I moved to New York City 5 years ago from the far suburbs of Philadelphia. In my due diligence to prep for this massive move, I was reading about the differences between cities. One piece suggested that each major city has a unique culture that can be summarized in a single word. For Boston, it is learning. L.A. is fame. Washington D.C., the word is power. And for New York, my new home, the summary term is ambition.

Like all the skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan fighting with each other to reach the sun, New York is jammed with business people, financiers, fashion designers, media professionals, and entrepreneurs who are trying to make their mark on the world. All are walking and talking fast—desperate for the opportunity that will put them over the top.

After living in New York for a few months, we had brunch with friends who had lived there for six years. We naturally divided into two conversations: my wife with my friend’s wife, and my friend and I. He asked how it was going. All the logistics had been going well—the downsizing required, life outside of car culture, work, kids in school, etc.  But at a visceral, emotional level, something was stirring. I leaned across the table and said: “I love it here but I always feel behind.”

Everywhere I look, there seems to be someone who is ahead of me. The person who lives on a higher floor (the higher the floor the higher the rent). The well-dressed business guy getting a black car outside our building while I wait in line in the rain for the bus to the subway. The connections who always seem to be on an airplane while I am stuck in the city. Everyone I know seems to have written a book! I feel behind.

For me, this raises the question of ambition: specifically, how much should I strive to be more recognized and have more money. And from my work with clients, I know they are also wrestling with questions of striving and achievement, of ambition and contentment. This is true in New York, the city that was built on the insatiable desire for more. But I’ve also found it to be true everywhere. In small towns and large cities, white and blue-collar circles, is our ambition for more everywhere along with the question; “Is it good or bad?”

Some Summary Points:

Definition: Ambition is an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction.

Good or Bad: Ambition is sometimes good and sometimes bad. It is never neutral.

In this post, we explore the dark side of ambition, In the next we’ll explore when ambition is good.

Ambition that Destroys

A Common Assumption: It is widely agreed that too much ambition is not a good thing. We harken back to Harry Chapin’s famous song, Cat’s in the Cradle. Then there are movies like Miss Sloane, The Founder, and Wolf of Wall Street where the lead character self-destructs because of too much ambition. Add in common conversation we hear the same refrain: “she works way too much” or “he works all the time.” These phrases are said in a tone that conveys anything from mild disapproval all the way to disgust. And truth be known, we tend to steer clear of and criticize those who step on others to get ahead, those who are obnoxiously superior, and those who push their successes in our faces.

We recognize a line in others where ambition becomes toxic. We sometimes find it much more challenging to see it operating in ourselves. How do we know when ambition is bad?

For clarity on this question, we turn to an ancient story.

The Ancient Truth

The famous story of the Tower of Babel is a tail of ambition gone awry. In Genesis chapter 11, we see these words:

So they said: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

There are three characteristics to their ambition:

1. They were building this city for themselves.

2. Their goal was to make a name for themselves, to win at the fame game.

3. Their goal was to give themselves a sense of security and stability, instead of being “dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

C.S. Lewis labels a thread of this destructive ambition as the Quest for the Inner Ring. The Inner Ring is his term for making it into the success crowd. He says:

Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. My second reason is this. The torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical underworld, that of attempting to fill sieves with water, is the symbol not of one vice, but of all vices. It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

So the Babel builders were seeking what is not to be had (at least not held): a name, security, a project only for the self. As the story goes, they found themselves fighting against God himself, and the very thing they feared the most, is exactly what happened. They were scattered over the face of the earth.

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The Critical Distinction

So how do we know when our ambition has crossed the line?

Ambition that is bad is ambition that is selfish.

Selfish ambition is what ruins us: it is the desire to achieve purely for ourselves, our own security, and our own reputation.

Envy and a desire to beat others is almost always part of the destructive form of ambition. So we have to ask ourselves questions two questions about our ambition:

  1. For whose benefit are we ambitious?
  2. How much is the desire to look good in the face of others (or be better than others), part of our drive or more?

When it is mostly about looking good (or saving face) in front of others, our ambition is toxic and will poison us.

When it is mostly about getting solely ourselves, our ambition is toxic and will lead to our own self-destruction.

Next Time

Next time we will explore a different kind of ambition, one that is not destructive. For a preview you can compare the picture painted in Ecclesiastes 4 with the one in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.

How About You? 

  1. Why do you think it is easier to see selfish ambition in others rather than yourself?
  2. What are you ambitious for and when does that ambition cross the line?
  3. What do you make of our society that paints a negative picture of ambition, yet seems to encourage it in many ways?

Dr. Chip Roper is the President and Principal Consultant of The VOCA Center. VOCA’s vision is to rescue individuals and teams from the forces that would rob them of joy and effectiveness at work. Certified in Executive Coaching at Columbia University, Chip tackles the vocational challenge from 30 years of experience as a small businessman, a pastor, a career coach, and a business consultant.  You can learn more about VOCA’s faith-based services at www.vocacenter.org and more about their commercial offerings at www.vocacenter.com.