Did you know that even though the Jewish people make just 0.2% of the world population, they have earned 24% of the Nobel prizes in the field of science and medicine?
Or that while 12.9% of Americans are immigrants, 45% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by them?
Is it that some groups of people are naturally more talented than others?
Two Princeton economists Stacy Dale and Alan Kreuger started researching how much people were earning a decade after they had graduated from college – based on which colleges they attended. Their hypothesis was that people who studied in Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Princeton would earn more than people who went to unranked colleges.
But they found something very surprising in their data. They found that the key factor that determined how much a person would earn was not based on which college they attended. But it was merely based on which college they applied to.
A person who applied to Harvard but didn’t get in did as well as a person who applied and went to Harvard!
Success wasn’t about how well a person actually did. But how well they thought and believed they could do.
In one word, it was their ambition that mattered.
Ambition trumps talent
A person will end up in a place where they think they belong. They will meet their perceived capabilities even if they fail a few times.
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft once remarked in an interview that when Bill Gates was 13 years of age, he was wondering what it would feel like to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
As psychiatrist Neel Burton says: People shrink and expand into the degree and nature of their ambitions.
Ambition stems from the desire to be worthy.
In 1886, Jewish folklorist Joseph Jacobs set out to compare Jewish performance in various fields to that of other westerners. And he found it to be very mediocre. Early 20th century IQ data also shows that Jews didn’t have higher IQ than people of other religions.
But then the Jewish migration began. And with it, their psyche changed. Because they were supposed to be God’s chosen people. And yet their position was at the bottom of the rung in their new surroundings – in their new countries.
This dissonance could only be resolved by building a stronger desire to become worthy! And that’s what allowed them to rise to the top of various fields: from science to finance.
Ambition stems from uncomfortable comparison. From feeling insecure. When you think you are more worthy than your current situation, your ambition grows.
You have to believe that you are better than your peers, or at least your current position in life.
The Ambition of King Tudor
Henry Tudor became the last King of England to win the throne on the battlefield. When he became the King, England was a very poor country. Ravaged by civil war. In the middle of a recession. But by the end of Tudor’s life, England was on its way to begin conquering the whole world!
Tudor became extremely ambitious when he read one of the first books published on paper in England: the story of King Arthur and his knights.
He believed that if King Arthur could make England prosperous centuries ago, he could do the same today! And so, Tudor invested in creating policies that brought economic prosperity and peace. He formed the Court of Star Chamber to provide swift justice and resolve disputes. And, he subsidized shipbuilding so that England could strengthen its navy and become powerful again.
All of Tudor’s ambition stemmed from him comparing himself with a legendary figure.
Here is the twist: there is no King Arthur. He is a made up figure. Completely mythical. But Tudor didn’t know that. And he used King Arthur to compare himself with!
This is what child psychiatrists recommend you do to inspire ambition in your child’s minds: keep the lore alive. Tell them how their forefathers overcame their struggles and achieved great things. Tell them the stories of great heroes that they can connect to.
Let them feel a little bit insecure with their underperformance compared to others!
Ambition vs contentment
Don’t the Eastern religions preach that you should be content?
When Zen master Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest challenged him: “the leader of our sect is so miraculous that he can hold a brush on one side of the river, a disciple can hold a paper on the other side, and the leader can write the name of the Buddha through the air! What miracle can you do?”
Bankei responds: “my miracle is that I eat when I am hungry and sleep when I am tired!”
Being content in life can make you happy. But it’s a mistake to believe that being content means you have to lack ambition. Reaching the state of high contentment is an ambition in its own right!
Wanting to achieve great things, but being content with the results are not exclusive things. Both can coexist.
Don’t fly too close to the sun
Greek mythology tells us the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Imprisoned on the island of Crete, father and son make wings out of feather and wax. Before taking flight, Daedalus cautions his son against two things:
- Complacency: don’t be complacent and fly too low. Or the sea’s dampness would clog the wings.
- Hubris: don’t be overconfident and fly too high. Or else the sun would melt the wax.
But while in flight, Icarus forgot his father’s warnings and soared higher and higher! The wax melted due to the Sun’s heat and he drowned in the sea!
Aristotle was the first philosopher to caution against the same when it comes to ambition. Your ambition should not stem from vicious excess. Nor should you face a lack of ambition – the vicious deficiency. You need to find healthy ambition – the virtuous mean!
Over ambition leads to corruption. It’s socially destructive.
Under ambition is a disservice to yourself.
Healthy ambition rewards the individual as well as helps the society!
- Be ambitious because ambition trumps talent when it comes to success.
- Ambition stems from insecurity and the desire to be worthy. Fuel your ambition by comparing yourself with other successful folks and surrounding yourself with people more successful than you!
- Find your balance between complacency and hubris.