ambition and what we sometimes have to give up if we’re going to grow and achieve something worthwhile in life. 

What Is Ambition?

The dictionary defines ambition as a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.

Another common definition of ambition is being controlled by the desire to achieve fame, power, wealth, or some outward form of status.

The trope of an ambitious person who will stop at nothing to achieve their vision, no matter how many relationships they must damage or bridges they need to burn, is common in movies, television shows, literature, and popular culture.

Ambition is unique to every human being, and whenever somebody wants something, whether tangible or intangible, it can cause them to take action and change their behavior. 

Ambitions are the destination we hope to reach, and our goals and plans are the paths we take.

Where Does Ambition Come From?

Since my early teenage years, I have always wondered what the source of my ambition in life was. Why were some people definite about their desires and plans while others did not want much out of life?

1986 study by the University of Minnesota shared that there are both genetic and cultural influences on us that can create our ambitions. According to findings: ‘The need to achieve, including ambition and an inclination to work hard toward goals, also was found to be genetically influenced, but more than half of this trait seemed determined by life experience.’

Each person has a unique mix of nature and nurture that causes them to want certain things in their life. However, some are driven more by their goals and ambitions than others.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is an excellent example of a person driven by ambitions that were not part of his conventional upbringing. 

Starting as a professional bodybuilder, he won the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles many times before turning his focus to becoming a Hollywood action movie star and, eventually, the Governor of California. He was raised in a strict Austrian household, yet when he discovered bodybuilders at a local gym, he was suddenly very drawn to the sport.

In his first autobiography Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, he shares how his early ambitions for bodybuilding consumed his life:

“My drive was unusual, I talked differently than my friends; I was hungrier for success than anyone I knew. I remember certain people trying to put negative thoughts into my mind, trying to persuade me to slow down. But I had found the thing to which I wanted to devote my total energies and there was no stopping me.”

While Arnold’s life story is a unique outlier from most people, many of us have these intrinsic desires that make us ‘hungry’ for the success we want.

Why is Ambition Important in Life?

Without ambitions, life is pretty dull and unfulfilling. But a life guided by goals, dreams, plans, and a clear path is available to all of us.

To quote the psychologist Abraham Maslow, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”

Ambition is important because it creates new challenges and requires us to grow and learn to achieve what we want. 

According to Epsycheonline, the benefits of ambition include: 

  • An added sense of motivation
  • Increased fulfillment
  • Building courage and confidence
  • More meaning in life

Having ambitions helps us grow and develop more than if we don’t have anything to aim for. It forces us out of our comfort zone and requires us to learn new skills. We must also learn to persist in the face of setbacks if we want to achieve something worthwhile.

Another benefit of ambition is the value of the anticipation it creates. Newsweek science columnist Sharon Begley shares the example of vacationers who have their highest levels of happiness before their vacation than during or after.

It is a similar story with achievement of a personal ambition. People who set goals and make plans for their lives tend to have a higher sense of happiness and joy when pursuing the goal rather than after they achieve it. Many will report a sense of let-down or disappointment once the specific goal is achieved, as they no longer have something to pursue.

Extrinsic Ambition Vs. Intrinsic Ambition

One important distinction to make about your ambitions is whether they are something you want or you want to achieve for others.

To better understand the motivation behind your ambitions, you can break them into two types:

Intrinsic Ambitions

These are internally motivated ambitions that you are drawn to without the guidance or influence of others. They tend to be passions, interests, or fascinations that you can’t seem to forget about easily. Intrinsic ambitions will often drive you to learn new skills, study and become an expert, and pursue something whether you make money from it or not.

Extrinsic Ambitions

These are externally motivated ambitions that are often influenced by others. For example, many people will choose a career path or college major based on the financial rewards we believe we can achieve. They may also be extrinsically motivated to achieve something to prove somebody wrong or to escape a difficult situation such as growing up in poverty.

It’s important to remember that every person must decide for themselves what they desire in life, and there are no specific standards to follow. 

Every culture, community, and family has its own ideals about what is reasonable to expect from life and how much you should want for yourself.

Even though there are social pressures to achieve specific goals, we can always examine our intrinsic motivations to see if they resonate with us before deciding to pursue them.

Of course, you don’t have to abide by the cultural norms, or the values of your family, friends, or peer group – you can decide for yourself what you want, but it might mean you no longer fit in with the people you were raised with.

Over time, what is a ambition or ambitious goal begins to evolve and change. The American Dream in the 1900s was to own a home, raise a family, and to work for one company your whole life. In the 2020’s, many people want to impact the world in a greater way, travel, and grow spiritually.

The Cost of Ambition is Loneliness

Very often, if you want to pursue an intrinsic ambition, it may not meet the cultural or community norms in which you were raised. 

If you are open with people around you who do not share your ambitions (or are too scared to admit they have their own), you might find they tend to question or criticize you.

Sometimes this criticism comes from an intention to protect from disappointment, but very often, it’s also from a desire to keep you acting and thinking similarly to them.

The reality is that if you decide to pursue an ambition that is important to you, you will likely need to ignore the critics. 

Ignoring or going against the criticism of your family, friends, coworkers, or peers can often cause you to feel lonely. As a result, you might start to doubt whether your ambitions are worth the cost.

I have learned that ignoring or suppressing your ambitions causes more pain than being criticized by others. 

If you choose to deny an ambition that is inside you, you are living a life of self-deception. And when you are lying to yourself, you cannot feel fulfilled or reach your full potential.

Ambition Has An Opportunity Cost

Whenever we choose to pursue an ambition, we are setting ourselves up for some future negative experiences. 

We will likely face setbacks, failures, problems, frustrations, uncertainty, rejection, criticism, and possibly even a sense of futility.

The bigger your future goals, dreams, or plans, the greater the chance these factors will come into play.

It can be useful to weigh the opportunity cost upfront whenever you pursue an ambition. Look at what you will potentially lose as a result of chasing the new goal.

You will lose connections with people who don’t share your vision.

You will put forth a lot of effort and energy that could be spent on leisure or fun.

You will likely spend time and money that could have been saved or used elsewhere.

Whatever your desired outcomes, there is always the trade-off that you must be willing to make.

The True Reward is Who You Become

But of course, if pursuing your ambition was easy, then it wouldn’t be as appealing.

The true value of your ambitions is that they change who you are. You stretch yourself through the pursuit, and the person you become is the most valuable reward.

As Oscar Wilde so eloquently explained, “Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more.”

The true cost of ambition is risking who you were in pursuit of what you can become.

It’s worth it.


10 thoughts on “The True Cost of Ambition

    1. Thank you for the comment Jay, so glad it’s valuable for you. I wrote it as a reminder to myself when I feel alone, frustrated or like I am missing out on the normal parts of life. At the end of the day, each of us has to make a choice how we live, and I know this is the true path for me. Sounds like it’s the same for you too. – DMS

  1. Very interesting. To me it is better to be frustrated in an attempt to achieve more from life than to just be comfortably complacent. 🙂 You have the choice to take that route – but you wouldn’t like it – and that’s a great thing.

  2. I don’t know how much ambitious I am but I feel like frustrated when I don see work done is not proper, so many of my colleagues misunderstand me and I don’t say Yes till I get what I expected. I am really feeling lonely but I want my Dream come true. I don’t know to where it leads me 🙁

  3. And I feel like giving up sometimes but I can’t… I am very much addicted to what I am doing and the path I am following… To be frank I feel like completely alone in this world… 🙁

    1. Rohith, thank you for the honest comment. I know first hand how tough it can be. My suggestion is to keep focussed on who you want to be, and the people you want to be like. Try to spend more time with people who are where you want to be, or at least on the path to it, the same as you are. The loneliness is sometimes caused by moving away from those who aren’t going in the same direction. You will find new friends and peers along the path to your dreams. Stay the course my friend, you are getting there! – DMS

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