Climbers. This word means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but when I use it here I’m making a reference to every organization. They may have different words to describe them, but it’s usually negative. Those who are out for personal gain. Especially in my day job, the concept of selfishness, or anything other than selflessness, is looked down upon. The idea that those who are out to make themselves look good are bad people is fairly common among most large organizations. Whether you’re going for the highest marks on your next performance report, or trying to stand out from the herd, ambition is a fickle thing.
I am by no means the most experienced person in my organization. Far from it, in fact. And I still have a long way to go in my journey. I’ve definitely heard stories of other people out there, second hand and usually from those who are disenfranchised or otherwise bitter, but nonetheless, stories of people who will stop at nothing for their own personal gain. These caricatures are undoubtedly not the best of us. But in the 13 years I’ve spent here, I haven’t met the person who wants accolades for the sake of them.
Which brings us to ambition. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with wanting to do great things. Imagine if Thomas Payne had not wanted to write great works, or if Shakespeare had been happy to create mediocre plays. We are not all Alexander Hamilton reincarnated, and not all of us will do things that will shake the world. But there’s nothing wrong with trying.
The place where ambition becomes toxic is where you’re willing to sacrifice somebody else on that altar. When your actions reach so far into the gray that you are willing to step on any toe and indeed any face, in search of that recognition, then you have a problem. And here’s the rub; the recognition cannot be the goal of ambition. The act must be the goal of ambition. And in the pursuit of those great acts, those lofty ideals, that ambition will drive the engine inside of you to become a great person. If you look closely, you’ll see that there are great people all around. You are the only one who can define success for you-when you let other people tell you if you’ve succeeded or failed, if you have made it or not, you give them that power.
When I was in high school, I read Robert Coram’s biography on John Boyd. Boyd is famous for his speech about choosing to be someone important or to do something important. Boyd was undoubtedly one of the greatest strategists of our age, and his contributions to strategic thinking are indelible in our history. But I think his attitude, that important people and important things are mutually exclusive, was dead wrong. The pursuit of greatness makes the great person, whether they are recognized for it or not.
So go out there, and throw yourself into your pursuit. Be the best. Strive to do great things, and you will become a great person through the pursuit of it. Whatever your field, ambition will drive you to be a leader in it if you let it. And true leaders do not step on the backs of others to achieve greatness, they bring those others with them. By doing great things and being a great person, you will inspire greatness and others. There truly is no limit-so go be bold, be ambitious, and do great things.