Ambition and excellence

When candidates vyed for public office in Rome, they walked around the city, urging people to vote for them. The word for this was ambitio, which comes from ambire (to go around).

This ritual gave rise to the  word ambition, which came to mean ‘the desire for honour or power’. From its very roots, ambition is rooted on how we are perceived by others. It is a desire for status, approval and approbation of other people. An ambitious person may seek excellence, but it is as a means to another end.

Excellence is doing something well for its own sake. It is the pursuit of achievement, calibre, perfection and mastery because of the joy derived from this pursuit itself. While ambition is a means to an external end, excellence is intrisinc.

We are driven by ambition to gain the approval of others. We strive to excel even when nobody else is watching.

Why do you work?

Is it for the money? If money were no object would you not work at all?

Is it for the promotion? If you don’t have a raise, a better designation and more people to manage, would you not enjoy your work?

Is it for the praise and the recognition? If people didn’t appreciate your work, would it give you no joy?

Is it for the appraisal? If you were not given targets and a rating, would you not have contributed anyway?

Is it for the competition? Are you motivated and driven to only outperform your peers?

Or do you work for the opportunity to show up, to be creative, to make a difference, to overcome challenges and to realize your own potential?

Why do you work? Is it because of external rewards or punishments? Or an internal drive for fulfillment?

Do you work because you have to, or because you get to?

Respect or fear?

People comply with laws either because they respect them, or because they fear them.

Respect is intrinsic – I might not like a law, but if I respect it, I comply with it and even protect it.

Fear is extrinsic – I follow a law because I fear the consequences of breaking it. Once these consequences disappear, so does my compliance.

Of the two, respect is more efficient, robust and decentralized. Sustaining fear requires violence, propaganda and continual effort. Fear is unstable, for it might backfire is unexpected ways. Fear also crowds out and undermines respect.

As leaders, fear is what we default to. Respect is what we must strive towards.

The ingredients for job satisfaction

When ambitious people are dissatisfied with their jobs, they usually assume that the problem is one or more of the following:

  • They aren’t paid enough
  • Their boss is incompetent, or doesn’t drive them hard enough
  • They don’t have colleagues who compete and challenge them to improve

However, the actual problem is usually that their work context doesn’t offer them the following:

  • Autonomy: the freedom to work on their own terms
  • Mastery: the means to master a craft
  • Purpose: the answer to ‘why’ they are doing what they are doing

Past a point, job satisfaction is the result of intrinsic motivation – not extrinsic factors (such as compensation). We have enough research to validate this. Yet, as we move from job to job to quench our dissatisfaction, we look for the wrong things.

Most management theory assumes that people are inherently lazy, and will work only for the right incentives and penalties. But we all know how people derive innate joy from doing creative, innovative and meaningful work. As managers, we merely need to get out of their way.

Inspiration: Daniel Pink