A recent news item, before the death of Queen Elizabeth II, quoted the celebrity royal Meghan Markle’s observation from her podcast, “I don’t remember ever personally feeling the negative connotation behind the word ‘ambitious’ until I started dating my now-husband, and apparently ambition is a terrible, terrible thing, for a woman, that is – according to some.” Today, indeed, ambition has become one of those contested concepts, like fragility or meritocracy, that can be equally denounced or defended depending on who’s invoking it. When someone complains about an individual’s “unseemly ambition,” someone else might ask why the quality is a defect when held by a woman or a person of color (like Meghan Markle) but a credit when held by a man or a person of privilege. So what’s with ambition, and how do we judge the motivations of anyone who has it?
Ambition isn’t always controversial. Creative types may produce an ambitious film or novel, in which an advanced technique or message is attempted but not necessarily realized. Athletes usually have ambitions of winning the championship or scoring a personal best, dreams which are inherent in the nature of competitive sports. And just about everybody harbors vague private ambitions, maybe of an early retirement or a trip to Hawaii, that are hardly unreasonable or unhealthy. But when ambition is perceived as nothing more than careerism or status-seeking – desiring success solely in order to claim it – drive and determination are much less attractive.
Politicians are most frequently faulted for their ambitions: to strive for the responsibilities of elected office you must have both a pretty high opinion of yourself and a pretty calculated plan to make yourself look better than your rivals. Even sympathetic biographers of John F. Kennedy, for example, portray his quest for the American presidency as a long and sometimes underhanded pursuit of power for its own sake, backed by family wealth and connections, in which any intended policy goals were secondary to his inborn sense of entitlement and vanity. Plenty of other public officials have been accused of similar egocentrism – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson, and all the way down to mayors and city councilors. The recurring indictment is that, for such figures, just winning the position appears to have been their deepest purpose, rather than implementing any particular agenda thereafter. A victorious election campaign and a name in the history books are the real achievements being sought; actually serving the electorate is incidental to their narcissism.
The same selfishness often turns up outside of politics. Professionals in many fields are suspected of climbing the corporate ladder more than doing useful work on any one rung of it, as managers and executives stay in each role just long enough until they can plausibly apply to the next one up: the ambitious underling who carefully cultivates networks and adds credentials while plotting to take over the whole department, or the whole organization, is a staple personality in bureaucracies of all kinds. And show business is also replete with real-life equivalents of the title characters from What Makes Sammy Run? and All About Eve, with sharkish producers and conniving actors gaining fame and fortune but losing their souls in the process. Again, when ambition seems disconnected from anything outside one’s own résumé or one’s own pride, it’s more likely to be called out.
Of course, some people may aspire to be role models for their group – first Aboriginal astronaut, first hijab-wearing news anchor, first female president, whatever – such that their ambitions might be construed as more noble, and outsiders’ criticism of them might be interpreted as more unfair, than they initially look. By now, though, the jobs of astronauts, news anchors, and presidents have already been landed by a wide range of hopefuls (even that privileged straight white man JFK, after all, was the first Catholic in the White House), and those who say they aim to heroically break a “ceiling” on behalf of everyone in their community may in fact just be cravenly advancing on behalf of no one but themselves. Wanting more than what you’ve got isn’t wrong per se. Wanting it just because it looks good on you, or because you’re sure you ought to have it, or because it proves to everyone else that you’ve come out on top, isn’t quite as admirable. With all respect to the humble, selfless, and impeccably deserving Meghan Markle, sometimes the negative connotations of ambitious are well and truly earned.