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Ambition Is Just A Word Until You Act

by Ramon Greenwood

Ambition is a sanctified ideal in the folklore of successful careers. Just the word - as in "She has always had a lot of ambition" - evokes a degree of respect and admiration.

However, in practice, ambition is not inherently a good and a positive force. Ambition may be embraced or ignored; used or abused. It can even become an excuse for failure. It all depends on how it is employed.

True ambition is not dreaming and talking about what you want to achieve. Ambition is knowing where you want to go, how to get there, and doing what it takes to reach the goal. The key is to combine ambition, which means desire, with initiative, which means action.

There are lessons to be learned from the way Harry K. managed his ambitions.

Harry had been in his job less than one year, but he was already restless and frustrated by what he saw as his lack of progress.

"I am ambitious," he told everyone who would listen to his complaining. "I will be a success, but I'll never make it doing little insignificant things day in and day out. I could do a lot more; they just won't give me a chance."

Harry Had Potential, But...
Joe, his supervisor, believed Harry had the potential to succeed, but knew he was underperforming and creating a problem for the entire staff with his constant complaining.

Joe called the young man in for a performance evaluation. The meeting soon turned into a confrontation when Harry began to push his case within a few minutes.

"I am still doing the same old things. I know I'm paid less than the others in the department. It's just not fair," he began, ignoring the compliments he had been handed at the beginning of the conference.

"Harry, you have been with us for only eleven months," Joe replied. "You are the newest salesman; everyone else has been here at least three years. They've worked their way up the ladder.

"You are making reasonable progress, but, let's face it, you are still short on experience. Give it a little time."

Joe complimented Harry again and went on to suggest that his work habits needed some improvement.

"Harry, you are late most mornings, and you are out of here right at five o'clock. And, frankly, I think you could improve your performance by devoting a little time at nights and on weekends to learning more about your job."

"You are not being fair," Harry bristled. "The company is not paying me as much as it pays the rest of you. I work the hours you pay me for. Sure, I know you and the others stay late, but I don't have anything to do; and besides, as I told you, I am not married to this company. You pay me and I will show you what I can do."

Harry went on to spell out his expectations. "I'm on the fast track. I expect to be a Group Manager in six months. I just can't wait around forever."

Joe saw the discussion was dead-ending, but he still believed Harry had potential. He made what he thought was a fair offer.

"Let's speed up your learning curve. Work with Bill Davis as his assistant. You will gain a lot from his experience. We'll also provide you with some special training. However, I can't give you a raise now, since our budgets are frozen; but if you do as well as I know you can, I promise you'll get an increase in three months."

"That's not fair," Harry charged. "Everyone in the department knows Bill is past his prime. He is worn out. I would be running his errands. I don't think that is much of a promotion, certainly not what I deserve."

Harry never recovered from that discussion in the eyes of his supervisor and the department head. He soon left the company.

Unfortunately, Harry never learned the real meaning of ambition. He used his stated ambitions as an excuse for his failures, telling everyone things hadn't worked out with various employers because he was "too ambitious to wait around to be promoted."

The lesson here is simple. Ambition is nothing more than a word until it is coupled with commitment and action.

Ramon Greenwood is Senior Career Counselor for He is a former Senior Vice President at American Express, a published author and syndicated columnist, a professional director and an entrepreneur.

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