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It's an interesting shift from previous times, when upper class people were not supposed to describe themselves as ambitious. To do so implied that one was greedy, grasping, a climber. This can be weird in politics, though, because either an aspirant to the White House is personally ambitious (see, he's only looking out for #1!) or she wants to do the nation a public service (what an ego!).

I think I'm the flipside of you -- ambitious in a long term sense, but not always on a daily basis. You aspire to success and achievement in each individual task that you do, but not so much to make all those add up to advancement for yourself. For example, some people would consider you ambitious in what you wanted for the bridal shower, but you don't seem to do it in order to be known as the woman who puts together awesome bridal showers -- you just wanted that one to go well.

Inasmuch as some of the people arguing with the Happy Feminist are saying that it's more important to "touch people" (presumably in a non-creepy way), I think they miss that work involves touching people too. You touch the students whom you are paid to coach; you touched the people whom you were paid to assist through bankruptcy. Being paid to help people doesn't render that aid somehow inauthentic.


Of course you are ambitious. Why pretend otherwise? Is this blog not a passive/aggressive means to a very particular end? A pleasurable detour en route to a book deal or newspaper column? Don't be disingenuous. I enjoy reading your blog because that Whartonesque ambition - social and professional -- is so thinly-veiled that it makes for exceptionally interesting reading.

But, aren't you ambitious? True, you may have rejected the legal career and its elusive (and often false) promises of prestige and wealth, but you have chosen a career as a college coach. That is a profession where you are judged by your success. There are even milestones in your career where you can measure your success, from your ability to recruit sailors, to their success on the water.

If you had no ambition, I would expect to find you working on a crew on someone else's boat where you could pursue your love of sailing without having to be concerned with the business, or the success of the boat.

Carol Anne

Ambitious? Perhaps one who calls you ambitious might be an honourable man.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest -
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men -
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.


OTOH, a coach is usually content with reflected glory with most of the focus shining upon the team she coaches. So, what do we call a person who isn't so much interested in the glory for herself, but is still striving hard in a competitive business? What if the ambition is mostly expressed in supporting or driving the accomplishments of others? Coaching would seem to be an interesting business in that the coach has to have a lot of self-confidence and perhaps a bit of hubris, and be able to project that confidence to the athletes, yet the coach still has to swallow a lot of that ego while taking a lot of lumps, and, we hope, put the athletes' welfare first. (We hear about it when a Woody Hayes or some such coach gets off track.) Perhaps there's just a wee little bit of potential for conflict and contradiction in this business.

I think your point is made in the distinction between success and achievement and reaching predetermined milestones or career-oriented power & influence.

You seem to be very ambitious, Sherry, in the success and achievement category, and very un-ambitious with regard to preset milestones and career-oriented influence.

But combining the definitions a little more, I think you still fall into ambitious. Power & influence -- when viewed not as bad things, and signs of self-righteousness and overreaching -- are not bad. And I think you very much like to take your successes and achievements and use them, and what they bring to you, as a tool for influencing others and shifting the power balances around you. That sounds very much like your style of leadership. It's just that your sort of success and your sort of influence are not the bull-headed corporate image of "my way or the highway."

You are ambitious in setting goals for your sailors. You use your successes in organizing life, decision-making, and self-assessment to influence their development, with a goal not only of winning races and awards, but personal satisfaction from a job well done. Powerful stuff, that is.

If we bring ambitious back to its real definition, and take out the career-oriented, externally-measured weights that have been placed upon it, I think you'll fit right in.

When you say you're not motivated by a strong desire for success or achievement, I beg you to reassess whose measures of those two things you're looking at.

Glib Gurl

Great post. Lately I've been thinking a lot about "ambition" -- mostly thinking about where mine has gotten me . . . .

Larry Retzack

I admire and agree with your conviction that you, despite holding a law degree & having practiced, feel that you are not ambitious. It reminds me somewhat of when I applied to attend the Univ. of Chicago's Library School. During a brief interview, the Dean asked why I was applying and I told him that I just wanted to see if I was able to successfully pursue Ph.D. work. His response: "Being the preiminent Library School in America, the U of C's Library School works to prepare graduates for the top positions in the library world and even if successful, don't you think it would be like killing an ant with a sledge hammer?" I told the Dean he was right and attended Northwestern U. instead.

I think one can be successful in a chosen profession without being ambitious. Like you, I also changed professions. Having initially become a music teacher, after teaching in California, Canada and Japan, I returned to grad school and became a librarian. And professionally, I have absolutely no regrets.

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