Ambition: The Good, the Bad, and Three Ways to Keep It from Getting Ugly

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My grandfather, Don Kinnaman, had drive.

Over the course of a year or so, he built a railroad in his backyard. Not little garden-variety toy trains, mind you, but five-foot cars that could transport adults and, most importantly, grandchildren. He built engines, boxcars, flatcars, and cabooses from scratch—designing, building and painting everything, down to the last detail. He found the light-gauge metal tracks somewhere (somehow before Craig’s List) and then assembled them onto homemade ties and laid them into gravel ballast. Every summer vacation, we would hurtle ourselves down the natural slope of his yard, holding on tightly at two key curves that sliced through pine trees.

Ambition and its personality derivatives—such as drive and industriousness—are gifts from God. Ambition is part of the imago dei. Like work itself, I believe ambition was placed into humanity at creation and that it is an innately good part of what it means to be human.

However, ambition also has a shadow side. Things designed for good at creation are affected by the Fall. The wrong side of ambition drives us to act for selfish reasons, for aggrandizement, and it ultimately leads to bigger-is-better philosophies that hurt more than harm.

The Good Side and the Bad Side

Let’s think for a minute about a world without ambitious people. Human beings would not have cultivated cities or invented skyscrapers or air travel, the Internet, or backyard trains. As Skye Jethani argues in his book Futureville, ambition at its best allows people to bring order, create beauty, and generate abundance out of the natural resources of the world.

Furthermore, it takes ambition to lead. Almost every inspirational figure who made a mark on the world had some quiet or not-so-quiet ambition: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr. Even Mother Teresa had ambition to do something no one else would do. Her’s was, perhaps, atypical, but something on the inside drove her to serve the poor.

On the other hand, the shadow side of ambition hurts people. It teaches that greed is good. It prioritizes institution-building over people. It turns ministry into mechanisms for conversion. Having researched Christian ministries for twenty years now, I’ve seen organizations find ways of justifying their ambition just to raise funds.

It’s easy for us to see the negative effects of ambition in other’s lives. It’s a lot harder to see them in our own. In my life, for example, I’ve seen ambition play a positive role in keeping me focused and productive at the same business for two decades, but I’ve also experienced “workaholism.” I’ve been subject to feeling like a martyr—like I am the only one really working hard. I’ve taken on complex projects, and I’ve over-promised results. I’ve often been tempted to believe I’m the smartest guy in the room. I’ve pursued success through mere human effort and not in partnership with God’s spirit. These aren’t other people’s shadows; they’re mine.

Questions That Keep Ambition from Getting Ugly

So, how can we discern when ambition is being redeemed in our lives? How do we know when we’re tapping into ambition’s good side? I suggest these three questions:

1. Is my ambition fueled by something that lasts beyond myself but not for my reputation?

Ambitious people build things. They maximize profits. They create better systems. They generate enduring companies. The first question of ambition addresses the degree to which our efforts are producing something that will last in the world. And it makes partnering with God’s purposes critical: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps. 127:1).

This has relevance, for instance, to our parenting. It’s a wonderful privilege to raise godly children. All three of my kids are hard-working and industrious. My wife, Jill, and I try to think about how to give each of them grace so they realize that accomplishments aren’t the goal. Instead, the goal is to become the kinds of people God can use. It’s a hard task for parents (as we have found) to care more about who our kids are becoming rather than simply how they make us feel about ourselves as parents.

This first question, then, relates to the motivation of ambition. Are we being motivated by the right things?

2. Does my ambition serve God’s people?

The second question is one of outcomes—what we hope will be the result of our industrious behavior. My favorite verse on this topic is 2 Samuel 5:12. King David and the nation of Israel are experiencing a period of surplus. David has just moved into a beautiful new home. It’s like Extreme Home Makeover, where Hiram, king of Tyre, is Ty Pennington. And in the midst of this prosperous time, David experiences an epiphany: “And David realized that the Lord had established him as king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel.”

David realizes he has been made king for the sake of God’s people. I can’t think of a better Scriptural imperative for those of us who are driven by ambition. You get a promotion. You’re running a successful company. You deliver results. Your investments are peaking. The fruits of our labors are not for us; they are meant to serve God’s people.

3. Is my ambition checked by humility and vocational pursuits?

Finally, we should ask ourselves how we exercise ambition. This relates to the process and practice of our hard work. I’ve listened to Christian leaders who talk about trying to change all of culture; who aim to reform the entire Church. I don’t question their intentions, but their goals seem so grandiose.

These days, I’ve been focusing my ambition on the work at Barna Group: to build a world-class, profitable, and enduring research company. This is ambitious enough without trying to reform culture. If my work directly or indirectly aids Christian leaders who can change bits and pieces of society, then that’s great.

Slowly, very slowly, I’ve been giving up the notion that I can do anything else but be faithful. And as a leader of a growing business, I’ve had to work hard to keep my drive in check. I don’t know if I’ll ever build a backyard railroad like my grandfather did, but spending time with my family, learning to love naps and Sabbath days, and getting lost in a few (smaller) hobbies are helping me keep ambition as it was intended: a good gift from God.