The Psychology of Ambition

On why it is necessary to identify the positive and negative factors that make a person ambitious…

So, the topic now is ambition. Psychology is varied in its approach to different human traits and like every other attribute that defines humans, ambition could be explained with different psychological theories. On the one hand, ambition could be closely related to motivation, especially achievement motivation and could be defined with Maslow’s theory of human motivation. Abraham Maslow presented his theory of ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ in 1943 in which he distinguished between basic physiological or bodily needs such as sleep and hunger, safety needs such as home and job, social needs such as love or friendship, esteem needs such as achievement and recognition and self-actualization needs or the highest needs of truth/enlightenment and wisdom. Ambition could be included under ‘esteem needs’ in Maslow’s theory so ambition according to this theory would be a need for increased self esteem and achievement.

Ambition could also have psychoanalytic explanations as well and the libido or life drives are considered as the basis of ambition in men and women. High sex or life drives would translate to high level of ambition. Self psychology or a branch of psychoanalysis developed by Heinz Kohut in 1977 provided explanations to ambition as the core of personality development. It is important to understand what ambition really is, why people have ambitions in the first place and what type of personalities are most likely to be ambitious.

Ambition could mean many things

– an ardent desire to attain success in life, a desire to achieve personal or professional advancement, a desire to achieve fame, power, money, rank, position, or a desire to achieve any particular end or complete an activity or attain the fruits of an activity. Ambition is thus ‘desire’ similar to any other kind of desire. Where are the roots of such desire? Freud explained that desires are in our unconscious and we are motivated by our life drives and our sexual drives. So, if you have a high life or sexual drive, does this mean you will also have high ambitions? Psychoanalysis will answer in the positive, so ambition being about desire is also about a desire to live and an ambitious person also necessarily has a strong life force or a survival instinct. We might call this a sort of psychological Darwinism or a struggle to survive in a competitive world lies at the root of ambition. So inherently ambition is positive and is geared towards a person’s overall development. Yet this is not the end of the story, we have to understand the underlying factors. Ambition is a complex process and trait in humans and can be triggered by negative and positive factors:

Positive factors

– increased confidence

– social and financial needs

– creative urges

– competitiveness

– emotional and intellectual needs

– sexual and life drive

– survival instinct

– personal motivation

Negative factors

– fear of failure in professional or social life

– fear of rejection in personal life

– feelings of inferiority

– feelings of superiority

– mental illness such as bipolar disorder

– jealousy

– narcissism or self love

– lack of confidence

Thus a psychology of ambition is about realizing the two distinct types of forces or factors that make a person ambitious and should be focused on how these forces could be used effectively. These are however general reasons for which people become ambitious and we all seem to be motivated by quite a few of these reasons. In fact many people can identify with most of the reasons given here so there are several factors that seem to drive us towards achieving certain goals. We are ambitious because we want social status, and we are afraid of rejection or failure in our personal and professional life. Thus a man may become ambitious so that he can flaunt his position, rank or success to attract potential mates, a woman may become ambitious because she has deep feelings of inferiority and wants to favourably match up to other people showing extreme competitiveness or there is a deep desire to improve the condition of the world. However, I have deliberately not included mission, purpose or desire to improve the world as positive factors, because mission or a need to change the world is about going beyond personal ambition.

Jealousy is a negative force can be turned around positively as competitiveness and an individual jealous of a friend’s achievement can strive to excel in his own way. Again feelings of inferiority or narcissism would be negative forces but can be used positively to tap the deeper ambitions that we all have. However ambition taken to delusional levels as we see in dictators shows how positive forces like motivation and increased confidence can be used negatively to actually cause harm to self and others.

A person with feelings of superiority is also necessarily a person with simultaneous feelings of inferiority as someone who thinks he is superior is always unconsciously afraid that his superiority might be challenged and has an inherent vulnerability that can cause feelings of inferiority at the same time. Mental illness as in the case of bipolar disorder is also negative and a bipolar person can manifest heightened energy and display of emotions during manic episodes in which the individual undertakes several projects and show great ambition. Many creative individuals have been considered as bipolar although pathological levels of such disorder in which the individual stops functioning properly would require medical /psychiatric attention. I would suggest that negative forces such as these could be turned around and made positive for an individual to realize his or her ambition just as a positive factor can become negative (as in the case of dictators described above) and bring about failure/downfall or even a complete lack of realization of one’s goals. Successful individuals are the ones who can manipulate these forces of ambition in a way that is most positive so they are able to change negative factors to positive and are also able to use positive factors effectively preventing these from becoming negative at any point of life. Thus a person with a bipolar tendency should use it positively to enhance his creativity and a person with strong sexual urges can use his energies in a socially constructive manner that can prevent social or personal harm.

Thus ambition should be about using your energies, feelings, needs and positive or negative factors in life in a way that would be most beneficial for attainment of life goals.

The next question that naturally arises is what type of people are most likely to be ambitious. Well, anyone who is driven by these forces described above and gets affected by such forces are ambitious so everyone is basically ambitious and ambition is the basic life force. Yet when these negative or positive factors are stronger in some than in others, these people would be more ambitious. The healthy ambition is the one in which a good balance is attained between the negative and positive factors.

So an extreme positive like excessive confidence or extreme negative such as heightened fear of rejection would only be a hindrance to one’s ambitions and will ultimately be an obstacle to an individual’s personal, social, professional and moral development.

Note: This article is copyrighted and archived by a University. Please use the correct referencing information and resource links for any use of this material.

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