Most of us in the entrepreneurial community are blessed — or cursed — with higher-than-average ambition. Ambitious people crave accomplishments, whether that means becoming more recognized and powerful or making more money, and are usually willing to take more risks and spend more effort to get them.
Overall, this is a positive quality, especially for people trying to build their own businesses. Obviously, if you’re more naturally driven to set goals and accomplish them, you’ll be more likely to succeed than someone who isn’t, right?
Actually, no; this isn’t always the case. In fact, in some cases, extreme ambition may end up doing more harm than good. If you believe you’re the type of person who is overwhelmingly ambitious, you’ll need to watch out for the following dangerous side effects.
Fixation on an end goal
The first major side effect of excessive ambition is the tendency to focus too stubbornly on one particular vision or end goal. For example, if you set out to make $1 million by the time you’re 30, everything that doesn’t immediately appear to get you closer to that goal may appear useless to you.
This is problematic for two reasons. First, it hinders your ability to adapt to new circumstances (which is vital if you want to be a successful entrepreneur). If a new competitor emerges to threaten your business, you may need to change direction and readjust your goals, even if that means straying from your original vision. If you have too much ambition, you’ll find this hard (if not impossible).
Second, that “$1 million by age 30” goal makes you less satisfied with the “journey” element of entrepreneurship itself, and less happy in general — which I’ll look at in greater detail below.
Excessive ambition can also make you overly eager to grow. And, as you likely already know, uncontrolled, excessively fast growth can ultimately ruin a business. When you grow too quickly, you end up spending money recklessly; you invest in people, equipment, and resources before you need them; and you see your internal structures become so chaotic, it’s nearly impossible to keep up.
You’re better off keeping your ambition in check, maintaining the business ecosystem you have while managing slower, steadier growth over a period of months.
Negative reactions to failure
Few people are successful when they try to build their first brand. This is natural and is a byproduct of both a lack of experience and a high failure rate in the entrepreneurial world, in general. Unfortunately, for the most ambitious entrepreneurs, a failure is seen as devastating, and impossible to recover from.
It’s a marked deviation from the intended plan toward the intended goal, and therefore marks the end of the road. For people with checked or limited ambition, however, failure is viewed as something closer to reality — a temporary setback on an extended journey. Remember that failure is inevitable, and every failure you survive is a learning experience.
A 2013 piece in The Atlantic explored the idea that relationships are more important than ambition when determining a person’s ability to succeed. Being ambitious often makes you inherently more selfish, driving you to pursue individual goals at the possible expense of your family, friends and community.
For example, you might work long hours into the night instead of spending quality time with your spouse and child, or you might neglect your employees’ needs and mental state, to squeeze a bit more productivity out of them. This may help you achieve some short-term gains, but ultimately, relationships and community connections are better predictors of success: These connections are mutually beneficial, and far more important to your mental health than ambition, my next topic in the section below.
Happiness and the real definition of success
According to a recent study from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, ambitious people looked at in the survey did tend to be more materialistically successful than their non-ambitious counterparts; and they got further in their careers and made more money.
However, they were only slightly happier than their less-ambitious counterparts, and tended to live significantly shorter lives. These results imply that even though ambitious people are more likely to achieve conventional “success,” those accomplishments mean nothing for their health and happiness — and if you don’t have health and happiness, what else could possibly matter?
Finding the balance
Clearly, some amount of ambition is good for your motivation. Without any ambition, you wouldn’t start your own business, set or achieve goals and get very far in life. But an excess of ambition can also be dangerous, putting you at risk of burnout, stubbornness and even a shorter life.
If you want to get the most out of your entrepreneurial experience, you’ll need to tap into that ambition, but keep it well under your control, using it as a way to fuel your accomplishments, but never letting it get the better of you.