What Ambition Is And How To Maintain A Healthy Sense Of It

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

What does ambition mean? Ambition is a quality that can motivate an individual and drive their actions toward a particular goal. It can help a person push themselves to engage in hard work and take risks to reap specific rewards. Having a driving ambition can be a powerful motivator for achieving success. 

Read on to understand what characterizes ambition, how to tell the difference between healthy and potentially unhealthy levels of this trait, and strategies for balancing it in your life.

Hoping to harness the power of ambition?

What is ambition?

Ambition, from the Latin ambition, is defined as “a strong desire to achieve a particular end.” It can also refer to “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power”— which hints at how varied this quality can be in real life. Ambition can be the driving force behind the choices you make, pushing you to realize your goals. However, a person’s goals and the role ambition plays in their life can vary widely. 

For instance, two artists might both have strong ambition to fulfil their goals. However, one artist’s primary goal might be to inspire others, so they focus their artistic ambition on getting their art displayed in free, public places. The other’s first ambition might be to seek fame, driving them to focus on networking and publicity. In both cases, ambition is what pushes them toward success — however they might define it.

The potential benefits of ambition

Ambition can have a positive impact on an individual’s life and even on their community. Whether you’re interested in starting your own business, pursuing a sport or art, learning French, gaining power in the business world, or fighting for equal rights, a healthy sense of ambition can be your starting point. 

Potential benefits of ambition can include:

A sense of purpose

When you have a clear goal, you may be more focused on it and more motivated to work towards it. Ambition can help you prioritize your actions and make decisions that bring you closer to your goal.

For example, say you want to be a successful actress. Ambition makes that goal more than just a dream. While a strong sense of ambition won’t magically give you talent, it can drive you to learn how to act and start signing up for auditions. 


Ambition can also strengthen your beliefs and give you the energy to persist through obstacles. When you are ambitious, you might be more likely to take calculated risks and continue to pursue your goals, even when the path is unclear. That kind of resilience and determination can be critical for success.

Personal growth

Ambition can potentially foster personal growth and self-discovery. You often learn more about yourself and your capabilities when you challenge yourself and push past your comfort zone. This kind of growth can allow you to develop new skills and get creative, seeking out new ways to be successful.

Life achievements

Ambition can help you get where you want to be in life. If your aim is to hit certain career, financial, relational, or creative milestones a healthy dose of ambition may help you get there.

A positive impact on society

Finally, ambition can inspire people to make a positive impact on the world, whether through philanthropy, activism, or other forms of service. It can give someone the persistence they may need to affect meaningful change and provide examples of real success.

The possible dark side of ambition

While ambition has many potential benefits, when left unchecked, it can also lead to negative outcomes. Too much ambition can lead to stress, burnout, and debilitating perfectionism. In extreme cases, it may also lead to unethical behavior and thoughts, such as a feeling of hatred toward other candidates at a job interview. 

Again, imagine your life goal is to become a very successful actress. Too much fierce ambition could potentially lead you to unhealthy habits or a negative self-image. On the other hand, if you lack ambition, you might never take the initiative to start acting. It’s all about finding the right balance — caring for your own wellness while still striving for success. 

Tips for cultivating a healthy sense of ambition

To help you cultivate a healthy balance of ambition and self-care, consider the following tips:

Set realistic goals

Identifying what you want to achieve is the first step in working toward any goal. Using the SMART goals framework may be helpful in this process. It may also help to consider the words you use in defining your goals — for example, becoming a “better” skater is a realistic goal, while being the “best” skater demands an unrealistic sense of progress. It’s also okay if your goals are abstract. You might not be able to become a professional historian this week, but you can achieve your goal of learning more about Ancient Rome. 

Celebrate your progress

As you go, you can celebrate small wins along the way and acknowledge the hard work you’ve put in. This strategy may help you combat perfectionism or a “never-enough” mindset, which can lead to negative thought patterns and burnout.

Prioritize self-care

Taking care of your physical and emotional well-being as you work toward your goal can also help you avoid burnout. This might look like making time for activities that bring you joy, help you feel relaxed, or benefit your overall health, such as exercising, meditating, or spending time with loved ones. 

Stay adaptable

Life can be unpredictable, and sometimes things don't go as planned. Being open to adjusting your goals, timeline, and/or approach can help you achieve your aspirations and get around roadblocks.

Hoping to harness the power of ambition?

How therapy can help

If you feel like your sense of ambition may be causing you problems in life, meeting with a therapist is another way to address it. 

For instance, someone with excessive ambition that’s causing them stress might work with a therapist to uncover where their harmful drive originated. Someone who has trouble finding the ambition to achieve their goals can consult with a therapist to understand why — and whether it’s something they want help improving. 

Some people prefer engaging in therapy online instead of in person since virtual therapy is often more cost-effective than traditional methods. Research suggests that both formats can offer similar benefits in most cases, which means you can choose the one that’s most helpful for you. If you’re interested in online therapy, a virtual therapy service like BetterHelp is an option to consider. You can get matched with a licensed therapist to meet via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing.


A sense of ambition can lead to personal growth, career advancement, and other forms of success and achievement, but it might also have negative effects if not managed in a healthy way. If you’re having trouble finding an appropriate balance of ambition in your life, setting realistic goals, remaining adaptable, and meeting with a therapist may all be helpful strategies to consider.
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