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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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July 20th, 2010

Ambition: Vice or Virtue?


ambition-flashI’m fascinated with ambition–and people’s reaction to other folks who want to succeed. Remember a few months back when Kate Gosselin was being criticized for leaving her eight children with nannies to appear on “Dancing with the Stars.” Media reports asked whether her ambitions of fame getting in the way of being a good Mom.

While it’s unlike me to defend the overly dramatic, in-the-spotlight poor parenting of Jon & Kate, that  hubbub got me simmering once more on a fascinating — and thorny — question about ambition: Is it a vice or a virtue?

Asks Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

If Kate is being criticized for her ambition does that mean other moms should be criticized to for wanting to be successful at their jobs? Should moms be criticized for wanting to make more money, be recognized within their industry or overall being successful in their jobs? Is ambition in a mom a bad thing?

Clearly, there’s a gender double-standard about ambition at play, says Margot Magowan in the San Francisco Chronicle blog. And this idea isn’t new: Debra Condren wrote a terrific book, AmBITCHous, addressing this very issue of women being criticized for ambition.

But gender aside, ambition is still a tricky thing:

Ambition, often synonymous with aspiration, is the will to succeed. It is the pursuit of desire with all possible resources. Ambition provides the motivation and energy to pursue challenging goals – and the desire to keep going when the going gets tough. Psychologists tell us that ambition can be triggered by both positive factors, like personal motivation, increased confidence, social and financial needs, and negative factors, like jealousy, fear of failure and feelings of inferiority. And some people have more of it than others.

In opinion surveys where respondents are asked what it takes to get ahead in life, Americans rank ambition ahead of education and natural ability. According to cumulative data from the General Social Survey, 89% of Americans believe that ambition is essential or very important for “getting ahead in life” and even despite the recession, 71 percent of respondents in a 2009 Pew Survey said personal ambition was a more important determinant of success than external conditions.

Yet I’d argue that ambition, the drive that made America great, has come under attack. Well before the stock market nosedives, bailouts and ponzi schemes made headlines, ambition was becoming a dirty word. Today it’s quickly become synonymous with corporate “greed” and corruption.

We’re in double-bind in our modern discourse about ambition. We’re receiving conflicting messages about ambition: “Be successful at any costs, but whatever you do, don’t be ambitious.” If it’s true that for a society to foster ambition, it needs to offer a clear idea of what it means to be successful, then 21st Century America is sending a conflicting message that is dangerous to our future as a nation built on ambition.

Yes, we should have energy. Yes, we should be good at what we do. But ambitious? That’s got a bad rap because we think of the hustler type, the salesman. Ambition gets conflated with aggressiveness and single-mindedness – the type of person who has no use for social niceties. In novels, it’s the ambitious character that gets taught a hard lesson. In movies, ambition is equated with greed and corruption. And yet, success is the goal for one and all.

So is ambition a vice or a virtue?

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • Buzz Almon

    In his collection of writings now called Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes virtues as lying on a spectrum between two vices. I’d say that ambition is most certainly a virtue. The vices that oppose it are apathy and relentless, ‘at any cost’ ambition.

  • V

    Maggie… you and I agree about much.

    In my mother’s family, the ambitious ones are the honest, hard working people who not only did things well for their families, but “spread the wealth” of both their monetary and non-corporeal riches widely.

    On the other hand…
    on my father’s side of the family, there was a great deal of ambition, and it was combined with a cold determination that often excluded human concerns. This was not *always* true (my aunt was ambitious and otherwise a fabulous human being, giving of her time and money to the world in a loving way) but it was very common.

    I find myself in a strange position… my mother’s family criticizes me for being unambitious because I don’t value the financial issues as they do, but choose to stay home and care for my family. But they tend to see the loosers of the world as people who have lots of children and don’t work. They aren’t Catholic, so… they don’t always value life as they should.

    Some how, raising children and running my own business from home, while my husband works the corporate world is somehow seen as less industrious than if I worked in the same mode as my husband.

    It’s always interesting to see how certain people define ambition as compared to others.

  • Maggie

    I’m not sure that it is always the case that the ambitious that are always the greedy and corrupt ones. In the film Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith’s character is tenaciously ambitious, and he is championed a hero. He overcomes poverty and makes a living for himself because he is determined to succeed. It seems to me that ambition, much like most qualities and goods, are virtues insofar as they are not abused — as long as they are balanced.

    And, for what it’s worth, while she seems to have proved herself to obtain very little of that ‘star quality’, I support Kate Gosselin for keeping her life together the best she can in the midst of a bitter and public divorce while caring for 8 children. My guess is that those who criticize her choice of career do so more out of jealousy than anything else.

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