When I was in high school I wanted to be a US Senator.
Wait, that wasn’t the punch line.
That ambition changed, and I’m glad it did. It was a bad ambition.
Steve Jobs wanted to build an enduring company that made insanely great products that people loved. Thank God he pursued and achieved his ambition, because it was good and noble.
What’s the difference? It’s not that one ambition was personal and one involved others. Nor is the difference between public and private sector.
What makes ambition good or bad is neither the object nor the subject, but the verb.
I wanted to be something great. Jobs wanted to _do_ something great. Wanting to be corrupts and limits, while wanting to do strengthens and expands.
Getting Better Beats Being Good
Research shows that people perform better when pursuing getting-better goals than when pursing being-good goals. It’s wonderfully organized by Heidi Grant Halverson, PhD, in her useful and readable ebook Nine Things Successful People Do Differently
in one study I conducted a few years ago at Lehigh University with Laura Gelety, we found that people in pursuit of be-good goals (i.e., trying to show how smart they already were) performed very poorly on a test of problem solving when we made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).
But getting-better crowd wasn’t deterred.
The amazing thing was that the people who were pursuing get-better goals (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of our dirty tricks. No matter how hard we made it, these participants stayed motivated and did well.
The Unbearable State Of Being
When we decide that we want to be something—rich, thin, happy, Speaker of the House, Emperor of the North—we set off on a terminal path. God forbid we should achieve that goal young. Orson Welles wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, at 26. He wanted to be a great director.
When a person wants to be a Senator, he might accomplish the goal at the expense of everything he might have done. And at the expense of everything he once believed.
A person who enters politics to fight corruption and promote liberty wiil behave differently from one who runs to be governor. The trade-offs of campaign contributions for a vote in the legislature won’t tempt the person wants to do great things, but will easily sway the one who wants to be great.
Pay Attention To Their Verbs
Listen closely to a person’s ambitions. When they tell you want they want to be, ask them what they want to do. If they can’t answer that question with the same enthusiasm they showed in being, watch out.
Halvorson, Heidi Grant (2011-10-24). Nine Things Successful People Do Differently (Kindle Locations 234-238). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.