Are you ambitious?
If you are like most people your knee jerk reaction to that question is "yes, of course"
We fetishize ambition in America. We believe that the entire foundation of the America Dream is based on ambition. You can be anything you want to be if you just work for it. Its the phrase anything you want to be - if you are ambitious.
So most people say yes they are.
In Corporate America it's even more prevalent. You don't want to be the employee caught out with no ambition. Striving to be better, to get that promotion, to rise in the ranks is what we all should aspire to do - even though a small percentage of people are actually in leadership or management positions compared to the whole of a company.
That matters not, they want you to be ambitious.
I overheard a woman tell a colleague the other day that she isn't very ambitious (and just fine with it) and it is such a rare thing to hear admitted I did a double take!
But what if there was a better way - for us all.
Agnes Collard, in her book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming talks about the difference between aspiration and ambition.
This quote is from the New Yorker article on The Art of Decision Making
"Some of the people taking the music-appreciation class are ambitious; they enrolled not because they aspire to love classical music but because the class is an easy A. From the first day, they know what they value: their grades. (“Turning ambition into aspiration is one of the job descriptions of any teacher,” Callard notes.) The ambitious students find it easy to explain why they’re taking the class. But the aspirants must grow comfortable with a certain quantity of awkward pretense. If someone were to ask you why you enrolled, you would be overreaching if you said that you were moved by the profound beauty of classical music. The truth, which is harder to communicate, is that you have some vague sense of its value, which you hope that some future version of yourself might properly grasp."
To have an aspiration then is to be moving towards a better version of yourself, the self you hope to be. You see some value in the learning of things, the participation of some exercise even if you know it won't result in an A or a promotion or a raise.
Let's take work.
Statistically, it's impossible for all people to have the ambition to climb the corporate ladder - there aren't enough spots - we can't all be leaders! So we claim ambition and apply ourselves in ways that help us get to a coveted spot if we can. While we are doing that we are leaving our aspirations behind. Our aspirations to be a better colleague, to learn for learnings sakes, to just do good work and then go home and take care of our families. Pursuing the first one can leave us wanting, feeling like a failure if our ambition didn't get us what we thought we could achieve with it. The second one can leave us fulfilled - we aspired to be something greater than we work and the reward was in the work itself.
That's a hard pivot to make in cultures where ambition is rewarded. I myself have a hard time making it. But I turn this idea of aspiration over in my mind frequently and ask myself "who do you aspire to be" instead of "what do you want to achieve"