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Ambition vs. Aspiration

We recently read organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s new book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, which focuses on revealing concealed potential within individuals.  Within that theme, Grant explores the difference between ambition vs. aspiration.  At first glance, we thought those terms were interchangeable.  Grant kindly set us straight:

“Ambition is the outcome you want to attain. Aspiration is the person you hope to become. The question is not how much money you earn, how many fancy titles you land, or how many awards you accumulate. Those status symbols are poor proxies for progress. What counts is not how hard you work but how much you grow.”

At any given moment, an ambitious leader may be motivated to achieve a specific financial result, like revenue growth or free cash flow generation.  That’s great, but in our experience, ambition around goals like this may not be the best long-term motivator.  As we often say internally, results are snapshots, not final judgements.  Aspiration, on the other hand, is about the journey.  It’s about being up for the adventure of whatever comes next.  And it’s about working iteratively to realize one’s potential over time. 

When we interview candidates for our internal management training program, we always try to determine if their ambition is to become the CEO of a small business.  However, more importantly, we also try to determine if they aspire to become a great leader.  If we hit a revenue goal, what then?  Will we have the same motivation to do it for the next 10, 15 or 20 years?  It’s our experience that aspirational motivation not only helps foster adaptability, communication skills, and a willingness to take on new challenges, but it also allows for a more constructive approach to mistakes.  That’s important because we will make mistakes.  It’s not an “if” but a “when”.  Aspiration and a growth mindset are key to ensuring the effects of making a mistake are not exacerbated.  We stress aspiration because we want to know what happens when we’re knocked to the ground.  We want to know that we will see the experience as growth.  We pick ourselves up, we learn, and we move forward.  

We believe setting ambitious goals is important and necessary for the success of any individual, or company.  Striking the right balance between ambition vs. aspiration, however, can lead to personal and professional growth alongside external achievements.  Cultivating this mindset doesn’t come easily.  Our view is that being an aspirational leader can be self-fulfilling and steer you toward true progress.  Adam Grant seems to agree, and we’ll wear that as a badge of honor.

Have a great holiday. Weekly Thoughts will return in 2024.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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