The dark side of ambition

By Barton Goldsmith

Researchers are lending credence to the proverb, 'All that glitters is not gold'. They found people who've gained monetary success may fall short in areas such as happiness; health and even live shorter lives. Photo / Thinkstock
Researchers are lending credence to the proverb, 'All that glitters is not gold'. They found people who've gained monetary success may fall short in areas such as happiness; health and even live shorter lives. Photo / Thinkstock

I have always been ambitious. It wasn't a learned thing. I was just born that way. For whatever reason - I used to think it was happiness - I strive to be and do my best at about anything I attempt, as long as I don't need to use power tools or develop a turnaround jump shot.

This is why I got a little nervous when I read about some recent research on how ambition affects people's lives. The study by Notre Dame University management professor Tim Judge, and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that while ambitious people may go to the best universities and have success in their careers, they fall short in happiness and even health, and actually tend to live shorter lives.

My first thought: "Now you tell me!" But I truly do not want the ambitious part of myself to go away. It keeps me moving forward, and such forward motion is, for most people, where happiness comes from.

Unfortunately, according to the study, people like me may not live as long as our less-ambitious counterparts, or even enjoy ourselves as much along the way - especially if our ambition is unfulfilled.

Judge states: "Most parents want their kids to be ambitious, attend the best schools and achieve professional success, and while it certainly isn't wrong to have those parental hopes and dreams, we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking they will make our kids happier."

Surely it's important to take into account all the different parts of a person, whether young or not, before we decide if attending a prestigious school or getting a high-end (high-pressure) job is really worth it. But I think you can attain your ambition without either a prestigious education or working for somebody else.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are three examples of very ambitious people who dropped out of America's Ivy League schools to build some of the largest companies of our generation. I don't know about their personal happiness levels, and Jobs did die fairly young, but these gentlemen's achievements continue to add to the fabric of our lives. Indeed, Bill and Melinda Gates have donated much of their fortune to try to make the world a better place.

The study states that ambition and happiness don't necessarily go together, but if becoming successful is in your blood, I can't see a healthy reason to try and reduce it. The frustration level would be extremely high. Artists have to create - it is an in-born need - and ambitious people need to make it in whatever area they are focused on. I do think it's important to have a target. If you just want success for its own sake, or if money is your only goal, I'm afraid Judge will be correct in his findings and you won't achieve happiness.

So despite the research findings, I'm not going to pull back on my goals or my work. I know I get more out of reaching for the stars rather than just gazing at them in wonder.

* Dr Barton Goldsmith is a psychotherapist and author.

- Scripps Howard News Service

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