Aspiration as a Motivator for Continuing Growth

By Marshall Goldsmith

You can be ambitious in seeking a career, and you can also aspire to be someone who embodies the best of that career. That’s the difference between Ambition and Aspiration. Aspiration and ambition are two of three variables that govern the progress we make toward living a life we seek. The third is Action — that is, doing.  

Aspiration is a continuing act of self-creation and self-validation. 

Aspiration differs from Ambition because it’s not about achievement, but continuing growth. 

A friend told me this story about his schooldays: At age nine he was sent away by his single working mother to a K–12 school for boys who were either orphans or, with one single parent like him, a semi-orphan. He lived year-round on school property along with twelve hundred other boys, all expenses covered. It was the first time he had good teachers who cared about his education. He became serious about his studies. On a back wall in the school’s assembly hall, the school’s founder had installed an Honor Roll of rectangular plaques in two columns with the names of the valedictorian and the salutatorian in each graduating class since 1934. 

“The only Ambition I had in high school,” said my friend, “was to get my name on that wall as either first or second in my class. My goal was to leave a permanent mark on the school. A week before graduation, after the final exam grades were in, the school principal called a classmate and me into his office and congratulated him as valedictorian and me as salutatorian. And that was it. No medal, no framed certificate, no photo for the local paper, no speaking slot at commencement. Not even a ceremony at the wall as our plaques were put up. 

“Our names would be enshrined on the wall at some point after graduation. By then I was living a hundred miles away with my mother, working a summer job, and looking forward to college. I’d devoted my adolescence to one Ambition and enjoyed the triumph for precisely the ten minutes I was in the principal’s office. The funny thing is, I’ve never actually seen my plaque on the wall.” 

I guarantee that you have felt a similar emotion dozens of times since childhood. You have a goal, hit it or miss it, experience a fleeting emotion on a spectrum from elation, to indifference, to shame, and then move on. It’s as if you’re hitchhiking, and your Ambition is the vehicle that picks you up and takes you to your immediate destination. On arrival, you step out of the vehicle, look around, and decide whether to stay in place or hail another vehicle to take you to the next destination. This is the rinse-and-repeat rhythm of an Ambitious life. But it is not necessarily a happy or fulfilling life. 

But Aspiration, because it is all about learning “to care about something new,” directs you to something more lasting than ambition, more worthy of developing and protecting. In her book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming, University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard cites an example of Aspiring to become more knowledgeable about classical music. So let’s try that on. 

You decide that acquiring a taste for classical music is a worthwhile project. Your reasons may be noble: It’s regarded as a high art form, and you’re curious to learn whether its greatest practitioners—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi—are all they’re cracked up to be. 

Your reasons may be practical: You may want to check off another status marker of being well educated. Or they may be self-serving: You want to keep pace with your more erudite friends. Or maybe you heard a famous classical piece in a movie—Pachelbel’s “Canon” or Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”— and yearn for more. 

The point is, you’re curious and willing to make the effort, with no idea of how it will play out. You cannot predict whether you’ll be fascinated or bored, or whether this new value you’ve decided to acquire will actually feel valuable. So you read books, listen to recordings, go to concerts, meet a new community of friends who share your interest—and over several years, you build up an enviable base of knowledge that was unimaginable to you a few years earlier. 

This is the gift of Aspiring: Even when you’ve moved on to another self-cultivation project—say, becoming skilled at cabinetmaking—you will always have that acquired base of knowledge about classical music, as if it’s a skill or a moral value that has become part of your identity. 

Such a base doesn’t fade away like the momentary happiness of achieving an Ambitious goal. It is something you can build on for the rest of your life. 

Understanding Aspiration is a huge (but not wholly appreciated) difference maker in our ability to create our own life. Countless times I have heard people, especially young people, balk at taking a risky career move because they need certainty that the outcome will be positive, that the risk will pay off with a reward. 

They do not see that a choice that comes with a guaranteed result is, by definition, not a risk. 

Nor do they appreciate that Aspiring to something—for example, becoming a lawyer—is an incremental process that gradually reveals its own value and, if we’re lucky, continues to enhance its value for the rest of our lives.

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