Beware Overambition

People seek roles that are far beyond their current levels of experience and skill, and sometimes they get them. The result can be failure and a difficult ‘managing out’ process.

Ambition, achievement striving, and risk-taking are highly valued by our society, but they can come with a dark side. High achievers typically believe in setting themselves ambitious goals and working hard to achieve them, but how do you know when you’re pushing things too far?

There are two ways that overambition can bite. The first is skipping steps. Focusing on the basics first is one of the keys to success.

The second type of overambition is setting unattainable or highly improbable goals (occasional claims that anything is possible notwithstanding). While ‘skipping steps’ often entails risk, the most common problem with setting unattainable goals is the opportunity cost – that is, while you are working towards this goal that you will never achieve, you are missing out on the opportunity to do something else at which you might be more likely to succeed, or which you might enjoy more.

So how do you set a realistic goal? Here are some essential questions to ask yourself.

1. Why do you want this?
It can be hard, but it’s essential to reflect honestly on why you want to achieve a goal. Your reasons for wanting to achieve the goal are what will keep you going when times get tough. It’s also worth asking yourself what other ways might there be of satisfying the underlying motivations behind your goal. For example, maybe you want to study medicine in order ‘to help people stay healthy’, but your level of academic interest and past performance suggests this might be unrealistic and/or involve some undesirable tradeoffs. You could consider setting a goal of acceptance into one of the allied health professions (e.g. radiology or speech therapy) to achieve the same ends by different means. If your reason for wanting to tightrope walk across Niagra falls is to ‘get famous’, you could consider making a funny youtube video with you and your dog wearing a silly hat instead, thus reducing the risk of a plunge to your death.

2. What’s the base rate of achieving the goal?
The base rate of success is the percentage of ‘qualified applicants’ who seek to achieve a goal, who succeed. You can calculate the base rate of success by taking the number of people that succeed in attaining the goal, and dividing that by the number of people that try to attain it. Maybe you are trying to achieve something that no-one else has succeeded at before (good for you). It’s worth investigating how many people may have tried before you, and the reasons they failed.

3. What are the factors that increase the likelihood of success?
Find out what leads to success at the goal you are seeking to achieve – you’re going to need to know anyway. How many of these factors work in your favour, and how many can you control? Consider how you compare against these success factors in the light of the base rate of success. People have a tendency to ignore the base rate of success and just focus on the success factors when estimating how likely they are to succeed at a given task.

4. What will the cost be of reaching the goal?
Make an informed estimate of what it would take to achieve your goal (e.g. the time and money required). Achieving any worthwhile goal requires tradeoffs and sacrifice, most often the sacrifice of time available to do something else. You are more likely to achieve your goal if you are realistic about this from the outset. Bear in mind that it’s easy to underestimate the costs of reaching a goal (e.g. most people underestimate the time required to complete a given task by over 50%). Compare the costs of reaching to goal with your reasons for wanting to achieve it. Which weighs the heavier?

5. What’s the cost of failure?
What happens if you don’t reach your goal? A more positive way of asking this question is, “What’s my contingency plan?”


When you understand why you want to achieve your goal, what the base rate of success is, what the key success factors are, the cost of reaching the goal and the cost of failure, you are in a good position to make an informed decision about whether this goal is realistic for you. Do the answers to these questions add up to a compelling story? Can you convince others that you have a realistic chance of achieving the goal? Can you convince yourself?

Aim high, but don’t forget to aim.

What are your experiences with goal setting?
Have you set any goals that you later regretted or realised were unrealistic?

via The Limits of Ambition | Psychology Today.

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