Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and have a conversation in hushed tones with yourself about whether driving so hard to be a success in your professional life is really worth it? Well, here's some good news for you: It's not! A new study has found that ambitious people don't necessarily come out on top. Sure, they get great educations and have successful careers, but they have less satisfying lives and they die earlier. Phew, now the less ambitious among us can take comfort in knowing that when all is said and done, we'll end up better off than all those hard-charging success fiends with Blackberries clipped to their belts.
So, what magical genie came along and granted us this wisdom? His name is Timothy Judge, and he's a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. In his article, "On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition," which is forthcoming from the Journal of Applied Psychology, Judge offers us a better idea of the consequences—both good and bad—of ambition. Ambition, it turns out, is sort of a weird character trait. Unlike something with a clear-cut value, like patience, ambition is seen as both a virtue and a vice.
In order to establish how the tricky concept of ambition affected people, Judge tracked 717 "high-ability individuals" over a period of seventy years. Because their lives changed so much from childhood to adulthood, Judge used multiple criteria to measure ambition. Many of the study participants ended up getting excellent educations, at places like Harvard, Yale, etc. but others of them simply finished high school or community college. What Judge found in the end was that ambition did lead to greater achievement:
Ambitious kids had higher educational attainment, attended highly esteemed universities, worked in more prestigious occupations, and earned more. So, it would seem that they are poised to "have it all."
That's what we're all led to believe, and what we'll in turn lead our children and our children's children to believe: If we work our asses off and get a good education, we'll end up with everything our wild, greedy hearts could dream of. But actually, it didn't quite work out like that. Judge explains,
[W]e determined that ambition has a much weaker effect on life satisfaction and actually a slightly negative impact on longevity (how long people lived). So, yes, ambitious people do achieve more successful careers, but that doesn't seem to translate into leading happier or healthier lives.
Aha! Slow and steady wins the race. If the end goal in life is to feel satisfied with the one you've lived—and presumably to live as long as you can to enjoy it—then why waste so much energy being ambitious when you can sit back, enjoy the ride, and still end up in the same position or an even better off than if you'd spent your life stressing about succeeding wildly at everything you do?
Of course, ambition isn't always a choice. For some people following their ambition might the only way to enjoy life. But for those of us in the middle ground, God created yoga and Pinterest and wine and Twitter and all those other things that help us live in the moment and eat up our time so that we don't waste it working and becoming too successful for our own good. Then, when we come to the end of the road, we can look back with satisfaction at all the tweets we've generated and all the wine bottles we've emptied and feel at peace with our concrete accomplishments; whereas, the hard driving fool who owns the gazillion-dollar-earning tech company and sits in the corner office is forced to find empty solace in the endless view of his or her massive, wealthy kingdom.
Image via Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock.