I talk to a lot of competent, hard-working young people. I do this at our business partners, in Praxis interviews, during speaking engagements, and on social media. The audience I am engaging is better than your average 18 or 22 year old. These are people who actually look forward to working and are excited about the opportunity to add value in companies.
But one thing is often lacking: big ambition.
Too many young people today are afraid of thinking big in their ambitions and letting the world know that they want to achieve great things — and they end up worse off for it.
I think a lot of young people hedge their ambitions and their dreams because they want to be “realistic” and they want to not look silly if their goals don’t pan out. On more than one occasion, some have told me, “If I don’t announce my goals and I fail to hit them, then the only person who knows I failed is myself.”
This looks like it makes sense on its face, but it is an unhealthy way of thinking of yourself and can get in the way of your professional and personal growth.
On the flip side, I have yet to meet an already-successful who stumbled into success. This isn’t self-help, Napoleon Hill-talk — I have seen this with our own business partners. Every successful business partner of ours had a goal and set themselves to it while growing their business. They wanted to grow big, so they thought big.
The unsuccessful businesspeople I have met were never sure of their growth, never sure of the direction in which they wanted to take the company, and never sure if their hard work would pay off.
Is being ambitions a guarantee for success? No, but not being ambitious is a guarantee of failure.
Do your ambitions need to include making millions of dollars and owning several jets? No, but why settle for what is essentially the outcome if you do nothing?
As a young person today, you have the more time and resources available to you than most people who have ever walked the earth. Why wouldn’t you be ambitious?
Hedging your ambition — knowing that you want and could do something more but lowering your aims — isn’t just an insult to your opportunity, it also undermines your career chances.
Hedging Your Ambition Unfocuses You
People with clear, high bars for their ambitions have to be focused in order to achieve them. No successful person who met their goals in their career, marriage, or intellectual life did so by saying, “Meh, I’ll settle for less than I can do.”
Setting a high bar, something that very few people will ever be able to achieve and that will take time and work to get to, puts your skin in the game and puts pressure on you to perform.
Not knowing what you want to achieve, or knowing you want to achieve that which most other people around you want to achieve, means that you have a million different directions in which you can take your career, intellectual development, personal development, and your relationships.
If you know, “I want to be a New York Times Best Seller,” or “I want to have a net worth of over $2 million,” or “I want to run a profitable business that employs 15 people,” then you are getting somewhere. There are only a certain number of different paths that can get you to running a business of a certain size, or of having a certain net worth, or of selling a certain number of books. You can do an inventory of your skills and desires and see which of those paths work for you and then run from there.
Take having a certain net worth, for example.
In the United States, there are essentially two ways to have a high net worth at a relatively young age:
Run a successful business.
Be a successful salesperson in a high-commission industry.
Doctors and lawyers, besides starting their careers later in life, actually have relatively low net worths when all is taken into account (they are high-income, low-net worth). It takes years to become an executive at a large, established company. Sure, a few artists are millionaires at a young age, but if you lack the required skill set to succeed in art, then your best bet is either sales or business.
Then go from there. What skills do you have that lend themselves to either of those areas?
If you are a talented coder, you could build an application and go into business with that. Even if you don’t sell it by the age you set your goal for, you could still achieve that net worth by building a company around it and strive towards profitability.
If you are ridiculously thick-skinned and driven, you’d probably succeed at sales. Go from there. Get a sales job and climb your way to the top (something that is remarkably straightforward for the successful salesman). Apply to Praxis to get started.
The point being: if you set your bar low, there are a million ways to get to that low bar. If you set your bar high, it’s much easier to become focused and strive towards your goals.
People Who Hedge Their Ambition Are Boring
If you are interviewing for a job with a successful businessman, do you think he wants to interview with somebody whose goals are like those of every other person out there on the street? Is that person likely to be energetic, to get up in the morning and to strive to outdo every other person working towards that same goal? Or are they more likely to float through their day, project that floatingness to those around them, and to have to really strain themselves in order to project confidence?
People with hedged ambitions convey a sense of having hedged something that makes them come alive. That’s a bit of an insecure, deadpan personality that isn’t there with people who have a goal or a mission that is difficult to achieve and towards which they are working every day.
People who have achieved great things will gravitate towards those who want to achieve great things.
If you want to project confidence and attract those who are confident, you have to set goals that a confident person can achieve. Confident people are not confident that they will make sure that they make it to the gym once a month. They are people who have built up that confidence by setting increasingly ambitious goals and going for them.
On the other side of the table, if you were hiring two candidates and one told you that they had big goals one day and clearly projected the energy necessary to reach those goals and the other told you that they didn’t really have those goals and were just looking for a way through the next few years, which candidate are you likely to want to spend time around and to hire? Unless you’re looking for a pure functionary, chances are you’d choose the former candidate.
People Who Hedge Their Ambition Think They Are Being Humble. They Aren’t.
There are really two reasons people hedge their ambitions when asked about them:
A) They don’t want to look like a failure or feel silly when they don’t achieve them.
B) They don’t want to look cocky; the word “ambitious” is kind of a dirty word to them and/or the community in which they live.
I will say it right now: B is a bunch of malarky.
Run as fast as you can from somebody who teaches you that having big ambitions is something of which you should be ashamed.
Outside of that small community of people (in which there are rarely the people you want to be like, anyway), purposely putting yourself and your ambitions down does not make you look humble, it makes you look insecure. It doesn’t make you look humble, it makes you look unfocused. It doesn’t make you look humble, it makes you look like you aren’t the one in control of your life.
There’s a difference between people hedging their ambitions and people who just don’t have big ambitions in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being in the latter category if that’s where you really belong. There is something a little soul-crushing about being in the former category. You can always tell when somebody you are talking to has chosen to hedge their ambitions because they are, ultimately, driven to lead another person’s life in fears that they will become successful or let on too much ambition.
You’re in the wrong tribe in that case. Find another. Exit is always an option and often a good one.
If you resonate with this and want to set your ambitions big, apply to Praxis. We take ambitious young people and get them to the next level. We want you.