Are Your Ambitions Helping or Hurting Your Business?

By Alexander Stein
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

Can you imagine starting a company without ambition? Impossible. Whatever your vehicle, ambition is the fuel; it’s what you dream about and what gets you up before the alarm every morning. Ambition takes you places.

Except when it doesn’t.

Conventional management theory construes ambition as goal-oriented: You’re aiming for objective X  excellence, recognition, profits, power, changing the world. The common assumption is that satisfying ambition is directly tied to reaching your goal. All you really need to focus on is how  the metrics and strategies to smart, bold, effective business-building.

But goal-attainment is only one piece of the puzzle.

Ambitions are generated by lots of other psychological factors  not just the fire to aim and go. What they’re actually made of strongly determines the route you’ll ultimately take and how you feel on the way.

From the outside, it might appear that all ambitious people are moving forward in pursuit of their respective brass rings, be it an expansion or acquisition, fulfillment and contentment, or making meaningful contributions to marketplaces and society (making a good living doesn’t hurt either).

Under the surface, however, not everybody’s traveling in the same direction. In fact, some people are going backwards.

Some ambitions are propelled by guilt, fear, hate, an intense need to seem impressive or not to be a failure. What else? To redress wrongs, overcome deprivations, or disprove, destroy, or defend. That’s a short list. For those in this group, chances are, no matter how many candles are burned at both ends, even if they reach some version of success, real, sustainable satisfaction is gonna be tough.

Why? One reason is that the objective goal isn’t the actual goal. The engine of ambition is powered by those underpinning imperatives and obstacles, which remain untouched and unsatisfied by the actual achievements.

Consider Joel M., 40, founder, owner, and chief visionary of an East Coast multimedia production company (I’ve changed a few details to disguise his identity). After years of dreaming, sweating, and struggling, Joel is now standing with both feet planted in paradise. Armed with talent, charisma, a stellar track record, and a fluorescent business plan, he landed ample VC funding with nominal startup or operating restrictions. Joel shot out of the gate with economic, creative, and administrative freedom. He’s working out of a dream shop with state-of-the-art equipment, a gonzo sweet budget for marketing, development, and Slurpee-sized Lattes. Be careful what you wish for; you might get it. He’s miserable. And it’s making him f@*# up. Not cool.

What’s going on? Joel started dreaming this dream long ago. Its superstructure developed over the years and got polished to further his professional pursuits. But it’s a gleaming Santiago Calatrava tower with a decrepit old barn for a lobby. His early life involved parents who were fundamentally uninvolved and disinterested in him. He grew up longing for a magical switcheroo: his real life for one where people truly cared and he got what he asked for.

It looks like his wish was granted, sort of, but it’s definitely not the solution he hoped it’d be. Sitting in his Hermann Miller chair in his super-duper studio, he’s still holding the same bag of rocks.

What to do? One of the first steps when I’m engaged as an advisor to any entrepreneur, executive, or business owner in this situation, is to start parsing the operational factors from the psychological ones. Each impacts the other. Are you unhappy because the ingredients for happiness are objectively absent or deficient, i.e. you’re disenchanted with the business you’ve built or the people you work with? Are there are organizational problems, such as staffing, marketing, production issues, cash flow difficulties, or other mechanical hiccups? Or is it that there’s something inside you causing an obstruction to feeling fulfilled?

For Joel, this means helping him understand where his dissatisfaction is actually coming from so he can start to value what he has, not what he doesn’t. The lament for his unfortunate childhood may ache into old age. But it’d be tragedy compounded to wreck his new business on account of it.

You’re not going to find a global formula for success, and emulating the 7 habits of successful people will probably only guarantee that you can succeed in emulating seven of their habits.

What you can do is identify and unhook your personal psychological Bungee cords that may be thwarting your ambitions.