Ambition is Not a Dirty Word

In the pivotal scene of the 1987 movie “Wall Street”, Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, addresses a packed house of anxious shareholders. With calm demeanor and an air of superiority, he walks the room, microphone in hand, preaching his capitalist philosophy about the essential necessity of greed in business. His belief is that greed will not only be responsible for saving the company in question, but in fact, America itself.

It’s a big speech, and in it he proclaims that, “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”. You remember the speech, and you also probably remember that it is met with thundering applause.

This fascination with greed – “the intense and selfish desire for wealth or power” – defined much of the late 20th Century business climate and Gekko was its poster child. It was self-serving, manipulative, ruthless, and not only diminished human decency, it ruined the idea of ambition, turning it into a dirty word. Greed became synonymous with ambition, and ambition was understood to be “Knowing what you want and getting it. Winning at all cost.”

But, that is not the true nature of ambition, and it’s time for us to reclaim it and harness its power. Greed exists in the context of scarcity. Ambition lives in the context of abundance.

Ambition is the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning. Ambition is the engine that drives change in the world. Ambition is the force that allows us to manifest new realities. Ambition is simply another way of saying enthusiasm or passion. Ambition is the commitment we carry that allows us to be undeterred on our path to generating a new future. There is nothing about ambition that is inherently self-serving, and it’s far more powerful when it isn’t. All our great heroes carry bucket loads of ambition.

All we need to do to reclaim this term is to uncouple ambition from greed and redefine it in a way to convey its true potential and true value.

So, here is a 21st Century version of ambition to try out – “Knowing who you are and giving it”.

Ambition is intended to be shared with and positively impact others. When you offer your true value to the world, the world will reward you for it. This is the nature of commerce.

This begs us to ask ourselves questions like, What if business isn’t a zero-sum game? What if the more you give, the more you actually get? What if business is in fact so virtuous at its core that the only way you can truly win is by helping other people win? You can’t accomplish this without ambition.

So, allow your ambition to supersede greed. Allow it to be inclusive of many people, most of whom you don’t know. And, you will find that when you are truly ambitious about making other people’s lives better and making the world a better place, we all win.

R.I.P 20th Century version of ambition.

About the Author / Tony Cooper
Tony instigates breakthrough performance for businesses through his fascination of playing the “game behind the game”. He brings out the best in business leaders by helping them simplify complicated issues and supporting them to gain new skills and insights quickly. Tony has been training, coaching, and consulting since 2002, serving his passion of supporting the entrepreneurial spirit. He graduated with distinction from Cornell University, earning a BS in Mechanical Engineering. In Tony's youth he was a nationally-ranked diver and Tae Kwon Do martial artist. And now after a lifetime of city dwelling, he is raising his family on a farm in Davis, California.