Is Ambition Good or Bad? And When is Ambition Dangerous?

August 28, 2022

Our culture in America tends to put a hyper-focus on ambition and individual success. But is that a healthy thing? Should we be focused on success as much as we are? 

Here’s the really important question:

Is ambition good or bad, and when is ambition dangerous?

Don’t get me wrong, I think ambition can be good. Striving for personal growth and achievement in your life can certainly be a good thing. But it’s also entirely possible that, as a society, we’ve taken ambition entirely too far.

Imagine if traffic worked the same way society works:

When you’re driving down the road and you approach a red light, you stop. You do that so people coming from other directions can get ahead of you on the road you’re on. Even though you’re allowing those people to go in front of you  – and therefore “beat” you in the direction you’re going – you’ve decided that it’s best for society for us to work together in that way. 

Is it frustrating? Absolutely. Especially when you have to be somewhere and you’re losing time by allowing other people to get in front of you. 

But consider the alternative. Imagine if every driver decided they wanted to prioritize their progress over other drivers’. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if every driver started doing what seemed best to them in order for them to get to their destination the quickest.

There would be people driving in the grass, driving off the road, and zooming through red lights. It would be nearly impossible to change directions at an intersection. There would be more crashes and injuries and deaths than we can imagine. It would be chaos.

Now compare that to the current state of society:

With one quick look around, it doesn’t take long to see that we’re in a bit of a chaotic and unhealthy environment driven by individuals trying to either keep up or get ahead.

Does it seem like maybe we’ve started adopting an ambitious mindset a bit too much in our culture? 

Ambition is at its best when it’s like driving a car:

  • Yield when it’s time to yield.
  • Go when it’s time to go.
  • Don’t try to go faster or slower than appropriate.
  • Let other people out when they’re stuck.
  • Stay in your lane.

Where Good Ambition Comes From

Ambition has always been, and is still today, best utilized with a healthy amount of submission to others. 

We were created to serve, and we’re most fulfilled when we’re serving. An 80-year Harvard study found that the number one key to happiness is found in giving your time and energy to others through relationships. That’s at the heart of service, and it’s why we’re drawn to help one another even when it seems we have nothing to gain.

If service is where you’ll be most fulfilled, then submitting your will and ambition to the higher goal of serving others is what will keep your ambition in a healthy place.

This service-first mindset is what keeps relationships healthy and families whole. When you put aside what you want in order to do what’s best for the whole (which is service), you actually end up getting what you want. 

It’s one of those weird Jesus paradox things. When you give up putting your desires first, you become fulfilled in putting your desires in helping other people get their desires. Then, in a weird turnabout mind-bender, you end up getting what you desire. It’s pretty cool how God made us.

But for some reason, we’ve lost that line of thinking in our culture. And it should come as no surprise that at the same time that self-centeredness is becoming more prevalent, we’re also seeing more mental health issues than ever before in our society.

We’ve lost our sense of community and service for one another, and we’ve found that the lack of connection leaves us empty – no matter how much we achieve or attain personally.

What if instead of pursuing personal success at all costs, we started thinking in terms of how our personal gifts and success benefits others? 

What if we started filtering our ambition through the lens of service instead of through the lens of our goals for the future?

As a culture, we’ve over emphasized personal goal setting and under emphasized service-based living. As a result, we’re seeing more chaos.

So let’s use ambition the good way it’s always been meant to be used – in submission and service to others

And I’m willing to bet some of those traffic jams in your life will start to clear up.

Posted by Mike P. Taylor

Mike P. Taylor is an author, speaker, and consultant who helps people understand God's goodness in a fresh way. He's the author of the book Grounded Faith for Practical People and he writes at mikeptaylor.com where he helps people rethink religion for a new generation. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife Sydney and their four kids.