Before climbing the rungs of ambition, make sure you’ve chosen the right ladder

A deeper understanding of the purpose and direction of one's career is the way to true success.

Ed Smith at Burton Court on June 15, 2012 in London, England. Photo: Getty.

Do you wish you were more am­bitious, or less? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself without reaching a consistent answer. Does ambition compel you to fulfil your potential – is it the petrol in the tank? Or does it distort your focus towards the pursuit of shallower worldly success, distracting you from higher things?

The question becomes complicated because ambition is bound up with subtly interconnected emotions. Ambition is not the same thing as competitiveness, but there is considerable overlap between the two. Nor is ambition exactly analogous with identifying and pursuing a vocation, though clearly the two ideas can be intertwined.

As a cricketer, I found that my apparently deep personal ambition burned itself out surprisingly quickly. I was so hungry to succeed in my late teens and early twenties that I became bored with the psychological state relatively early. When many of my contemporaries were just getting serious, I was drifting elsewhere. My ambition was out of sync with my development. By the time I had become a rounded and mature player, I was more interested in life beyond the boundary.

Looking back on the experience, I wonder whether playing cricket was ever a natural fit for me over the long term. Something in cricket hooked me, but I now suspect it was mainly the opportunity to succeed. I could play cricket and I had drive, so cricket became a conduit for my drive. It was like being introduced to a drug when you are going through an addictive phase. Addiction was inevitable, the drug of choice incidental. Yet aptitude, I learned the hard way, is not the same thing as vocation. Perhaps that is why, after cricket, I’ve been reluctant to get caught up in what many would call healthy professional ambition. I want to be sure before I get hooked.

There is also a central difference between the two disciplines that have dominated my life, something fundamental that separates sport and writing. It is revealing that elite sportsmen often form natural and instinctive friendships with businessmen and entrepreneurs. The friendship between the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer and Shane Warne is just one example of many. Business and sport have much in common: an intuitive accommodation with risk, accompanied by the conviction that personal will­power will determine events, that self-belief is the first and most important domino in the causal chain. No wonder businesses routinely invite sportsmen to give lectures and presentations. Business sees sport as its outdoor cousin.

In contrast, it is rare for sportsmen to have close friendships with artists, especially writers. This mutual suspicion makes perfect sense. Where sportsmen fear introspection, writers depend on it. History is dangerous territory for sportsmen: only tomorrow matters. For a writer, the past is everything. And where writers have time on their side, for athletes the sand in the hourglass is slipping away frighteningly fast.

Athletes have to hone and nurture an almost adolescent faith in wish-fulfilment. I want to win, ergo I am going to win. If you become too balanced and reflective, it’s time to retire. I suspect artists have to train an opposite impulse: to allow their work to escape from over-rational prescriptiveness and self-control, to be set free. Bob Dylan once said, “Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks.” It can be willed and managed only to a certain degree. Openness, a receptivity to chance and uncertainty, is just as important as tenacity and deter­mination. Anyone who “decides” to write a great novel, as if it were exactly the same as training for a marathon, may as well have decided to write a not-great novel.

And journalism? I once witnessed a long, private conversation between the head of a well-known public institution and the most respected journalist in the same field. What struck me – and what seemed so unusual – was that neither man tried to pursue an agenda with the other. The journalist did not ask for confidential information; the administrator neither explicitly nor implicitly sought preferential coverage in return for leaks or gossipy titbits. Instead, they exchanged unguarded views, information and insights. The less they asked of each other, the more forthcoming they became. As a result, by the end of the evening, both had a better understanding of the other’s brief.

Surely this simple story has nothing to do with ambition – it is just a matter of trust and integrity? No, not entirely. The central point is that neither man needed any further advancement in his job. They had long transcended narrowly defined professional ambition. The writer was ambivalent about a pat on the back from his editor; the administrator was indifferent to goodies from the board. Each sensed in the other a different kind of ambition: to understand the wider picture, not just the demands of tomorrow.

Neither man had the “hunger” and “drive” that every management cliché claims are central to success. Hunger and drive had evolved into something more subtle – the pursuit of independence, the ability to live and work without incurring debts or making false promises. One form of ambition is seeking a state of autonomy.

I’ve often sensed that my conventionally driven acquaintances are critical of an apparent absence of ambition in others – a reluctance to climb the ladder, to hold office, to “get on”. Conversely, I see a distinct lack of ambition in them: their preparedness to give up so much time to tasks they do not enjoy, the thousands of hours spent in meetings nodding along at non sequiturs, the endurance of boredom on a epic scale, a familiarity with airport lounges.

Perhaps one dimension of real ambition is the preparedness to ask if it is uncorrelated with mere success.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)