How to nurture healthy ambition

With the recent launch of the Consultant credentialing process and now similar work in development for Advanced pharmacists, it’s clear that pharmacists are keen to improve and develop their knowledge and skills. One might say they are ambitious. Or is professional advancement both a requirement and a consequence of delivering patient care in an evolving world?

Ambition seems to be interpreted in different ways. Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that “great ambition is the passion of a great character”. It relates to drive, vision and achievement. On the other hand, poet and philosopher David Whyte believes that ambition “thwarts the generosity and maturity that ripens the discourse of a lifetime’s dedication to a work”, and “left to itself…always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control”. The negative connotations of ambition are that it is linked with greed, ultimate dissatisfaction, and striving for goals regardless of who or what gets harmed in the process.

In my experience, these individuals do not work for the pursuit of money, admiration or a grandiose end goal. They say it is a privilege to practice and care for patients, to work with inspirational colleagues

My experience of working with pharmacists over the last ten years or so is that they are truly inspiring in their dedication and passion for their profession and the patients they care or advocate for. Those at the height of their career, the most expert of the profession, may be better described as having a vocation and devotion to their work, which as David Whyte describes “calls us out beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place.

In my experience, these individuals do not work for the pursuit of money, admiration or a grandiose end goal. They say it is a privilege to practice and care for patients, to work with inspirational colleagues, to have a life’s work so enjoyable and rewarding. 

Those individuals, when praised for their achievements, do not say that those achievements were their life’s ambition; rather, that they were an unintended consequence of doing what they loved and cared about day in, day out. 

So is ambition a necessity to advance in your career and continue to deliver great patient care, or do you risk losing sight of what you love about pharmacy?

Aristotle believed that one needs to strike a balance between too much and too little ambition; to strive for ‘healthy’ ambition. Healthy ambition can be viewed as a dedicated pursuit of achievement or distinction which is personally and socially constructive, whereas unhealthy ambition is excessive or chaotic and can lead to destruction.

So how can you nurture your healthy ambition?

  • Confidence is often one of the biggest obstacles to achieving goals. In the psychological literature this is often referred to as self-efficacy – the belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task – and has been linked to the motivation to engage in a plethora of behaviours from quitting smoking to public speaking.
  • Vision and the ability to see an alternative way, an improved system, a better future, and be able to develop a path to realise it.
  • No truly ambitious effort will succeed without friction, so persistence in the face of resistance is key.  
  • What you want to avoid is greed, in the sense of an excessive desire to achieve and in the process cause harm or sacrifice values to reach goals.

In the end, it may be a case of semantics and individual interpretation. In any case, it is interesting to consider what your personal ambition is, any positive and negative impacts it may be having on you and others, and where you can take it to progress meaningful goals.

“Perhaps the greatest legacy we can leave from our work is not to instil ambition in others, though this may be the first way we describe its arrival in our life, but the passing on of a sense of sheer privilege, of having found a road, a way to follow, and then having been allowed to walk it, often with others, with all its difficulties and minor triumphs” 
David Whyte, Ambition

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the UKCPA or its members. We encourage readers to follow links and references to primary research papers and guidance.

Competing interest statement: 

The author declares: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.


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