Is Too Much Ambition Making You Miserable?
It's no surprise that people sometimes want things that are bad for their well-being. That supersize order of fries, a fourth glass of wine, or a lapsed gym membership can be both superappealing now and, we all know, a terrible idea in the bigger picture of our lives.
But although we all intuitively get the connection between what our brain tells us what we want in the short term and later negative consequences when it comes to physical temptation, do we often ignore a similar dynamic around less tangible cravings, say for success and status?
That's the question posed by a handful of thoughtful posts urging ambitious professionals to think carefully about whether their pursuit of success is actually making them unhappy.
The longest and most in-depth of these is a recent Atlantic piece by Emily Esfahani Smith that looks at the tradeoffs we all face between ambition and community. Esfahani Smith rounds up research showing that ambition often comes at the expense of close relationships. And we're not talking Mr. Burns or Dr. Evil levels of maniacal ambition here-–even the sort of day-to-day striving driven entrepreneurs engage in can come at a cost, research shows:
A new study, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, sheds some light on the connection between ambition and the good life. Using longitudinal data from the nine-decade-long Terman life-cycle study, which has followed the lives and career outcomes of a group of gifted children since 1922, researchers Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame and John D. Kammeyer-Mueller of the University of Florida analyzed the characteristics of the most ambitious among them. How did their lives turn out?...
The ambitious members of the sample went on to become more educated and at more prestigious institutions than the less ambitious. They also made more money in the long run and secured more high-status jobs.
But when it came to well-being, the findings were mixed. Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller found that ambition is only weakly connected with well-being and negatively associated with longevity.
"There really wasn't a big impact from ambition to how satisfied people were with their lives," Kammeyer-Mueller, a business school professor, told me.
This isn't the only study coming to similar conclusions. Research by psychologist Tim Kasser "has shown that the pursuit of materialistic values like money, possessions, and social status--the fruits of career successes--leads to lower well-being and more distress in individuals. It is also damaging to relationships," reports Esfahani Smith, who explains that the research shows that these damaged social bonds dent well-being. The article weaves in moving personal stories, literary references, and discussion of the debate around Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In to explore the issue in depth. It's well worth a read in full.
But Esfahani Smith isn't the only thinker who apparently feels this is an appropriate cultural moment to push the career oriented to think carefully about the tradeoffs they may be making. This week the blog Dumb Little Man advises those looking to be happier to not chase status.
"Your brain is wired not only to figure out where you sit in the professional and social pecking order against others, but to reinforce your position in that pecking order," says writer Steve Errey, who continues: "When you get wrapped up in establishing or maintaining status, the moment your place in the hierarchy drops you’re going to feel pretty horrible… Don’t get into the status game--there are no winners."
Elsewhere, legendary Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has warned that chasing short-term success often leads to soured relationships and regrets long term, while polarizing blogger Penelope Trunk frames the same debate in her characteristic absolutist terms, warning that you can have an interesting life or a happy one, but not both.
Trunk may present things in black and white, but when the question is fashioning a good life for yourself rather than attracting the maximum number of clicks to your post, the real takeaway is probably not an either/or choice but a question of shades of grey. Individuals need to locate themselves on a spectrum of ambition and become fully aware that moving in one direction or the other involves real and sometimes painful losses.
Have you thought consciously and carefully about how much ambition is right for you?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.