In the right dose, ambition works wonders. It inspires you to achieve more, to stretch yourself beyond the comfort zone, and provides the motivation to keep going when the going gets tough. Rightfully so, ambition is universally revered.
But ambition also has a dark, addictive side that’s rarely talked about.
I just finished 2nd in the ultra-competitive LMP2 category of the greatest motor race in the world: 24 hours of Le Mans. That’s a monumental achievement by almost any standards, yet also one of the least enjoyable experiences I’ve had driving a race car — all because of ambition.
Armed with the fastest and most reliable car, the best-prepared team, and two of the fastest team mates in the business, it simply wasn’t possible to enter the race with anything less than the top step of the podium in mind. Add to that leading much of the race, and a storming comeback to first position after my mistake, it compounded to an all-out focus on the win and nothing but.
That’s exactly the danger of what too much ambition can do: Narrow the range of acceptable outcomes to the ridiculous, and then make anything less seem like utter failure. It’s irrational, but so are most forms of psychological addiction. You can’t break the spell merely by throwing logic at it.
There’s not a graceful way to process this “loss”. Society generally only accepts the notion of “overly ambitious” when there’s a demonstrably large gap between perceived ability and desired outcome. In those cases, though, it’s much easier to shake off reaching for the stars and failing. That’s expected.
But when the ambition is cranked up to the max due to prior accomplishments and success, it can easily provide only pressure and anxiety. When that’s the case, winning isn’t even nearly as sweet as the loss is bitter. When you expect to win, it’s merely a checked box if you do — after the initial rush of glory dies down.
Over-dosing on ambition isn’t just an occupational hazard of sports. It goes for all walks of life. I’ve met many extremely accomplished people who’ve had the grave misfortune of reaching one too many of their goals, only to be saddled with an impossibly high baseline for success. It’s devoured their intrinsic motivation, leaving nothing but an increasingly impossible search for another fix of blow-it-out-the-park success. When that doesn’t happen, the withdrawal is a bitch.
This experience has been a painful realization of everything that Alfie Kohn wrote about in Punished by Rewards and a reminder of the wisdom of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. Happiness doesn’t lie in the fulfillment of the expected. Neither in all the trinkets and trophies of the world. It’s in enjoying the immersion of the process, not the final outcome.