The 21st century has embraced the idea of ambition vehemently. According to the RAE, this term refers to the burning desire to achieve something, especially power, wealth, dignities or fame. “When we make success the main value of our lives, ambition can be unhealthy. We set ourselves unattainable goals, which means that we always try to achieve something that we are not going to achieve,” shares clinical psychologist Elena Daprá. On the contrary, understood as a motor to achieve realistic goals and accepting one’s own limitations, ambition could improve satisfaction with life.
One of the most widespread problems of frustration in society is, precisely, that ambition directed towards goals that are difficult to attain. “In a society as connected as the Western one, especially through social networks, individual achievements are not limited to the private sphere. They are shared and help to form a sense of status, as in the case of someone who “succeeds” with a business and begins to spend the summer in paradisiacal places or buy expensive cars. These can end up being desirable by someone who is not in a position to achieve such achievements”, explains Jorge Blanco, sociologist and researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid.
The “if you want you can” trap
This statement is not an axiom, since it is conditioned by some factors
According to the teacher, this situation integrates a variable beyond personal reach. “We do not depend exclusively on the personal goals that we can set for ourselves, but rather we are exposed to the merits of others, which can be unattainable and generate frustration,” he continues.
The supposedly empowering idea has spread that if you want something, you can get it. But this statement is not an axiom, since it is conditioned by some factors. From a sociological perspective, the spread of this motivational phrase poses a trap or false hope. “This speech is still a strategy of the elites towards the majority of people who are not in the same position. In this way they continue with a lifestyle and a way of working that makes them think that they can catch up to their level, through the consumption of goods and work. But, although we know that social mobility exists, the top of the social scale is taken over and reserved for a few”, reflects Blanco.
If the objectives are not realistic, you have to face the no. And there comes the acceptance of one’s own limitations as a human being
One of the big problems with ambition lies in what really counts as success. “When my main value as a human being is success related to power and achieving material things, it’s insane,” reveals Daprá. The psychologist she points out that it is at this moment when we can find ourselves with frustration and tolerance to frustration…
“You can, but as long as you have set yourself realistic and measurable goals, with sense and logic. It is in unrealities that we fail. If the objectives are not realistic, you have to face the no. And then comes the acceptance of one’s own limitations as a human being”, explains Daprá.
Ambition or mediocrity?
We position ourselves on ambition and treat others as mediocre: standards are totally subjective
Society experiences polarized discourses in its public expressions, when what abounds is the gray scale between black and white. “Really where is the population, in all that environment. People are not usually mediocre, nor do they become president of the United States. What happens is that we do not like to see it, or know it and, benevolently, we position ourselves in ambition and treat others as mediocre. The standards are totally subjective”, explains Daprá.
However, there are more and more spheres measured in qualitative scales of value instead of quantitative ones, more related to the concept of success previously exposed. “I would say that, except in very specific cases, precisely at present, diversity and the possibilities of each one are valued according to their backpack of capital. The school is advancing towards a model where all students are not cut from the same pattern, the selection processes of companies are oriented towards the potential of their employees rather than their current capacities, …”, suggests Blanco.
How to direct ambition towards something positive?
Ambition can be considered healthy when objectives established from SMART criteria are proposed: specific, achievable, measurable and temporary. But this type of work requires self-awareness about capabilities and limitations. “Ambition helps to take risks, to be brave, but it must also be controlled and self-regulated,” says Daprá. According to the psychologist, the problem arises when it is directed towards the most material part.
“If we put aside the purpose, the spiritual… the balance is lost and it works in an unhealthy way,” he adds. Its good use would also be related to offering the best of oneself with respect to personal possibilities. “We could speak of something like the “welfare of the commons”, a balance point where ambition does not go beyond a state of happiness sustained under basic parameters of well-being: money to make ends meet comfortably, enjoy of family time, being able to enjoy vacations, …”, indicates Blanco.
In fact, in this scenario, excessive ambition tends to be penalized. The reason? “It is understood that it takes the person out of the sense of well-being. For example, someone who does not see her children, nor spends time with them because she works tirelessly to get promoted. The fair point of ambition could be established in the performance based on personal possibilities, maintaining the balance with what causes true well-being, beyond mere consumption”, concludes the sociologist.