Aspiration, Ambition, and Action

Two young women reading a map

A few months ago I shared an episode of Todd Henry’s podcast in which he was speaking with best-selling author and coach Dr. Marshall Goldsmith about his new book The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment. It was a very interesting conversation and definitely made me want to read the book, and I’m currently doing just that. But wait, there’s more.

I reached out to Dr. Goldsmith’s publisher and booked him to be on the Better Me Podcast later this summer so you’ll get to hear my conversation with him sometime in September.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book, but in this post, I want to talk about Chapter 5 “Aspiration: Privileging Your Future over Your Present”. In that chapter, Goldsmith talks about the differences between actions, ambitions, and aspirations. He includes a nifty little graphic that succinctly describes each of these terms. Action is what we are doing now. Ambition is what we want to achieve. Aspiration is who we want to become.

Often we talk about ambition in ways such as “he’s so ambitious” or “her ambition will take her far”, but Goldsmith talks about it as “the pursuit of any defined goal. It is time-bound, ending the moment we achieve the goal.”

Action “refers to all the specific things we do during the day.” They might be in the pursuit of a goal or they might be responding to what we see as an immediate need or a desire we have (need to get gas for the car, want to have that hot chocolate with the chocolate whip cream on top). So actions are sometimes tied to ambitions, but frequently not.

We dream or set goals (ambition) about things we want to accomplish or obtain and if we really want those things and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve them, our actions will reflect an effort to make progress toward our ambition.

But, as Marshall points out, if we focus only on ambition and action, we may end up with a lot of regrets in life, regrets we don’t have to have. This is where aspiration comes in.

“[Aspiration] is our pursuit of an objective greater than any defined, time-bound goal. We aspire to serve others, or to be a better parent, or to embody more consistently a way of living or treating other people.”

 The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment page 74

Aspiration is our compass and road map. It helps us stay on course and find our way. But our ambition and our actions need to align (most of the time) for us to be or become the person we aspire to be.

Marshall notes that we need all three of these elements – our map, our stops along the way, and the steps we’ll take to get there. Ambition doesn’t align with your aspiration? You’re going to end up off course. Actions don’t align with your ambition or your aspiration, that will be a lot of wasted time and effort on your journey, and may even lead to injuries that prevent you from reaching your next stop (ambition) or where you ultimately want to end up (aspiration).

To simplify this. If you want to be a healthy person and you continue to smoke, your actions and aspiration don’t align. If you become a billionaire, but you completely alienate your friends and family along the way, deep connections with loved ones better not be your aspiration.

Your goals need to align with the person you want to be (how do you want to be remembered or what kind of role model do you want to be). Your day-to-day actions need to align with the person you want to be AND the goals that you set for yourself. Does this mean no hot chocolate with chocolate whip cream? Of course not. I don’t want to be remembered as someone so anal they didn’t enjoy life.

Featured image courtesy of Jazz Guy under a CC-BY license.

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