Psychology researchers create a new science-backed tool to measure individual ambition.
Two years ago, I published an article summarizing emerging research on ambition. I noted that, despite the subject's ubiquity, influence, and relevance to our daily lives, scholarly research on ambition was unexpectedly rare.
Fortunately, since then a number of researchers have picked up the torch, conducting and publishing studies to advance our understanding of ambition.
In June 2021, Andreas Hirschi and Daniel Spurk, two Industrial-Organizational Psychologists in Switzerland, published a paper: "Striving for success: Towards a refined understanding and measurement of ambition." They expanded upon previous research on the subject and constructed a new, more refined scale for measuring ambition. This is a critical step forward because, as I’ve written before, we have long struggled to sufficiently answer basic questions about our own innate striving instinct:
What is ambition?
How ambitious are you?
How can ambition be an asset? What are the benefits and advantages of ambition and how can you capitalize on them?
Under what circumstances is ambition a liability? What are the potential downsides and risks, and how can you work to mitigate them?
Why does this matter?
Here’s the problem: we have very inconsistent, polarizing views on ambition — what it is, what it does, and where it comes from. Some assume ambition is relevant only to certain contexts or types of goals. Others are led to believe it is a vice and should be scrubbed from the psyche of any ethical person. Still others have no choice but to base their understanding on mere tropes like a desire to “get ahead,” or “a fire in the belly.”
At best one is left with only a vague notion of whether they are ambitious, to what extent, and what that means for them personally. One has no sense of the magnitude or the true pros and cons of their own ambition. Thus they have no way of knowing how likely they are to benefit from the trait, and how to capitalize on those advantages. Likewise they can’t predict the likelihood that they will encounter its true hazards, nor how to mitigate those risks. One cannot distinguish between wise strategies for managing and channeling their own ambition and ambiguous, unhelpful platitudes.
As I’ve written before, we must understand ambition before we can embrace, cultivate, and channel it, ideally in the most positive conceivable direction.
What is ambition?
Hirschi and Spurk begin by referencing the contradiction and confusion surrounding the nature of ambition. "Ambition has long attracted the interest of philosophers and laypeople because it is regarded as both a high virtue that can lead someone to significant personal and societal attainments as well as a vice that can inflict suffering on others in the pursuit of personal gains.”
The researchers concur with Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller’s definition of ambition: “the persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment.” Likewise, they reiterate its neutral and generalizing quality — the disposition is neither "good" nor "bad," and while it is “particularly relevant in the work context,” it expands to a diverse array of social contexts and domains. The problem with many previous studies, they explain, is that they confound ambition with only specific contexts (e.g. a desire to get promoted at work) or treat it as a subcomponent of another construct (e.g. as an element of goal-setting, or as a facet of conscientiousness or extraversion). Many researchers fatally ignore ambition's generalizing quality or fail to treat it as a unique personal disposition, leading to flawed results and measures.
Ambition is not just about work, nor is it about accumulating money or getting promoted. It is at play in any domain where one can conceive of success, attainment, and accomplishment:
“Ambition can be expressed in a range of life domains (e.g., work, family, leisure, politics), and in aspirations for a range of objects and states (e.g., success, wealth, recognition) that are usually scarce and hard to attain, continuous, and abstract (e.g., “success” and not a specific promotion).”
What ambition is not, redux
Following suit from previous researchers, Hirschi and Spurk examined concepts that are related to but distinct from ambition. This helped them create a more precise empirical tool, one that measured ambition as intended rather than similar but separate constructs:
Achievement striving — Like Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller, the authors explored the relationship between ambition and achievement striving. They similarly concluded that the two concepts are highly interrelated, but achievement striving prioritizes a certain level of excellence, skill, competence, or effectiveness, whereas ambition focuses on the rewards and outcomes this competence produces. Achievement striving aims at the quality of one’s actions and behavior. Ambition more directly aims at attaining a valued state or objective (success, status, attainment, accomplishment).
Trait competitiveness — Competitiveness is “the enjoyment of interpersonal competition and the desire to win and be better than others.” Like achievement striving, this trait entails striving for high levels of excellence and performance, except more specifically in comparison to other individuals. Competitiveness, like ambition, causes people to embody their desire to win and attain desired objects or states. However, competitiveness differs in the sense that it prioritizes “interpersonal success through social comparisons.” Ambitious people focus less on relative interpersonal success, and more on “the desire for extraordinary attainment.” In short, competitive people prioritize winning against others, even if the fruits of their labor are not all that valuable or desirable. Ambitious people specifically strive for highly desirable outcomes, regardless of the level of competition involved.
Future time perspective — This is a “general concern for and corresponding consideration of one’s future.” It is our tendency to anticipate the future, to plan ahead, arguably even to delay gratification. Ambition, of course, is a future-oriented construct. A future time perspective can be “an important motivational factor for purposeful, goal-directed activities.” These two concepts are highly related, but ambition is not limited to thinking about the future in general, but rather pursuing an aspirational future state.
How ambitious are you?
Hirschi and Spurk compiled a straightforward questionnaire to measure one’s ambition. They began with a list of 36 questions and refined it down to the 5 most accurate and relevant measures:
I am ambitious
I strive for success
I have challenging goals
For me it is very important to achieve outstanding results in my life
For me it is very important to accomplish great things
For each item, respondents are asked to answer using a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). Take a moment to complete the questionnaire. Once you're finished, calculate your average score between the five questions (1).
So, how ambitious are you?
While the initial sample size was relatively small and localized (301 respondents, all from Germany), the tool is robust and the researchers were diligent in ensuring it was valid, reliable, and an improvement upon previous measures. However we need additional evidence from larger, more diverse populations to truly confirm its accuracy.
Of those who have completed the questionnaire, the mean result was a rating of 3.37, with a standard deviation of .86. This means that the statistical average score was 3.37, and a majority of respondents landed within +/- .86 of that number, providing a range between 2.51-4.23 (the first standard deviation). If we assume a normal distribution, the bell curve of responses would look something like this:
Where do you stack up?
While this post and the blog at large focuses on ambition, I want to emphasize that there are no “good” or “bad,” or "better" or "worse" scores. Instead, the point is to learn where you land on that spectrum of results and understand what that might mean for you, your lifestyle, how you are likely to be perceived by others, and the pursuit of your goals.
Was your score very high? Well, high ambition is both an asset and a liability. You can work to double down on the benefits and advantages of ambition while mitigating its hazards. Likewise, the other end of the spectrum has its own pros and cons. No measurement tool is perfect, but they can offer useful data points to elevate your self-awareness and, importantly, help make more informed choices about what you do and why. You'll be better served harboring no illusions about your preferences and expectations
You can also strive to place yourself in contexts that appropriately channel your ambition. For example, let's say your score was low and you feel the result was valid. Perhaps you have a highly demanding job where you work hard for long periods of time, and expectations for performance are very high. Or perhaps you're pursuing a career or degree that requires extraordinary effort and perseverance. A tool like this can help you make a more thoughtful decision around whether that path is appropriate for you. What about if your score was high, but you find yourself in a career or organization with no upward mobility or opportunities for recognition? Or what if you find that your effort level does not match your ambition? Again, the assessment can offer a useful data point to help you decide whether that journey is suitable for you, and what to do about it.
You might also wisely decide that your score is not your "destiny." Your result might indicate certain preferences or tendencies, and you can derive some value from that information. But ultimately, people are incredibly complex and your score on a self-assessment does not determine your fate and fortunes. You still decide who you want to become and how you want to live your life. Being unidimensional is an exception, not a rule. Our super power as human beings is our ability to be boundlessly flexible, creative, and adaptable.
An important finding
One final note on this study — using their new measurement methodology, the researchers sought to clear up existing controversies around ambition in the work context. Specifically, they looked at the relationship between ambition, real-world outcomes, and satisfaction
We can conceptualize career success in two ways: objective (pay, advancement) and subjective (job and career satisfaction). The researchers provided further evidence that ambition is positively related to objective success, i.e. pay and promotion. This is non-controversial. The true debate centers around whether ambition is positively or negatively related to career satisfaction.
On one hand, some researchers argue that because ambitious people tend to continually shift their goalposts and set their sights progressively higher, they can never fully attain the objects of their desire and thus are vulnerable to frustration and dissatisfaction. Other researchers argue that engaging in intrinsically motivating goal pursuits enhances satisfaction, even if the ultimate goal is not attained.
Hirschi and Spurk, using their more stringent measure of ambition, found that ambitious professionals are generally more satisfied with their careers. They demonstrate more investment and engagement in their job and career goals, and are thus more satisfied with their attainments over time. It is worth noting that previous research by Daniel Spurk demonstrated that, over the long term, subjective success has a large influence on objective success.
Again, these findings are isolated to the work context, and it bears repeating that ambition generalizes to a variety of domains. Thus it is an open question whether the result extends to other, non-work contexts. For example, if one aspires to be best speaker at a given conference, or they strive to become captain of their community sports club, or they want to be seen by others as an exceptionally caring parent — how does their intrinsic satisfaction compare to others with less ambitious aims? Until the question is explored in future research, the jury is still out.
Where do we go from here?
We are on a journey of discovery together, exploring the misunderstood yet powerful nature of ambition as well as its ramifications.
In our first article of the series, we explored foundational research describing what ambition is, what it is not, where it comes from, and what real-world outcomes it helps produce.
After that, we traveled through time, learning about the chaotic, controversial history of ambition and what it means for us in the present.
Today we looked at a new method for measuring our own ambition. We also introduced important questions which we will continue to explore: What is the practical benefit of measuring our own ambition? What strategies can we employ to capitalize on the advantages of ambition while mitigating the downside risk? How do you find goals and domains that allow you to appropriately express your ambition? How do you operate outside the confines of your objective "score?"
Stay tuned as we continue to explore the science of ambition, and share practical tools and strategies we can use to turn our ambition into action and real-world results.
P.S. — To stay updated as we learn and publish more about ambition, subscribe to the Bring Ambition Newsletter by clicking here or entering your email below.
(1) If you would like to validate your score, you can have 1-3 people who know you well complete the assessment on your behalf. Compare their scores to your own and check whether they align or where there are discrepancies. This can provide an added level of validity, and will also indicate how your identity / self-perception might differ from your reputation / how others see you.