Ambition: Why Some People Are Most Likely To Succeed
You don’t get as successful as gregg and drew shipp by accident. Shake hands with the 36-year-old fraternal twins who co-own the sprawling Hi Fi Personal Fitness club in Chicago, and it’s clear you’re in the presence of people who thrive on their drive. But that wasn’t always the case. The twins’ father founded the Jovan perfume company, a glamorous business that spun off the kinds of glamorous profits that made it possible for the Shipps to amble through high school, coast through university and never much worry about getting the rent paid or keeping the fridge filled. But before they graduated, their sense of drift began to trouble them. At about the same time, their father sold off the company, and with it went the cozy billets in adult life that had always served as an emotional backstop for the boys.
That did it. By the time they got out of school, both Shipps had entirely transformed themselves, changing from boys who might have grown up to live off the family’s wealth to men consumed with going out and creating their own. “At this point,” says Gregg, “I consider myself to be almost maniacally ambitious.”
It shows. In 1998 the brothers went into the gym trade. They spotted a modest health club doing a modest business, bought out the owner and transformed the place into a luxury facility where private trainers could reserve space for top-dollar clients. In the years since, the company has outgrown one building, then another, and the brothers are about to move a third time. Gregg, a communications major at university, manages the club’s clients, while Drew, a business major, oversees the more hardheaded chore of finance and expansion. “We’re not sitting still,” Drew says. “Even now that we’re doing twice the business we did at our old place, there’s a thirst that needs to be quenched.”
Why is that? Why are some people born with a fire in the belly, while others—like the Shipps—need something to get their pilot light lit? And why do others never get the flame of ambition going? Is there a family anywhere that doesn’t have its overachievers and underachievers—its Jimmy Carters and Billy Carters, its Jeb Bushes and Neil Bushes—and find itself wondering how they all could have come splashing out of exactly the same gene pool?
Of all the impulses in humanity’s behavioral portfolio, ambition—that need to grab an ever bigger piece of the resource pie before someone else gets it—ought to be one of the most democratically distributed. Nature is a zero-sum game, after all. Every buffalo you kill for your family is one less for somebody else’s; every piece of land you occupy elbows out somebody else. Given that, the need to get ahead ought to be hard-wired into all of us equally.
And yet it’s not. For every person consumed with the need to achieve, there’s someone content to accept whatever life brings. For everyone who chooses the 80-hour workweek, there’s someone punching out at 5. Men and women—so it’s said—express ambition differently; so do Americans and Europeans, baby boomers and Gen Xers, the middle class and the well-to-do. Even among the manifestly motivated, there are degrees of ambition. Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple Computer and then left the company in 1985 as a 34-year-old multimillionaire. His partner, Steve Jobs, is still innovating at Apple and moonlighting at his second blockbuster company, Pixar Animation Studios.
Not only do we struggle to understand why some people seem to have more ambition than others, but we can’t even agree on just what ambition is. “Ambition is an evolutionary product,” says anthropologist Edward Lowe at Soka University of America, in Aliso Viejo, California. “No matter how social status is defined, there are certain people in every community who aggressively pursue it and others who aren’t so aggressive.”
Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who studies genius, creativity and eccentricity, believes it’s more complicated than that. “Ambition is energy and determination,” he says. “But it calls for goals too. People with goals but no energy are the ones who wind up sitting on the couch saying ‘One day I’m going to build a better mousetrap.’ People with energy but no clear goals just dissipate themselves in one desultory project after the next.”
Assuming you’ve got drive, dreams and skill, is all ambition equal? Is the overworked lawyer on the partner track any more ambitious than the overworked parent on the mommy track? Is the successful musician to whom melody comes naturally more driven than the unsuccessful one who sweats out every note? We may listen to Mozart, but should we applaud Salieri?
Most troubling of all, what about when enough ambition becomes way too much? Grand dreams unmoored from morals are the stuff of tyrants—or at least of Enron and Parmalat. The 16-hour workday filled with high stress and at-the-desk meals is the stuff of burnout and heart attacks. Even among kids, too much ambition quickly starts to do real harm. In a just completed study, anthropologist Peter Demerath of Ohio State University surveyed 600 students at a high-achieving high school where most of the kids are triple-booked with advanced-placement courses, sports and after-school jobs. About 70% of them reported that they were starting to feel stress some or all of the time. “I asked one boy how his parents react to his workload, and he answered, ‘I don’t really get home that often,’” says Demerath. “Then he handed me his business card from the video store where he works.”
Anthropologists, psychologists and others have begun looking more closely at these issues, seeking the roots of ambition in family, culture, gender, genes and more. They have by no means thrown the curtain all the way back, but they have begun to part it. “It’s fundamentally human to be prestige conscious,” says Soka’s Lowe. “It’s not enough just to be fed and housed. People want more.”
Ongoing studies of identical twins have measured achievement motivation–lab language for ambition–in identical siblings separated at birth, and found that each twin’s profile overlaps 30% to 50% of the other’s. In genetic terms, that’s an awful lot–“a benchmark for heritability,” says geneticist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute. But that still leaves a great deal that can be determined by experiences in infancy, subsequent upbringing and countless other imponderables.
Some of those variables may be found by studying the function of the brain. At Washington University, researchers have been conducting brain imaging to investigate a trait they call persistence–the ability to stay focused on a task until it’s completed just so–which they consider one of the critical engines driving ambition.
It’s impossible to say whether innate differences in the brain were driving the ambitious behavior or whether learned behavior was causing the limbic to light up. But a number of researchers believe it’s possible for the nonambitious to jump-start their drive, provided the right jolt comes along. “Energy level may be genetic,” says psychologist Simonton, “but a lot of times it’s just finding the right thing to be ambitious about.” Simonton and others often cite the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who might not have been the same President he became–or even become President at all–had his disabling polio not taught him valuable lessons about patience and tenacity.
Is such an epiphany possible for all of us, or are some people immune to this kind of lightning? Are there individuals or whole groups for whom the amplitude of ambition is simply lower than it is for others? It’s a question–sometimes a charge–that hangs at the edges of all discussions about gender and work, about whether women really have the meat-eating temperament to survive in the professional world. Both research findings and everyday experience suggest that women’s ambitions express themselves differently from men’s. The meaning of that difference is the hinge on which the arguments turn.
Males are built to go for quick, competitive reproductive hits and move on. Women are built for the it-takes-a-village life, in which they provide long-term care to a very few young and must sail them safely into an often hostile world. Among some of our evolutionary kin–baboons, macaques and other old-world monkeys–this can be especially tricky since young females inherit their mother’s social rank. The mothers must thus operate the levers of society deftly so as to raise both their own position and, eventually, their daughters’. If you think that kind of ambition-by-proxy doesn’t translate to humans, Hrdy argues, think again. “Just read an Edith Wharton novel about women in old New York competing for marriage potential for their daughters,” she says.
Import such tendencies into the 21st century workplace, and you get women who are plenty able to compete ferociously but are inclined to do it in teams and to split the difference if they don’t get everything they want. And mothers who appear to be unwilling to strive and quit the workplace altogether to go raise their kids? Hrdy believes they’re competing for the most enduring stakes of all, putting aside their near-term goals to ensure the long-term success of their line. Robin Parker, 46, a campaign organizer who in 1980 was already on the presidential stump with Senator Edward Kennedy, was precisely the kind of lifetime pol who one day finds herself in the West Wing. But in 1992, at the very moment a President of her party was returning to the White House and she might have snagged a plum Washington job, she decamped from the capital, moved to Boston with her family and became a full-time mom to her two sons.
“Being out in the world became a lot less important to me,” she says. “I used to worry about getting Presidents elected, and I’m still an incredibly ambitious person. But what I want to succeed at now is managing my family, raising my boys, helping my husband and the community. In 10 years, when the boys are launched, who knows what I’ll be doing? But for now, I have my world.”
There are no hard rules for the kinds of families that turn out the highest achievers. Most psychologists agree that parents who set tough but realistic challenges, applaud successes and go easy on failures produce kids with the greatest self-confidence (see box). What’s harder for parents to control but has perhaps as great an effect is the level of privilege into which their kids are born. Just how wealth or poverty influences drive is difficult to predict. Grow up in a rich family, and you can inherit either the tools to achieve (think both Presidents Bush) or the indolence of the aristocrat. Grow up poor, and you can come away with either the motivation to strive (think Bill Clinton) or the inertia of the hopeless. On the whole, studies suggest it’s the upper middle class that produces the greatest proportion of ambitious people–mostly because it also produces the greatest proportion of anxious people.
But some societies make you more anxious than others. The U.S. has always been a me-first culture, as befits a nation that grew from a scattering of people on a fat saddle of continent where land was often given away. That have-it-all ethos persists today, even though the resource freebies are long since gone. Other countries–where the acreage is smaller and the pickings are slimmer–came of age differently, with the need to cooperate getting etched into the cultural DNA. The American model has produced wealth, but it has come at a price–with ambition sometimes turning back on the ambitious and consuming them whole.
So this is a good thing, right? Striving people come here to succeed–and do. While there are plenty of benefits that undeniably come with learning the ways of ambition, there are plenty of perils too–many a lot uglier than high school students cheating on the trig final.
Human history has always been writ in the blood of broken alliances, palace purges and strong people or nations beating up on weak ones–all in the service of someone’s hunger for power or resources. “There’s a point at which you find an interesting kind of nerve circuitry between optimism and hubris,” says Warren Bennis, a professor of business administration at the University of Southern California and the author of three books on leadership. “It becomes an arrogance or conceit, an inability to live without power.”
While most ambitious people keep their secret Caesar tucked safely away, it can emerge surprisingly, even suddenly. Says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta and the author of a new book, Our Inner Ape: “You can have a male chimp that is the most laid-back character, but one day he sees the chance to overthrow the leader and becomes a totally different male. I would say 90% of people would behave this way too. On an island with three people, they might become a little dictator.”
But a yearning for supremacy can create its own set of problems. Heart attacks, ulcers and other stress-related ills are more common among high achievers–and that includes nonhuman achievers. The blood of alpha wolves routinely shows elevated levels of cortisol, the same stress hormone that is found in anxious humans. Alpha chimps even suffer ulcers and occasional heart attacks. For these reasons, people and animals who have an appetite for becoming an alpha often settle contentedly into life as a beta. “The desire to be in a high position is universal,” says de Waal. “But that trait has co-evolved with another skill–the skill to make the best of lower positions.”
Humans not only make peace with their beta roles but they also make money from them. Among corporations, an increasingly well-rewarded portion of the workforce is made up of B players, managers and professionals somewhere below the top tier. They don’t do the power lunching and ribbon cutting but instead perform the highly skilled, everyday work of making the company run. As skeptical shareholders look ever more askance at overpaid corporate A-listers, the B players are becoming more highly valued. It’s an adaptation that serves the needs of both the corporation and the culture around it. “Everyone has ambition,” says Lowe. “Societies have to provide alternative ways for people to achieve.”
Ultimately, it’s that very flexibility–that multiplicity of possible rewards–that makes dreaming big dreams and pursuing big goals worth all the bother. Ambition is an expensive impulse, one that requires an enormous investment of emotional capital. Like any investment, it can pay off in countless different kinds of coin. The trick, as any good speculator will tell you, is recognizing the riches when they come your way. Autor: Jeffrey Kluger