Ambition: Vice or Virtue?

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/17/10

In opinion surveys where respondents are asked what it takes to get ahead in life, Americans rank ambition ahead of education and natural ability.

Kate Gosselin is being criticized for leaving her eight children with nannies to appear on "Dancing with the Stars." Are her ambitions of fame getting in the way of being a good Mom?

While it's unlike me to defend the overly dramatic, in-the-spotlight poor parenting of Jon & Kate, the latest hubbub raises a fascinating-and thorny-question about ambition: Is it a vice or a virtue?

Asks Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

If Kate is being criticized for her ambition does that mean other moms should be criticized to for wanting to be successful at their jobs? Should moms be criticized for wanting to make more money, be recognized within their industry or overall being successful in their jobs? Is ambition in a mom a bad thing?

Clearly, there's a gender double-standard about ambition at play, says Margot Magowan in the San Francisco Chronicle blog. And this idea isn't new: Debra Condren wrote a terrific book, AmBITCHous, addressing this very issue of women being criticized for ambition.

But gender aside, ambition is still a tricky thing:

Ambition, often synonymous with aspiration, is the will to succeed. It is the pursuit of desire with all possible resources. Ambition provides the motivation and energy to pursue challenging goals - and the desire to keep going when the going gets tough. Psychologists tell us that ambition can be triggered by both positive factors, like personal motivation, increased confidence, social and financial needs, and negative factors, like jealousy, fear of failure and feelings of inferiority. And some people have more of it than others.

In opinion surveys where respondents are asked what it takes to get ahead in life, Americans rank ambition ahead of education and natural ability. According to cumulative data from the General Social Survey, 89% of Americans believe that ambition is essential or very important for "getting ahead in life" and even despite the recession, 71 percent of respondents in a 2009 Pew Survey said personal ambition was a more important determinant of success than external conditions.

Yet I'd argue that ambition, the drive that made America great, has come under attack. Well before the stock market nosedives, bailouts and ponzi schemes made headlines, ambition was becoming a dirty word. Today it's quickly become synonymous with corporate "greed" and corruption.

We're in double-bind in our modern discourse about ambition. We're receiving conflicting messages about ambition: "Be successful at any costs, but whatever you do, don't be ambitious." If it's true that for a society to foster ambition, it needs to offer a clear idea of what it means to be successful, then 21st Century America is sending a conflicting message that is dangerous to our future as a nation built on ambition.

Yes, we should have energy. Yes, we should be good at what we do. But ambitious? That's got a bad rap because we think of the hustler type, the salesman. Ambition gets conflated with aggressiveness and single-mindedness - the type of person who has no use for social niceties. In novels, it's the ambitious character that gets taught a hard lesson. In movies, ambition is equated with greed and corruption. And yet, success is the goal for one and all.

So is ambition a vice or a virtue?

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