Ware Your Ambition, Lest It Molest You With Responsibility

Posted by in Productivity

In a world reared for success, ambition is an increasingly valued personal quality – and there is no denying that much is owed to it. But if left unchecked, ambition could turn even the most well-intended among us down a very unexpected and unwelcome path indeed.

Few will disagree with the notion that people with ambition tend to gravitate towards responsibility in the shape of leadership positions. It’s a mechanism deeply rooted within those of us afflicted with ambition, which is at its most base level represented by our reward system at work doing what it was designed to do.

The reward system works much the same in all of us, activating when we achieve something that we want, and motivating us to repeat the action. It is also, in short, what takes a shovel to the back of the collective heads of ambitious people.

Why? Well, what’s the first synonym you can think of for responsibility? Most people I ask reply with… “work”, usually preceded or succeeded by a slight revelatory pause. And of course, it’s hard to argue that at least proper responsibility, as opposed to ‘title’ responsibility, is or will ever be a walk in the park.

The real problem, however, arises when ambition, responsibility and our reward system join forces to overpower our intellect. Ambition stokes our thirst for responsibility, and the reward system does exactly what it was built for: it rewards the achievement, and promotes an encore.

Responsibility and reward

Responsibility is either bestowed upon you by others; taken upon yourself; carried reluctantly, or assumed willingly. Combine these variables, and you get variations ranging from the reluctant leader elevated to greatness by his peers, to the overambitious careerist promoted by management – and everything in between.

With this as our backdrop, the connection between ambition and responsibility, and how the former acts as a catalyst to accrue further responsibilities among the ambitious, shifts into focus.

Those who accept responsibility reluctantly are unlikely to get much – if any – attention by our reward system. The ambitious, meanwhile, are receptive to the vicious circle of responsibility and reward. Achieve responsibiity, claim reward; rinse and repeat.

This way, responsibility moves from its singular to its plural form, resulting in a rather ungraceful move from the category of ‘ambitious and hungry for success’ to ‘overworked sod’. In other words, your brain just dealt you a slow kick to the proverbial nuts.

Digging out

If you find yourself nodding all along while reading this, fret not; there’s hope. First, allow the possibility of having taken on too much to slowly dawn on you (because it never strikes like lightning). Then, ask this of yourself: if you knew you could not fail, which one thing would you pursue right now?

Should the answer not be on your list of current responsibilities, start finding a way to pursue it. If it’s something you already do, count yourself grateful, and prepare to wrestle with yourself over the certainty of your answer.

Now, whether what you want to do is on the list or not, you’ll have to wrestle with the proposition of letting go of your current achievements. We’re a greedy lot, you and I.

The trick to it, of course, is to answer the question I just gave you truthfully – because if you truly have, your answer will offset the perceived loss of your current achievements to the extent that you will be able to decide on a course of action that much faster.

Then get off your arse and do something about it, because life is indeed too short to be barking up the wrong forest.