Is talent more important than ambition for success? - Business Works
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Is talent more important than ambition for success?

Adi Gaskell, PEX When it comes to success at work, is talent more important than ambition? It's a debate for which both sides have good arguments, but whilst talent has been the focus of HR departments for many years. The notion of ambition remains somewhat murkier. A new research paper however aims to shed some light on the previously unclear character trait of ambition.

It suggests that, far from being a surface level character trait that's visible to others, it instead sits underneath some of our more visible characteristics, giving a specific form to the tendencies that flow from more fundamental features such as personality traits.

So what makes someone ambitious and what are the consequences of ambition in the workplace? The researchers drew on longitudinal data for both personality measures, biographical factors and life outcomes. They began though by defining ambition as 'persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment'.

They found that ambition was typically greater when the following factors were present in an individual:

  • Higher conscientiousness (providing the will to achieve)
  • Higher extroversion (through striving in social situations, often related to confidence)
  • Lower neuroticism (as doubt reduces likelihood of setting ambitious goals)
  • Family prestige (creating a climate where high achievement is the norm)
  • A fairly weak relationship to higher childhood general mental ability (leading to encouragement and expectations of success)

More ambitious people were found to attain better results at school and enter jobs with higher prestige. This in turn was then a predictor of both income and life satisfaction. That in turn was found to make people live longer.

In all these areas, ambition was a better predictor of life outcomes than its antecedents such as conscientiousness and extroversion, suggesting that focusing on middle-level traits when trying to understand real-world outcomes may be a sensible research strategy.

Ambition isn't about a single strong aspiration: it's a general orientation towards getting ahead. Commentators are often suspicious of this as nothing more than an 'unquenchable desire for unattainable outcomes', but the researchers point out that on their data, the ambitious 'did not appear to be made miserable or insatiable by their ambitions'. Instead, it seems that this forward impetus can help individuals make inroads into at least some of their wants for life.

So when you're hiring someone for that key position, try and figure out how ambitious they are.

Adi Gaskell is a blogger on management issues and regular contributor to Business Works.

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