The Difference Between Ambition and Desire

Cody Boyte | February 2016

One of the things that I see people mess up a lot, especially around their careers, is the difference between ambition and desire. We all have desire, but few people have ambition.

I’m reminded of the difference every time I ask people where they want to be 5 or 10 years from now. It’s the same question that gets asked in pretty much every interview – and yes, I’m the weird guy who asks people that in real life. I ask it because it helps me understand how people prioritize their decisions and think about their lives.

Desire is simple. It’s the easy answer to where someone wants to be in 5 years. It’s saying “I just want a good job with a better commute” or “ someday I want to be a manager” or, like one of my friends told me recently, “I just want to make a ton of money, I don’t care how.” Everyone has desires. Desire is all about consuming. It’s the money you need to buy a better couch or live in a better neighborhood or go out more often. It’s the job promotion you want because it will stroke your ego and make you feel like you’re doing well in your career. It’s winning the Powerball. It’s short term happiness.

Ambition is a lot different. Ambition is about creating something. It’s about having a point of view and an understanding of the future version of yourself. It’s about understanding where you want to be eventually. I love it when I ask someone where they want to be in 5 years and they talk through their vision of how they’re going to impact the world. One of my colleagues runs a non-profit on the side and wants to be able to turn it into something that has a huge impact in her local area. She realizes that she doesn’t yet have the skills she needs to have that impact, so she’s focused on finding her way there. Everything for her is either a stepping stone or an obstacle towards her true goal. Ambition is focusing on long term happiness.

Or, in simpler terms, desire is looking at the mountain and dreaming about what it would feel like to be on top. Ambition is making a plan to get to the top and then taking the steps to get yourself there. A few years ago, Auren Hoffman, wrote a wonderful piece about the difference between creating and consuming that had a huge impact on how I’ve thought about ambition. His main point is that any time we’re consuming, we don’t have time to create. But value comes from the people who create and we’re all happier when we’re being creators. Watch little kids – they love to make things and they’re super happy. Ambition is treating your career as a creation, as something you’re building. It’s about shifting your career from asking “how can I get more money so I can consume things” or “how do I get a better job to stroke my ego” into a question of “which sets of options will help me towards what I’m building” or “who do I need to be to accomplish the great thing I want to accomplish?” Creating can be hard though. It takes work and energy. It takes hustle. It takes the time to decide what you’re going to build.

In my experience, ambition requires three things:

I’m not saying that being ambitious is easy. It’s not. And it can take awhile to really figure out what you’re going to build.

Through most of my 20s I struggled to both understand which part of the world I wanted to impact and how I could add value. I jumped between jobs a bunch while I searched for the place where I was incredibly valuable. However, I kept searching and eventually found a niche where I can have an incredible impact. Having a solid view of how I’m going to be impacting that part of the world over the next 15-20 years has made my decision making a lot easier. Everything I’m doing now is a stepping stone to get to the world I’m creating.

What are you creating? What do you want to build with your career?