What is your ambition, really? And where does it come from?

Ambition can lead to beautiful results, like here a strenous snow-shoe trail that is rewarded with a stunning scenery

How do you define success in your job? Is it a salary that allows you to have financial security, being able to afford luxuries for yourself and loved ones? Or are you more after having influence and responsibility for important decisions, for people or the ability to shape something? Do you define success by reaching a certain position or a title? Or do you get a kick out of generally being better than others, outperforming the competition?

Maybe a little bit of all of the above which is very common vocabulary in the business world. You hear managers coin the term «play to win» and setting goals that place the company as leader in the markets where they are present.

Have you ever wondered, though, where this «will to achieve» comes from? You were not born with it, that’s for sure. You did not sit in your playpen as baby thinking that you want to be the best baby on the planet.

Where does your ambition come from? And what is the true motivation behind it?

I am asking this and invite you to have a think because I have spent some time in the past months pondering these question related to my own story. Through this reflection and my studies and the coaching I am receiving, I have come to understand that our behaviours are in many cases the mirror image of the culture we grew up in. What our parents or role models showed us, what they found important, what they were scared of – it still reverberates in us to this very day.

My life has been shaped by an echo of the war

Take my own case: I grew up as an only child in a very supportive, well-off but not crazy rich family. There was always someone there to interact with, I did not have to be afraid of anything, I was encouraged to give my best and I received attention, care, love and praise by the truckload.

One of the figures who influenced me most was my grandfather. He in turn was influenced by his parents (father very gentle, mother very tough). My grandfather is a hybrid between a business man and politician. He was pulled into the second world war as a corporal candidate and nearly died. This man has gone through unspeakably hard times and survived against the odds, founded a family, chipped in at his mother’s business (wholesale trade with fruit), managed to grow this business, then had to close the whole shop down because of disruption of the marketplace with rise of the supermarkets in the sixties and seventies. That was around the time when he became the mayor of our village and he remained in this position until his retirement in his seventies, seeing to the community and laying the foundations for a prosperous development of the village for decades to come.

I think my grandpa, who is still alive and kicking as I am writing this, is the one who I got my ambition from and it’s in a way also his grit that drove me to make many of my (career) choices – imagine that: Interwoven in my life, there is still an echo of a cruel and pointless war, of eager rebuilding and of something called “Wirtschaftswunder” in German. Crazy, eh?

With the hardship he had seen in his twenties as a soldier and prisoner of war for several years, his primary concern in later life was financial security for his family, living in a house of his own, not having to ever suffer from hunger again, going on nice holidays, enjoying the good times with friends and driving a decent car. He achieved all of this and much more by being diligent and upright, showing strength in making decisions and working very hard. There were a couple of collateral damages along the way, though. For instance he did not spend a lot of time with his two daughters when they were kids and teens because business came first.

The ingredients for forming a personality

In addition to my grandpa with his adventurous roller-coaster of a life journey, there were also more gentle, quiet, humble and warm characters like my mother, my grandmother and my aunt. They taught me about being grateful and forgiving, having compassion, and saying sorry when you mess up. This, I think today, was really important as a counterbalance. If they had not been around, my personality might look different today.

Speaking of which, a wise person once told me that my personality might be my biggest asset. I am positive and curious, dependable, outgoing, empathetic, not very worried, have heaps of energy and am easy to get along with. These are great traits to have and they have helped me a lot in my life. What’s more, they have also enabled me to help others which I find even better.

Doing “the penguin” down a slope in Lapland. I did not think twice and loved it; thanks to the “openness” trait in my personality

It’s important to note here that a personality is not a fate, it’s just our preferred way of behaving and interacting with the world. So if yours gives you a hard time, you can always make choices on how you behave and what you make of that. If you want to learn more about personality theories, I recommend this article and this video. If you want to understand more about the stories we tell ourselves and how our parent figures shape our behaviour then have a look at transactional analysis – it was a true eye-opener for me.

The values we absorb while growing up shape and drive us

One value that I grew up with as a child with is “belonging” – I felt completely safe in our little patchwork family and was sure that no matter what I did, my folks would always love me. So this is a state of being that I hold as an idealistic image inside me still today. I am happiest when I feel deeply connected to the people around me by a bond of mutual trust and affection. So this is – in truth – what I have been after all of my life.

I subconsciously want to recreate the sense of “belonging” from my childhood, fair enough. But of course in business life, I never spoke that out, for one because it would have felt utterly inappropriate in a corporate setting to say “I just want to belong” and what’s more I was not even fully aware of that mechanism to start with. Now the funny thing is that our brain is able to come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful behaviours when it comes to fulfilling our needs.

I appear to be the embodied competitiveness, but why?

When I was cleaning out old documents this week, I found a Belbin report from 2012. Maybe you came across this method, too – it’s a nice tool for enabling teamwork. You take a test to describe and rate yourself according to your traits and strengths and the roles that you feel drawn to and then your colleagues do the same for you. They also give their perception of how you come across. When I looked at the printed pages, it made me smile.
My team mates in the sales team I was part of at the time had in 10 out of 10 cases given me the attribute «competitive». This was the single most frequently used adjective to describe my behaviour. Funnily enough, in my own perception, I did not feel that I wanted to outperform them, I just wanted to do a really good job.

How subconsciously held ideals and assumptions inform (weird) behaviours

So here’s what I pieced together with the insight I now have: The assumption my brain had come up with was that by not only fulfilling but exceeding expectations, I would be more readily accepted. And being accepted seemed like a good first step to belonging which is what I was really, really after. So if you will I tried to recklessly elbow and shove my way to a state that has to do with the exact opposite: care and tenderness and affection.

It seems like my brain has this weird assumption going on behind the scenes that I might get praise and attention for impressing others by doing things really well. So I sometimes ended up doing counter-intuitive things to try and win the hearts of people – and many times of course that went awry. For instance, I became really ambitious and a smarty-pants in school and you can guess how much my classmates loved me for that. 🙂

So what – is it bad to be ambitious?

No, that’s not what I’m saying. The trouble is that you can never please everybody at the same time, so a person guided by a will to impress everywhere they go will have a really tough life.

In German there is a word for ambition which is called «Ehrgeiz»; it would literally translate into English as a greed for honours and like so many traits it is a double-edged sword. Yes, it can feel immensely rewarding to achieve your ambitions (get that promotion, being able to buy that house) but your ambitions can also fool you and distract you from recognizing what it is that really, really drives you.

And why is it important to know what really, really drives you?

Well, I believe the good thing about knowing the mechanisms underneath the surface, these weird assumptions and idealistic images, is that you can make more conscious, informed decisions in the here and now. You can guide your behaviour away from the old patterns and carve new grooves. And this can feel incredibly liberating, such a relief.

In my case it means that I still have room for this sense of belonging in my life but I began to be much more selective with it. I live this deep bond with my husband, with my friends and family. I do not have to always be right, I do not have to always be liked, I do not have to impress everyone. I want to work where I can be myself. Sounds dead simple but was/is such a big step for me and that’s why I wanted to share it with you.

What about you?

So, now I invite you to take a deep breath and consider: What is the ideal, the value that your five year old self is after? Is it like in my case that you want to belong? Or is it something different? With which behaviours are you standing in your own way? Maybe you know the answer right away. Maybe these questions need a while to sink in. Allow yourself the opportunity to let these questions linger and trust that the answers will find you when the time is right.

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