Ambition Is Just A Word Until You Act
by Ramon Greenwood
Ambition is a sanctified ideal in the folklore of successful careers.
Just the word - as in "She has always had a lot of ambition" - evokes a
degree of respect and admiration.
However, in practice, ambition is not inherently a good and a positive force.
Ambition may be embraced or ignored; used or abused. It can even become an
excuse for failure. It all depends on how it is employed.
True ambition is not dreaming and talking about what you want to achieve.
Ambition is knowing where you want to go, how to get there, and doing what it
takes to reach the goal. The key is to combine ambition, which means desire,
with initiative, which means action.
There are lessons to be learned from the way Harry K. managed his ambitions.
Harry had been in his job less than one year, but he was already restless and
frustrated by what he saw as his lack of progress.
"I am ambitious," he told everyone who would listen to his complaining. "I
will be a success, but I'll never make it doing little insignificant things day
in and day out. I could do a lot more; they just won't give me a chance."
Harry Had Potential, But...
Joe, his supervisor, believed Harry had the potential to succeed, but knew
he was underperforming and creating a problem for the entire staff with his
Joe called the young man in for a performance evaluation. The meeting soon
turned into a confrontation when Harry began to push his case within a few
"I am still doing the same old things. I know I'm paid less than the others
in the department. It's just not fair," he began, ignoring the compliments he
had been handed at the beginning of the conference.
"Harry, you have been with us for only eleven months," Joe replied. "You are
the newest salesman; everyone else has been here at least three years. They've
worked their way up the ladder.
"You are making reasonable progress, but, let's face it, you are still short
on experience. Give it a little time."
Joe complimented Harry again and went on to suggest that his work habits
needed some improvement.
"Harry, you are late most mornings, and you are out of here right at five
o'clock. And, frankly, I think you could improve your performance by devoting a
little time at nights and on weekends to learning more about your job."
"You are not being fair," Harry bristled. "The company is not paying me as
much as it pays the rest of you. I work the hours you pay me for. Sure, I know
you and the others stay late, but I don't have anything to do; and besides, as I
told you, I am not married to this company. You pay me and I will show you what
I can do."
Harry went on to spell out his expectations. "I'm on the fast track. I expect
to be a Group Manager in six months. I just can't wait around forever."
Joe saw the discussion was dead-ending, but he still believed Harry had
potential. He made what he thought was a fair offer.
"Let's speed up your learning curve. Work with Bill Davis as his assistant.
You will gain a lot from his experience. We'll also provide you with some
special training. However, I can't give you a raise now, since our budgets are
frozen; but if you do as well as I know you can, I promise you'll get an
increase in three months."
"That's not fair," Harry charged. "Everyone in the department knows Bill is
past his prime. He is worn out. I would be running his errands. I don't think
that is much of a promotion, certainly not what I deserve."
Harry never recovered from that discussion in the eyes of his supervisor and
the department head. He soon left the company.
Unfortunately, Harry never learned the real meaning of ambition. He used his
stated ambitions as an excuse for his failures, telling everyone things hadn't
worked out with various employers because he was "too ambitious to wait around
to be promoted."
The lesson here is simple. Ambition is nothing more than a word until it is
coupled with commitment and action.
Ramon Greenwood is Senior Career Counselor for
is a former Senior Vice President at American Express, a published author
and syndicated columnist, a professional director and an entrepreneur.