The word “ambition” is problematic for me. It’s too imprecise, subsumes too many motives, and using it can warp our perceptions of whatever the underlying concept is supposed to be. Because generally in our society, ambition is associated with making money or gaining power or somehow changing the world. And “ambition” is viewed as a positive trait that one should possess, because we’re capitalists and hierarchical social animals and all that good stuff.
But what if my goal is to be happy? Or to raise a well-adjusted child? If those are my goals, does that mean that I’m not ambitious? Neither of those things is easy to accomplish, but I’d be willing to bet that most people wouldn’t consider someone pursuing them to be ambitious. And people feel bad when others think them not ambitious. So what happens is some people suppress their inborn desires to instead pursue goals that aren’t necessarily their own in order to earn the “Ambition” merit badge that will bring esteem and mating opportunities. And they become miserable in the process.
This is all anecdote and intuition, of course. No data, just life (NDJL).
“Ambition” also allows people to hide from their true motives. “I’m ambitious” sounds a lot better than “I’m money hungry and crave external validation.” But that kind of specificity is beneficial in evaluating why you want what you want in life. It also helps you stay within yourself. One of the quickest routes to unhappiness that I’ve seen firsthand is allowing your abilities to outstrip your ambitions. If you’re a bright person who just wants to live a peaceful, happy life, don’t take a high-stress, two-packs-of-Tums-a-day kind of job just to feel like you’re ambitious. That doesn’t make you ambitious, that makes you gullible. Because you fell for somebody’s line along the way and now you’re doing something you don’t want to be doing.
The truth about real ambition is that there is no real ambition. It’s all personal. Find what matters to you and pursue it to the ends of the earth because you want it, not because you want to be ambitious. As with everything, do it on the merits.