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Ambition Essay, Example Composition Writing on Ambition
Essay Example 1: An Essay about Ambition
came to the United States from the Ukraine in the early part of the
last century with nothing but a small suitcase and a pocket full of
dreams and ambition. He was processed through Ellis Island in
New York where all the immigrants had to go. He related the story to
me about getting something to eat in the Ellis Island cafeteria. He
said that he sat down at an empty table and waited for someone to
take his order. Nobody did, of course, because it was not a
restaurant but rather a cafeteria. Eventually, another man sat down
beside him at the table with a tray full of food and related to my
Grandfather how it all worked. The man said, “You start at the end
of the line. Go along the line and pick out what you want and at the
other end they will tell you how much it costs and then you pay for
My Grandfather told me that he soon figured out how it worked here
in America. He said, “Life here is like a cafeteria. You can get
anything you want as long as you are willing and able to pay the
price for it. You can even get success. But you will never get
anything if you wait for someone to bring it to you. You have to get
up and get it for yourself.” He told me, “If you alter your attitude
about things you can change your life.” What a terrific life lesson.
As I remember it, I learned this from my immigrant Grandfather when
I was about 12 years old. I was a young boy full of ambition
and dreams of success.
The definition of ambition is interesting. “Ambition
is having a desire for and making an enthusiastic effort for
advancement, power or success; ambition includes having high hopes
with goal tending.” Walter Savage Landor said the same in, Imaginary
Conversations. Others have said a lot about ambition as well.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Oliver
Wendell Holmes said, “Nothing is so commonplace as to wish to be
remarkable.” Deep within most of us hides the ambition to be
a success, to achieve great things. Maybe we do not want to be
radically famous, but most of us at sometime have the desire to
succeed, to make ourselves better than we are at that moment we
think those thoughts. With that ambition and desire, there must be
enthusiastic effort and goal tending. We must go through the line in
the cafeteria of life, take what we want, and be willing and able to
pay the price.
I’ve long been a student of what makes others successful. Often
times in my younger days I would emulate the qualities of successful
people. My ambitions took me from a small town, Mississippi
poor boy, on a long journey. I learned from others that being
ambitious and accomplishing self established goals was very
important. Learning the power and importance of positive self-talk
also helped me achieve my goals and realize my ambitions. When I
entered the cafeteria of life I started at the end, I went through
the line, I took what interested me, and I paid the price. As I made
my journey through high school, then college, and then through Law
school my ambition was to accomplish my goals, not to be
deterred by naysayers, and to enthusiastically work at achieving.
The main catalyst for my various successes was, in my own mind, that
I BELIEVED that I could do what needed to be done to accomplish my
goals. If somebody told me I would never make it, never do what I
set out to do, or that I didn’t have the brains, brawn or stamina to
succeed. My attitude was always, “You wait and see.” I knew that I
would get to where I wanted to be because I never intended to give
The great Olympic track champion Carl Lewis said, “If you go by
other people’s opinions or predictions, you’ll just end up talking
yourself out of something. If you’re running down the track of life
thinking that it’s impossible to break life’s records, those
thoughts have a funny way of sinking into your feet.” Carl Lewis
wasn’t a track champion when I was struggling and working to find my
way in life. But Carl and I had the same attitude. We had similar
ambitions to succeed. It is a universal attitude. It is a
universal ambition to succeed at what one sets out to do.
Carl Lewis was saying that, “The world is a mirror that reflects
your own face. Frown at it and it will show you a sourpuss. Laugh at
it and it will be your jolly friend.”
Be positive in your belief in yourself. The first person who has to
belief in you is you. Ambition is hard work. There is always
room at the top. Most people want to improve themselves, but too
many don’t want to work at it. Ambition looks up; failure looks
down. Remember the analogy my Grandfather told me, “Nobody is going
to bring it to you in the cafeteria of life, you have to go get it
yourself, and you have to be willing to pay the price.”
The best qualification for someone with ambition who is
craving, wanting, desiring success, is to come from humble
beginnings. When you start from humble beginnings and when you begin
at the end of the cafeteria line, you have to muster up the courage
and enthusiasm to go get what you want. America was settled by
generations of immigrants who came to this country with a burning
ambition to make something of themselves. Ambition should
flourish in the United States of America. Ambition, essentially, is
the desire to fulfill what the Declaration of Independence describes
as “the pursuit of happiness.”
If you have that burning desire to succeed, if you are diligent in
the pursuit of your goals, if you are willing to pay the price for
whatever success that you desire to achieve, you can realize your
ambitions. Start at the end of the cafeteria line, walk through
the line and pick out the things you want for yourself, and then
determine in your mind that you can and will pay the price. W.
Clement Stone said, “There is little difference in people, but that
little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is
attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.”
Essay Example 2:
You don't get as
successful as Gregg and Drew Shipp by accident. Shake hands with the
36-year-old fraternal twins who co-own the sprawling Hi Fi Personal
Fitness club in Chicago, and it's clear you're in the presence of
people who thrive on their drive. But that wasn't always the case.
The twins' father founded the Jovan perfume company, a glamorous
business that spun off the kinds of glamorous profits that made it
possible for the Shipps to amble through high school, coast into
college and never much worry about getting the rent paid or keeping
the fridge filled. But before they graduated, their sense of drift
began to trouble them. At about the same time, their father sold off
the company, and with it went the cozy billets in adult life that
had always served as an emotional backstop for the boys.
That did it. By the time they got out of school, both Shipps had
entirely transformed themselves, changing from boys who might have
grown up to live off the family's wealth to men consumed with going
out and creating their own. "At this point," says Gregg, "I consider
myself to be almost maniacally ambitious."
It shows. In 1998 the brothers went into the gym trade. They spotted
a modest health club doing a modest business, bought out the owner
and transformed the place into a luxury facility where private
trainers could reserve space for top-dollar clients. In the years
since, the company has outgrown one building, then another, and the
brothers are about to move a third time. Gregg, a communications
major at college, manages the club's clients, while Drew, a business
major, oversees the more hardheaded chore of finance and expansion.
"We're not sitting still," Drew says. "Even now that we're doing
twice the business we did at our old place, there's a thirst that
needs to be quenched."
Why is that? Why are some people born with a fire in the belly,
while others--like the Shipps--need something to get their pilot
light lit? And why do others never get the flame of ambition going?
Is there a family anywhere that doesn't have its overachievers and
underachievers--its Jimmy Carters and Billy Carters, its Jeb Bushes
and Neil Bushes--and find itself wondering how they all could have
come splashing out of exactly the same gene pool?
Of all the impulses in humanity's behavioral portfolio, ambition--that
need to grab an ever bigger piece of the resource pie before someone
else gets it--ought to be one of the most democratically
distributed. Nature is a zero-sum game, after all. Every buffalo you
kill for your family is one less for somebody else's; every acre of
land you occupy elbows out somebody else. Given that, the need to
get ahead ought to be hard-wired into all of us equally.
And yet it's not. For every person consumed with the need to
achieve, there's someone content to accept whatever life brings. For
everyone who chooses the 80-hour workweek, there's someone punching
out at 5. Men and women--so it's said--express ambition
differently; so do Americans and Europeans, baby boomers and Gen
Xers, the middle class and the well-to-do. Even among the manifestly
motivated, there are degrees of ambition. Steve Wozniak co-founded
Apple Computer and then left the company in 1985 as a 34-year-old
multimillionaire. His partner, Steve Jobs, is still innovating at
Apple and moonlighting at his second blockbuster company, Pixar
Not only do we struggle to understand why some people seem to have
more ambition than others, but we can't even agree on just what
ambition is. "Ambition is an evolutionary product," says
anthropologist Edward Lowe at Soka University of America, in Aliso
Viejo, Calif. "No matter how social status is defined, there are
certain people in every community who aggressively pursue it and
others who aren't so aggressive."
Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California,
Davis, who studies genius, creativity and eccentricity, believes
it's more complicated than that. "Ambition is energy and
determination," he says. "But it calls for goals too. People with
goals but no energy are the ones who wind up sitting on the couch
saying 'One day I'm going to build a better mousetrap.' People with
energy but no clear goals just dissipate themselves in one desultory
project after the next."
Assuming you've got drive, dreams and skill, is all ambition
equal? Is the overworked lawyer on the partner track any more
ambitious than the overworked parent on the mommy track? Is the
successful musician to whom melody comes naturally more driven than
the unsuccessful one who sweats out every note? We may listen to
Mozart, but should we applaud Salieri?
Most troubling of all, what about when enough ambition
becomes way too much? Grand dreams unmoored from morals are the
stuff of tyrants--or at least of Enron. The 16-hour workday filled
with high stress and at-the-desk meals is the stuff of burnout and
heart attacks. Even among kids, too much ambition quickly
starts to do real harm. In a just completed study, anthropologist
Peter Demerath of Ohio State University surveyed 600 students at a
high-achieving high school where most of the kids are triple-booked
with advanced-placement courses, sports and after-school jobs. About
70% of them reported that they were starting to feel stress some or
all of the time. "I asked one boy how his parents react to his
workload, and he answered, 'I don't really get home that often,'"
says Demerath. "Then he handed me his business card from the video
store where he works."
Anthropologists, psychologists and others have begun looking more
closely at these issues, seeking the roots of ambition in
family, culture, gender, genes and more. They have by no means
thrown the curtain all the way back, but they have begun to part it.
"It's fundamentally human to be prestige conscious," says Soka's
Lowe. "It's not enough just to be fed and housed. People want more."
If humans are an ambitious species, it's clear we're not the only
one. Many animals are known to signal their ambitious tendencies
almost from birth. Even before wolf pups are weaned, they begin
sorting themselves out into alphas and all the others. The alphas
are quicker, more curious, greedier for space, milk, Mom--and they
stay that way for life. Alpha wolves wander widely, breed annually
and may live to a geriatric 10 or 11 years old. Lower-ranking wolves
enjoy none of these benefits--staying close to home, breeding rarely
and usually dying before they're 4.
Humans often report the same kind of temperamental determinism.
Families are full of stories of the inexhaustible infant who grew up
to be an entrepreneur, the phlegmatic child who never really showed
much go. But if it's genes that run the show, what accounts for the
Shipps, who didn't bestir themselves until the cusp of adulthood?
And what, more tellingly, explains identical twins--precise genetic
templates of each other who ought to be temperamentally identical
but often exhibit profound differences in the octane of their
Ongoing studies of identical twins have measured achievement
motivation--lab language for ambition--in identical siblings
separated at birth, and found that each twin's profile overlaps 30%
to 50% of the other's. In genetic terms, that's an awful lot--"a
benchmark for heritability," says geneticist Dean Hamer of the
National Cancer Institute. But that still leaves a great deal that
can be determined by experiences in infancy, subsequent upbringing
and countless other imponderables.
Some of those variables may be found by studying the function of the
brain. At Washington University, researchers have been conducting
brain imaging to investigate a trait they call persistence--the
ability to stay focused on a task until it's completed just
so--which they consider one of the critical engines driving
The researchers recruited a sample group of students and gave each a
questionnaire designed to measure persistence level. Then they
presented the students with a task--identifying sets of pictures as
either pleasant or unpleasant and taken either indoors or
outdoors--while conducting magnetic resonance imaging of their
brains. The nature of the task was unimportant, but how strongly the
subjects felt about performing it well--and where in the brain that
feeling was processed--could say a lot. In general, the researchers
found that students who scored highest in persistence had the
greatest activity in the limbic region, the area of the brain
related to emotions and habits. "The correlation was .8 [or 80%],"
says professor of psychiatry Robert Cloninger, one of the
investigators. "That's as good as you can get."
It's impossible to say whether innate differences in the brain were
driving the ambitious behavior or whether learned behavior was
causing the limbic to light up. But a number of researchers believe
it's possible for the nonambitious to jump-start their drive,
provided the right jolt comes along. "Energy level may be genetic,"
says psychologist Simonton, "but a lot of times it's just finding
the right thing to be ambitious about." Simonton and others often
cite the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who might not have been the
same President he became--or even become President at all--had his
disabling polio not taught him valuable lessons about patience and
Is such an epiphany possible for all of us, or are some people
immune to this kind of lightning? Are there individuals or whole
groups for whom the amplitude of ambition is simply lower
than it is for others? It's a question--sometimes a charge--that
hangs at the edges of all discussions about gender and work, about
whether women really have the meat-eating temperament to survive in
the professional world. Both research findings and everyday
experience suggest that women's ambitions express themselves
differently from men's. The meaning of that difference is the hinge
on which the arguments turn.
Economists Lise Vesterlund of the University of Pittsburgh and
Muriel Niederle of Stanford University conducted a study in which
they assembled 40 men and 40 women, gave them five minutes to add up
as many two-digit numbers as they could, and paid them 50¢ for each
correct answer. The subjects were not competing against one another
but simply playing against the house. Later, the game was changed to
a tournament in which the subjects were divided into teams of two
men or two women each. Winning teams got $2 per computation; losers
got nothing. Men and women performed equally in both tests, but on
the third round, when asked to choose which of the two ways they
wanted to play, only 35% of the women opted for the tournament
format; 75% of the men did.
"Men and women just differ in their appetite for competition," says
Vesterlund. "There seems to be a dislike for it among women and a
preference among men."
To old-line employers of the old-boy school, this sounds like just
one more reason to keep the glass ceiling polished. But other
behavioral experts think Vesterlund's conclusions go too far. They
say it's not that women aren't ambitious enough to compete for what
they want; it's that they're more selective about when they engage
in competition; they're willing to get ahead at high cost but not at
any cost. "Primate-wide, males are more directly competitive than
females, and that makes sense," says Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, emeritus
professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis.
"But that's not the same as saying women aren't innately competitive
As with so much viewed through the lens of anthropology, the roots
of these differences lie in animal and human mating strategies.
Males are built to go for quick, competitive reproductive hits and
move on. Women are built for the it-takes-a-village life, in which
they provide long-term care to a very few young and must sail them
safely into an often hostile world. Among some of our evolutionary
kin--baboons, macaques and other old-world monkeys--this can be
especially tricky since young females inherit their mother's social
rank. The mothers must thus operate the levers of society deftly so
as to raise both their own position and, eventually, their
daughters'. If you think that kind of ambition-by-proxy
doesn't translate to humans, Hrdy argues, think again. "Just read an
Edith Wharton novel about women in old New York competing for
marriage potential for their daughters," she says.
Import such tendencies into the 21st century workplace, and you get
women who are plenty able to compete ferociously but are inclined to
do it in teams and to split the difference if they don't get
everything they want. And mothers who appear to be unwilling to
strive and quit the workplace altogether to go raise their kids?
Hrdy believes they're competing for the most enduring stakes of all,
putting aside their near-term goals to ensure the long-term success
of their line. Robin Parker, 46, a campaign organizer who in 1980
was already on the presidential stump with Senator Edward Kennedy,
was precisely the kind of lifetime pol who one day finds herself in
the West Wing. But in 1992, at the very moment a President of her
party was returning to the White House and she might have snagged a
plum Washington job, she decamped from the capital, moved to Boston
with her family and became a full-time mom to her two sons.
"Being out in the world became a lot less important to me," she
says. "I used to worry about getting Presidents elected, and I'm
still an incredibly ambitious person. But what I want to succeed at
now is managing my family, raising my boys, helping my husband and
the community. In 10 years, when the boys are launched, who knows
what I'll be doing? But for now, I have my world."
But even if something as primal as the reproductive impulse wires
you one way, it's possible for other things to rewire you
completely. Two of the biggest influences on your level of ambition
are the family that produced you and the culture that produced your
There are no hard rules for the kinds of families that turn out the
highest achievers. Most psychologists agree that parents who set
tough but realistic challenges, applaud successes and go easy on
failures produce kids with the greatest self-confidence (see box).
What's harder for parents to control but has perhaps as great an
effect is the level of privilege into which their kids are born.
Just how wealth or poverty influences drive is difficult to predict.
Grow up in a rich family, and you can inherit either the tools to
achieve (think both Presidents Bush) or the indolence of the
aristocrat. Grow up poor, and you can come away with either the
motivation to strive (think Bill Clinton) or the inertia of the
hopeless. On the whole, studies suggest it's the upper middle class
that produces the greatest proportion of ambitious people--mostly
because it also produces the greatest proportion of anxious people.
When measuring ambition, anthropologists divide families into
four categories: poor, struggling but getting by, upper middle
class, and rich. For members of the first two groups, who are
fighting just to keep the electricity on and the phone bill paid,
ambition is often a luxury. For the rich, it's often
unnecessary. It's members of the upper middle class, reasonably safe
economically but not so safe that a bad break couldn't spell
catastrophe, who are most driven to improve their lot. "It's called
status anxiety," says anthropologist Lowe, "and whether you're born
to be concerned about it or not, you do develop it."
But some societies make you more anxious than others. The U.S. has
always been a me-first culture, as befits a nation that grew from a
scattering of people on a fat saddle of continent where land was
often given away. That have-it-all ethos persists today, even though
the resource freebies are long since gone. Other countries--where
the acreage is smaller and the pickings are slimmer--came of age
differently, with the need to cooperate getting etched into the
cultural DNA. The American model has produced wealth, but it has
come at a price--with ambition sometimes turning back on the
ambitious and consuming them whole.
The study of high-achieving high school students conducted by Ohio
State's Demerath was noteworthy for more than the stress he found
the students were suffering. It also revealed the lengths to which
the kids and their parents were willing to go to gain an advantage
over other suffering students. Cheating was common, and most
students shrugged it off as only a minor problem. A number of
parents--some of whose children carried a 4.0 average--sought to
have their kids classified as special-education students, which
would entitle them to extra time on standardized tests. "Kids
develop their own moral code," says Demerath. "They have a keen
sense of competing with others and are developing identities geared
Demerath got very different results when he conducted research in a
very different place--Papua, New Guinea. In the mid-1990s, he spent
a year in a small village there, observing how the children learned.
Usually, he found, they saw school as a noncompetitive place where
it was important to succeed collectively and then move on.
Succeeding at the expense of others was seen as a form of vanity
that the New Guineans call "acting extra." Says Demerath: "This is
an odd thing for them."
That makes tactical sense. In a country based on farming and
fishing, you need to know that if you get sick and can't work your
field or cast your net, someone else will do it for you. Putting on
airs in the classroom is not the way to ensure that will happen.
Of course, once a collectivist not always a collectivist. Marcelo
Suárez-Orozco, a professor of globalization and education at New
York University, has been following 400 families that immigrated to
the U.S. from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Many hailed
from villages where the American culture of competition is alien,
but once they got here, they changed fast.
As a group, the immigrant children in his study are outperforming
their U.S.-born peers. What's more, the adults are dramatically
outperforming the immigrant families that came before them. "One
hundred years ago, it took people two to three generations to
achieve a middle-class standard of living," says Suárez-Orozco.
"Today they're getting there within a generation."
So this is a good thing, right? Striving people come here to
succeed--and do. While there are plenty of benefits that undeniably
come with learning the ways of ambition, there are plenty of
perils too--many a lot uglier than high school students cheating on
the trig final.
Human history has always been writ in the blood of broken alliances,
palace purges and strong people or nations beating up on weak
ones--all in the service of someone's hunger for power or resources.
"There's a point at which you find an interesting kind of nerve
circuitry between optimism and hubris," says Warren Bennis, a
professor of business administration at the University of Southern
California and the author of three books on leadership. "It becomes
an arrogance or conceit, an inability to live without power."
While most ambitious people keep their secret Caesar tucked safely
away, it can emerge surprisingly, even suddenly. Says Frans de Waal,
a primatologist at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta and the
author of a new book, Our Inner Ape: "You can have a male chimp that
is the most laid-back character, but one day he sees the chance to
overthrow the leader and becomes a totally different male. I would
say 90% of people would behave this way too. On an island with three
people, they might become a little dictator."
But a yearning for supremacy can create its own set of problems.
Heart attacks, ulcers and other stress-related ills are more common
among high achievers--and that includes nonhuman achievers. The
blood of alpha wolves routinely shows elevated levels of cortisol,
the same stress hormone that is found in anxious humans. Alpha
chimps even suffer ulcers and occasional heart attacks.
For these reasons, people and animals who have an appetite for
becoming an alpha often settle contentedly into life as a beta. "The
desire to be in a high position is universal," says de Waal. "But
that trait has co-evolved with another skill--the skill to make the
best of lower positions."
Humans not only make peace with their beta roles but they also make
money from them. Among corporations, an increasingly well-rewarded
portion of the workforce is made up of B players, managers and
professionals somewhere below the top tier. They don't do the power
lunching and ribbon cutting but instead perform the highly skilled,
everyday work of making the company run. As skeptical shareholders
look ever more askance at overpaid corporate A-listers, the B
players are becoming more highly valued. It's an adaptation that
serves the needs of both the corporation and the culture around it.
"Everyone has ambition," says Lowe. "Societies have to
provide alternative ways for people to achieve."
Ultimately, it's that very flexibility--that multiplicity of
possible rewards--that makes dreaming big dreams and pursuing big
goals worth all the bother. Ambition is an expensive impulse,
one that requires an enormous investment of emotional capital. Like
any investment, it can pay off in countless different kinds of coin.
The trick, as any good speculator will tell you, is recognizing the
riches when they come your way.
Essays About Ambition
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