People tend to get quite uneasy at the mention of the word ambition in context of discussions about career, calling, vocation. The classic stereotype is the self-centered man or woman who claw their way to the top of the corporate ladder stepping on anybody and everybody who happens to be perched on the rungs below–and in their way. Ego, indifference to time-honored virtues, and bullying are all.
This is unfortunate. Frankly, ambition has gotten a bad rap. In fact, without it you will not hit any of your goals, whether personal and professional.
Last year, some friends and I discussed healthy ambition and its importance.. We focused on moving up in one’s career and becoming the best in one’s chosen field. There is cost, effort, and sacrifice expended to make this happen. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The pursuit of a highly valued station of influence and achievement takes patience, focus and a lot of hard work. Those who take shortcuts are cheating themselves and are usually found out.
In his fascinating book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, author Geoff Colvin–Senior Editor-At-Large of Fortune magazine shatters a number of myths about “natural” talent, genius and how pros become such. These are usually echoed in statements like this: “Well, Tiger Woods was born to play golf. He’s a natural.”
Here’s something you may not know. Tiger Woods and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart both had fathers who started them on the paths of golf and music from infancy. Earl Woods had a putter in Tiger’s hands before he was a year old. Leopold Mozart was an established musician and composer before his son was born. He set Wolfgang on a very focused and intense vocation in musical performance and composition from childhood. Neither Tiger Woods nor W. A. Mozart were geniuses in common parlance and legend. They spent many years mastering their crafts.
Peak performers in any discipline acquire that position through untold hours of deliberate practice. Not just practice, but focused periods of review and goal setting with specific objectives in mind. When Tiger Woods goes to the driving range, he doesn’t simply pull out a driver and see how far he can hit the ball. Instead he might take a five iron out and practice hitting the ball not more than sixty-five yards. There is much more intense energy and concentration that attends deliberate practice.
Here are some steps that are crucial for you to rise to the top of your calling:
- You must be a lifelong learner. This means college, vocational school, online seminars, or training at the feet of a master whether a cabinet-maker or a jazz pianist. It will cost time, discipline, sacrifice, and money. Make the investment.
- Saying yes also means saying no. Getting to the top of the classical guitar world meant that a teenage Christopher Parkening was unable to play baseball with his pals as much as he’d like to have done. His father, Duke, had him executing deliberate practice from the age of eleven. Up at 5:00 AM to practice before school. More practice when school was over. Choosing mastery in an enterprise means you will not be able to say yes to lots of other pursuits simply because of the time and focus it takes to excel in your chosen field.
- You must move past the drudgery curve. A woman once told the great pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, “You are a genius.” His reply: “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.” The driving range, the woodshop, the music room are not glamorous environments but it is in such places, over long hours, that one becomes a master.
When asked about his remarkable success as an inventor, Thomas Edison–who only had a third-grade education–remarked, “It’s plain hard work that does it.”
The world is looking for individuals who are outstanding at what they do. Mediocrity, for such as these, grates against every instinct inside them. You are called to such excellence. The sky is the limit. Focus and move forward.