Some people would tell you that all you need in life to be successful is knowledge and money. The Beatles would have you believe all you need is love, (but that’s probably a different article).
When it comes to professional success, there is one key ingredient in any successful Jamie Oliver worthy scrumptious cake of a career, and that ingredient?
There’s a list of successful people longer than the number of friends Tom Daly has on Facebook (it’s a lot), who have made their success through pure grit, determination, balls of steel, sheer will…call it what you like. For the purists out there, it’s called ambition. Sir Alan Sugar, all the Dragons from Dragon’s Den, JK Rowling, Ant and Dec, Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell, Jamie Oliver, heck even Katy Price, all the Olympic Gold Medalists, …the list goes on. While they all demonstrate different talents, they have one thing in common – Ambition.
Ambitious people don’t just grab the biggest slice of cake they can, they make the cake bigger and take the whole lot (if that’s aligned to their vision of course).
Everyone knows Alan Sugar’s story. He didn’t have any money when he started nor did he have much in the way of qualifications or experience. But what he did have in abundance was ambition. Starting his career at the mere age of 11 making money from whatever enterprise he could put his hand to including boiling beetroot. Sir Alan Sugar now has an estimated fortune valued over £700m. In a previous interview, Sir Alan Sugar was quoted as saying, “you can’t buy a bottle of entrepreneurial juice, it’s something you’re born with”. Now, I’m not sure I agree entirely with our Alan on this one as I believe anything can be learnt with the right mindset. Sure, being a successful entrepreneur takes some guts and many other skills, but in my opinion the key skill to any success is ambition and that is something that Sir Alan Sugar has seeping out of every pore. Lets be honest you could have a super great idea for an entrepreneurial business but if you lack ambition…..well that idea will never be fostered, tendered and subsequently harvested.
JK Rowling. A single mum living with a dream and a desire to be a successful writer. She wrote Harry Potter in her spare time, on train journeys, killing time in coffee shops, in between work meetings. Now you wouldn’t say that JK Rowling was perhaps the most outgoing extrovert in the limelight, choosing to stay tucked up away from the cameras and the paparazzi, but she is ambition personified. She had a dream and she went for it. And she persevered. When the first publishers said no, she dusted off that reserved and tenacious ambition and found another publisher who was interested. She’s now worth more than I can imagine.
Similarly Steve Jobs. He had the balls to resign from Apple, a company he co-founded due to a bust up with the board. He spent ten years channeling his ambition elsewhere whilst learning some key lessons which eventually reunited him with Apple and his original dream and the rest of his story sits in the palm of nearly half the UK population. If you haven’t yet seen it, dig out the YouTube clip of his Commencement speech at Stanford. It’s inspiring. There’s a man who knew ambition.
Optimism, Passion, Persistence, flexibility, creativity, focus, altruism… just some words used to describe ambitious people.
But what really is ambition?
Well the official English dictionary definition is …..
- strong desire for success, achievement, or distinction
- something so desired; goal; aim
Ambition is fundamental to success. Without it, we’d all end up with a truck load of skills with no will or desire to do anything with them. Ambition is what drives us forward. Ambition is that part of our imagination that is still four years old and believes anything is possible. Ambition is what makes a tiny seed fall in a concrete path and still push on through the concrete to become a huge oak tree. We are all capable of becoming our own oak trees, but we need to engage our ambition.
Now ambition alone will not get your success; we’ve all watched at least one episode of X-Factor (the early auditions) and seen that ambition alone is not always the key to success. My ears are still recovering from some auditionees who had truck loads of ambition but quite frankly no talent or skill. The key combination is to imagine ambition as your super truck and it’s cargo is all your other skills which you may need. The truck is what makes those skills happen at pace.
One without the other takes you off in all sorts of crazy directions such as an unsuccessful X-Factor auditions or a talent well hidden.
So what other things do we need in our success trucks besides ambition you ask? Well let me introduce you to Mr Covey. Stephen R Covey wrote what has become known as one of the greatest books on ambition creatively titled, ’Seven habits of successful people’. He discovered there were 7 key characteristics and invited readers to model these 7 behaviours if they wanted to be successful. To model excellence, find someone who is brilliantly doing the thing you want to learn and model them. It’s plagiarism at it’s most entrepreneurial. I’ll save you the time of reading the whole of Covy’s book and summarise the key learning, but do beg/steal/borrow a copy when you have the time, it’s well worth a read if you’re the ambitious type.
His seven key habits are as follows, loosely translated by me!
- Be Proactive. Life doesn’t just happen.
- Begin with the end in mind. Being imaginative enough to dream bigger than you can see
- Personal prioritisation. Aligning your priorities to step 2.
- Think win-win. Demonstrate integrity, maturity and a mentality of abundance, in that there is enough around for everybody.
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood
- Synergise the team work. Two heads are better than one.
- Preserve the greatest assets you have – You. Constant personal development
He actually went on to write another book a few years later, aptly called the 8th habit. Fortunately for him, he hadn’t mis-counted in his first book, this follow up book built on ‘Seven Habits’ and outlined how an individual can move from effectiveness to greatness. But then you’re full of ambition so you won’t need to read that book right? (Read it anyway, he’s a clever chap).
In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell went one step further and wrote ‘Outliers’ a book investigating what made successful people successful? It’s based on the theme “Outliers” (those groups of people so successful that they sit outside of the norm). He looked for common denominators among groups of extraordinary successful people from basketball players, to Bill Gates, to the oldest healthiest community, to the most successful airline pilots. His conclusion was that we should look outside of the individual, and consider the culture, community, family and generation. He implies that in order to understand why a tree is so successfully tall, we need to examine the forest and not the tree. He also discovered through birth date analysis that there were some magic years to be born if you wanted to be really rich. Unfortunately we can’t change the year we were born, but we can focus on developing those other skills in our SuperTruck and surrounding ourselves with supporting people and communities.
We are all born with our own unique quantity of ambition in our success piggy banks when we’re born and we add to the bank of success every now and then through experience (and failure) but can we add in even more? Well the answer is simple: Yes! Take a look at Covy’s list of 7 habits. They’re all key skills for being successful and can be learnt using various methods. But to be great, they all require ambition and an ability to believe in yourself and your dreams.
For me, this is the key to making ambition work. Consider your SuperTruck actually has rocket powers and is heading for the moon (this is ambition after all, so we can create whatever we desire). It’s on a single-minded mission to reach beyond all expectations. But the ambition rocket also needs the right fuel, the right team inside it with their own skills and qualities, the right materials, the right support network back on earth. It’s the sum of many amazing parts.
Here are my top five tips for driving your SuperTruck/Rocket (*delete as appropriate) with ambition.
1. Have a dream.
Dream big. Dream as big as you can imagine. This is ambition. Ambition is not interested in small dream, daydreams, might have been. Ambition wants conviction, the unthinkable, the “they said it could happen”. Whatever your dream, make sure it’s ‘YOUR’ dream. If it is not your dream you will never be connected 100% to achieving it and therefore your ambition can wander off on holiday while you tinker with something your heart quite frankly is just not into.
2. Fill it with the skills you need to achieve it.
Access your internal resources (yes you have them and you may have to dig around and dust some of them off), but the skills we need are always within us. Consider what you need to get from A-B and any skills you don’t already have that you need, find them. Your ambition will love you for it, it’s another part of driving forward toward achieving your goal, nothing is insurmountable. Your ambition will help you to find them if they’re new skills to you.
3. Do it with fun and joy.
Note point 1, if your heart isn’t it you won’t enjoy it or feel committed to it. And lets be honest, life is too short to do things we don’t find fun. As human beings we can have a tendency to make everything a project, confounding it to too many barriers and restricting its ability to grow organically. Have fun with your dreams and I can guarantee you will achieve them twice as fast.
4. Engage your resilience.
Ok, so here is the toughest part. Some people will be scared witless or dumbfounded about the fact that you’re brave enough to have a dream, think big, try something new. And this will send them into a spin. Some things you may hear from these types of people “are you kidding?”, “you’re doing what?”, “you’ll never achieve it”, “there’s no point, you won’t get anywhere with it”, “they’ll never take you seriously”, “you’re crazy”. If you hear people with nothing to say about your ideas but negativity (and I call these people mood hoovers because they can suck the life out of you even on a good day if you let them), imagine yourself in a space suit and let their negativity just bounce off your suit. Remember, people who say these things just don’t have your ambition, and deep down it scares them so they react the only way they know how – PANIC! DISBELIEF! Engage space suit. Crack on.
5. Surround yourself with the right people and inspiration.
The great thing about ambition is that it tends to breed ambition. It’s infectious. So find ambitious people and hang out with them, pick their brains, use them as a sounding board, ask for help. This could be anyone from your Nan to the CEO of your favourite company. If you don’t know them already, contact them. Ambitious successful people love sharing their wisdom but most of the time, people are too scared to ask (note point 4). You’ll be very surprised how far ‘asking for help’ can take you. You will need support and after all having fun (point 3) is always better when there’s more than one person.
To end with, here are some inspirational sayings to help engage your SuperTruck of Ambition. If your insides start to do a skip to any of them, write it out on a piece of paper and place it somewhere you’ll see it everyday. Within a few days I bet you start to notice amazing things happening in your life as your ambition takes over control of your skills and enables you to achieve your dreams.
Risk more than is required. Learn more than is normal. Be strong. Show courage. Excel. Lead. Speak your truth. Live your values. Laugh. Innovate. Simplify. Adore mastery. Release mediocrity. Aim for genius. Stay humble. Be kinder than expected. Deliver more than is needed. Exude passion. Shatter your limits. Transcend your fears. Inspire others by your bigness. Dream big but start small. Act now. Don’t stop. Change the world. And my favourite? Onwards to Glory.