By: Christopher “Matcha” Little
“For what does it profit a man if he gains
the whole world, but loses his own soul.”
How much ambition do you have? Is there such thing as too much ambition in an individual? With these two questions in mind, ponder this philosophical story. By the age of thirty, Alexander the Great ruled over one of the largest empires in recorded history. In one of his campaigns, he and his army were trying to cross over a river. However, an unnamed philosopher was blocking their path. Alexander the Great asks the philosopher bluntly, “Who are you? I am Alexander the Great, I have conquered the world...For what is it that you have ever done with your life?” Without hesitation, the philosopher replies, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.” I found this philosophical story incredibly thought-provoking, as I have never thought of ambitions in that context before. Is there ever an end to ambition? Or does the vicious cycle of ambition keep going until one seizes to exist? This article will examine why having ambition and goal setting are good things. However, there needs to be methods and techniques to help keep your ambitions and goals in a healthy balance. You do not want to end up like Alexander, "the not so" Great.
As you get older, your cognitive perception of the world assuredly looks different as each stage of life passes from under, ticking away in its silent reproach. It is hard to argue that the comparative lens one looks through as a child is different than as an adult. Ambition is seemingly built into our D.N.A., as much as is breathing. Both function without us actually realizing. Contrarily, ambition can be self-sabotaging, and the world in its raw form can be a brutal place with sometimes sorrowful and shocking experiences. Do these experiences drive you to become even better? Nothing can replace life experiences and wisdom that comes with getting older. Think back when you were a kid. The old adage of “you can be anything when you grow up,” is typically true, until it is no longer. “Until it is no longer” is simply a mindset in an individual. Now, think back to after you graduated high school or college. Remember, you were ready to “conquer the world,” much like Alexander the Great did two millennia before? Ambition is what helps us get to those places seemingly unreachable and make them reachable. The author suggests achieving your ambitions in a much more respectful and less gruesome manner than did Alexander the Great.
I was fortunate to land my dream job of being an officer in the United States Air Force. Had I not had some amount of ambition to reach my dream, I may have never been selected by the officer selection board. My journey was a three-year journey. I applied multiple times from 2009 to 2012. Unfortunately, the Air Force was downsizing during my application periods. However, I never gave up. I think not getting selected the first time actually helped me appreciate getting picked up more in the end. This gave me a different perspective for when I did get selected three years later. I am a believer that everything happens for a reason, and this circumstance was no exception. At some point, the excitement of trying to get selected for Officer Training School wore off and pure, unfiltered ambition picked up in its place. What was previously excitement for the process morphed into a churning ambition saying, "I will do this." It was a goal, but it became more than a goal, it became fueled ambition. The goal was what was set, and the ambition was the avenue to get to the end state.
Ambition is defined as “a strong desire to do or achieve something.” A goal is defined as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.” The difference being the goal is the target, and ambition is the desire, which is two very different mindsets. Anyone can set a goal, but sustaining the innate ambition to maintain the motivation to reach that goal is easier said than done. Imagine someone stating, “I want to lose thirty pounds.” How many people actually get to their intended purpose? I am no statistician, but I would argue far fewer achieve that goal than do give up. Lack of ambition and follow through sets the “winners” apart from the “not winners.” You need to set intermediary goals to help sustain your drive and ambition to achieve your goals. These intermediary goals help maintain the ambition and drive to achieving your goal. This is much like steps on a ladder as you go up to the top. It would be hard, if not impossible, to go from bottom to the top of the ladder without some steps in between.
“Contentment is natural wealth,
luxury is artificial poverty.”
The philosopher blocking the bridge had a philosophical ambition to conquer, not conquering the world. His goal was to suppress his need to have an out-of-control ambition, unlike Alexander. Alexander’s recognition to control his ambition was beyond reproach. How does one ever achieve one’s goal? What does its end state look like? In the Air Force, your career can be seen in the same context. What is the end state you are looking to achieve? If you do not have an end state, your ambitions will take you down each rabbit hole that comes along. This could set you up to perform like Alexander, under the guise of glory and honor. Whereas, if you have set your goal, let's say to become an Air Force flying squadron commander, there are typically certain milestones (or steps on the ladder) you need to achieve before you get to that goal (or the top of your ladder). As you hit one intermediary goal, chances are you'll have to adjust as you go. Listed below are some tactics, techniques, and procedures. These will help vector you within your goal setting to help fuel a healthy amount of ambition needed to get you to your goals. Typically, with one goal achieved, there comes another.
Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals. The “S” means the goal needs to be specific. Specific means simple, sensible, and significant. The "M" is measurable. The goal needs to include meaningfulness and needs to be motivating. The "A" is achievable. A goal that isn’t obtainable is likely erroneous. The goal needs to be attainable and agreeable. The "R" is relevant. Meaning the goal needs to be reasonable, realistic, and resourced, and results-based. The "T" is time-bound. For instance, put a time limit on a goal. For example, I wanted to be a squadron commander by the 16th year of my commission.
Overcome Roadblocks. This is a big one. You have to stay true to yourself. There will always be roadblocks to get you off course along your journey of ambition to reach your goal. Be able to say no to those things and be able to steer right back on course when things get in your way. President Abraham Lincoln, from the start of his political journey to his presidency, elapsed some twenty-seven years. He lost eight elections during that time before he was elected president of the United States. Think about how different the world would be today if he gave up and let his ambitions and goals for not.
Seek & Solicit Advice. Talk and build a relationship with those who are were you similarly want to be. Ask that person what has worked for them. Their ambition and goal setting has obviously worked for them. Your path will look different, so you will have to ad hoc as you go. However, their inputs will put you on a course that isn’t reinventing the wheel. My wife and I are followers of Dave Ramsey and have been for many years. Dave's advice is always simple and rooted in concepts we all already know. He often says, "Don't take financial advice from broke people." Duh! However, if people actually practiced this, there wouldn't be a need for Dave or his team. The same goes for career advice. Don't take career advice from a person who you see as not aligned with your same goals. Remember to always pay the knowledge and guidance you are given forward.
Have A Mentor. Mentors hold you accountable to your goals, even when you are ready to give up. I recommend two types of mentors: a career mentor and a life mentor or coach. Preferably they are not the same person, although they can be. Socrates mentored Plato, and Plato mentored Aristotle. Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi was able to mentor Nelson Mandela. The point being, successful people in both life and career, have a mentor to help guide them and keep them accountable for when the times get tough, and they will always get tough. A career mentor should be someone within your organization who is your senior in some way and who is on or going where you want to go. A life coach or mentor is someone to help keep you accountable for things going on outside of your professional life. For instance, spiritual guidance, marriage guidance, fatherly or motherly advice, etc. A lot of these, if not kept in check, will spill over to your professional career. Be resilient to the best of your ability.
Don’t Burn bridges. Even when you think appropriate and there will be no repercussions, burning bridges with people is never necessary and should not be done under any circumstance. Typically, this happens when your emotions are controlling your decision making. You'd be surprised how often things come full circle. In fact, I recommend going above and beyond for other people. Put other people first, like in this article. Burnt bridges could be a missed opportunity down the road. However, you severed that artery before it was ever able to come to fruition. Work hard and always treat others with respect, even under the most humiliating and humbling of circumstances. This helps build your character.
Read. Read about other’s experiences in life. Reading helps you develop as a leader without having to of lived through those experiences. If you do not read, you are an ineffective leader. Any leader, particularly in the military, no matter how busy, will and should always find time to read. This is because reading should always be a priority. If you cannot “find the time” to read a book, download an audiobook for when you are driving or are on a run. Read about a variety of topics to help diversify your thought process because it helps you grow as a leader and those lead. There is a reason why each service branch has a reading list. Additionally, it is a great conversation starter to ask, “what are you currently reading?”
Contentment. While this may sound contrary to ambition, this noun will help you keep a healthy balance between the philosopher at the bridge and Alexander the Great, like in the short story above. The secret to a good life is to be happy with what you currently have. In life, you will find you will never have everything you need. Attaining the mindset of contentment is something many people in this life, unfortunately, are never able to achieve. You should always strive to improve, but realize you need to be content with your self-worth. Think about it this way. Some of the happiest people in life do not have much money. Some people, with all the money they could ever spend, are incredibly unhappy. Some people think more money will buy them happiness and contentment. The same could go for career or personal life. The story of A Christmas Carol and its main protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, by Charles Dickens is a perfect example of how money doesn't buy happiness.
Get Outside Of Your Comfort Zone. Lastly, you have to get outside your comfort zone to grow as a leader and achieve your ambitions and goals. The best experiences I have had in my life was when I did just that. For me, getting outside of my comfort zone happened when I recently started writing and making things public online for others to read and see. Additionally, starting the website whywelead.org, doing video interviews, and making videos are all well outside of my comfort zone. I have learned so much by putting myself in this setting and environment. I have met and connected with several individuals that I would never have met otherwise. At first, getting in front of a camera was and is awkward. Still, in doing so multiple times, it becomes less cumbersome and more comfortable each time. The same goes for anything you get outside of your comfort zone for and achieve. It will seem unfamiliar and awkward at first, but it will eventually become more comfortable the more you do it. This is how you grow as a leader.
I hope this article opened your eyes a little wider and made you reflect on your own ambitions in life a little more. Seek to find out where you want both your personal and professional life to vector and be. The story will unfold differently for each individual, even if the end state is the same for two different people. Was the philosopher at the bridge, right? He overcame what others in his time could not. Alexander the Great, with all the power and glory in his world at the time, was insidiously discontent, needing to conquer more and more. You can either go through life as the philosopher or as Alexander the Great. What do you want your legacy to be for your life and what impact do you want to leave on others? Reflecting and vectoring your goals and ambitions is an excellent place to start.