This book is aimed at all those who dream of achieving greatness in any field. We offer it as a handbook of lessons derived from the lives of great achievers past and present. The first lesson is that achievers in all fieldsart, business, politics, scienceand of all ages face similar challenges in accomplishing something great. What changes is the context within which the challenges occur.
The principles of this book come not from conventional psychology (clinical or theoretical) but from life experiences. They are derived from our own long observation of ambitious people, both past and present, in all walks of life.
Our ideas apply equally to those who pursue their particular ambition acting on their own and to those who act as members of large organizations. Indeed, this book is for anyone who sets out to accomplish anything truly excellent, no matter where or how.
We have found that the careers of ambitious people typically follow a predictable paththe arc of ambition. Hence the title of this book.
The curve of the arc isn't necessarily the same for every individual. For some, the rise of the curve is slow. The first dreams are just that, dreams. They are personal, secret, not even divulged to family or friends. Then, as the curve rises, these dreams provide a springboard for action.
Samuel Moore Walton comes to mind. His dreams began while he was still a schoolboy, selling milk from the cows on his family's Depression-poor farm. But Walton did not open his first Wal-Mart store until he was forty-four years old.
For others, the curve rises quickly. Ambition thrusts the dreamers into the limelight, sometimes right onto the world stage, at an amazingly early age.
Michael S. Dell, founder of Dell Computer Corporation is a prodigious example. In the early 1980s, while only a college student, Dell began building computers tailored to the specific needs of his customers. When his customer base grew, he quit college. The company he founded in 1984 to build computers to fit demand quickly became successful. It went public in 1988. Michael Dell became a billionaire when he was thirty-one years old.
Most of us dream of greatness at an early age. We envision growing up to emulate our favorite role models, whether they be parents, teachers, or athletes. Schoolbooks introduce us to national heroes, from Abe Lincoln to Rosa Parks and Sally Ride. All this nurtures the seedling of ambition that is planted at birth.
Your goal may be expansiveto become a twenty-something Internet millionaire, to run for the United States Senate, to win an Olympic gold medal, to write a novel. Or it may be more modestto become mayor of your hometown, to run a local business, or to teach a subject you love. Whatever the size of your goal, it is ineluctably driven by ambition, the unique human energy that primes our efforts and shapes our achievements. Understanding how the arc of ambition works in your own life will almost certainly make those efforts more effective.
Our book maps the arc's three principal segments. The first segment covers the rise of ambition: the initial dream of an individual and the perseverance and courage he or she must exercise in pursuit of that dream.
The second section of the arc covers the apex of ambition. It usually is demonstrated by those who seek to build some organization larger than themselves. It could be a business, a university, even an army.
The third section confronts the decline of ambitionthe time when every achiever must cope with his or her hardest challenges.
In the pages ahead, we explore the mysterious process whereby great men and women emerge, often from obscurity, to trace their own arcs of ambition. Is it their doing, the luck of the draw, or some supernatural talent scout at work? Do achievers make history, or does history make achievers?
Some nineteenth-century thinkers, among them the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle and the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, argued that "heroes" shape events. Others, such as Russian novelist and moral philosopher Leo Tolstoy, countered that great men and women are pretty much the products of their times.
The facts, we believe, support both theories, weakening each. Had Madame Curie and her husband not "discovered" radium, for example, might not someone else have accomplished the feat soon thereafter? Without Abraham Lincoln at the helm, would the United States have ceased to exist? If William H. Gates III were not the unique person he is, would Microsoft Corporation have been founded by another? Without the vision and drive of Akio Morita, would Sony Corporation still have become the global powerhouse it is today?
We can surmise that achievers arise from a rich ragout of unpredictable ifs. If people have the talent and the training, if they are in the right place at the right time, and if they have the inner drive we call ambition, they may succeed and hold onto their success.
Quite often, great achievers spring from obscurity. And, just as often, their very obscurity galvanizes their ambitions.
John Keats, the major sonneteer of nineteenth-century English Romantic poetry, was the tubercular son of a London stable-keeper. He was completely disconnected from the perks and playing fields of Eton and the political benches of Westminster. Yet, long before the sons of upper-class families were sent out across the world to rule an empire, he toiled at poetry so effectively that today he remains among the two or three masters of melodic verse in the English language.
Howard Schultz, who built Starbucks Corporation from a single store on the Seattle, Washington, waterfront into a worldwide chain with more than 2,400 retail locations, traces the roots of his ambition to the poverty of an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. "From my personal experience," he says today, "the more uninspiring your origins, the more likely you are to use your imagination and invent worlds where everything seems possible. That's certainly true for me."
Relentless hard work in the service of an ardent ambition often prevails. Consider Leonardo da Vinci, the polymathic Renaissance painter, sculptor, engineer, musician, and scientist. We tend to think of Leonardo as a unique marvel placed on earth to teach the rest of us a little humility, and perhaps that was so. "Leonardo," says Roger A. Enrico, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo, Inc., and a student of da Vinci, "mastered the sweet things of life, like the Mona Lisa, and the not-so-sweet, like war machines. Artist, engineer, scientist, mathematicianif he did it, he excelled."
But Leonardo made good not so much by divine guidance as by constant hustle and a prodigious output of ideas supported by incessant labor. For him, living and leveraging were one. Consider the sales pitch he sent the war-worried Duke of Milan in 1482. Most of the letter offers various ingenious solutions to the duke's urgent problems with military defense and enemy bombardments. But then Leonardo gets around to what he really wants, an art grant, a meal ticket allowing him to paint and tinker on the duke's money. "In time of peace," he finally mentions, as if in passing, "I can perform sculptures in marble, in bronze or in terra cotta. In painting, I am able to do what another may."
What is this drive, this compelling hunger to achieve, this ambition? Ambition started out as a pedestrian notion derived from the Latin word ambitionem, meaning to walk around soliciting votes. But its reality can be fierce and its results momentous.
Listen to the Roman historian Suetonius on the subject of Julius Caesar's ambition. "At Gades, Caesar saw a statue of Alexander the Great in the Temple of Hercules and was overheard to sigh impatiently: vexed, it seems, that at an age when Alexander had already conquered the whole world, he himself had done nothing epoch-making." In time, Caesar made up for that slow start.
Or hear Napoléon Bonaparte, that avatar of ambition, describe himself under its spell: "I feel myself driven toward an end that I do not know. As soon as I shall have reached it, as soon as I shall become unnecessary, an atom will suffice to shatter me. Till then, not all the forces of mankind can do anything against me." Nor, in fact, could theyfor a time.
In modern usage, ambition is both goal and goada compulsion to strive for something worth achieving. No actionand certainly no great enterpriseis thinkable without it. Ambition can transform anything. It has tamed continents and launched civilizations, built cathedrals and toppled despots, cured diseases and put men on the moon. Ambition can change a simple idea into a global business. It can inspire a gifted teacher to redeem wasted minds. It can turn a family of immigrants into a financial dynasty. It can lift a political prodigy from the obscurity of a trailer childhood to election as the president of the United States.
Ambition keeps altering the human condition, not always for the best, yet on the whole, for good rather than ill. In the table of human elements, ambition is the catalyst that ignites daring achievers and converts the ordinary to the extraordinary. In every field, those who make things happen are propelled by some powerful desire to change their worlds and their own destinies in the process.
Ambition drives those intrepid individuals who see what no one else has seen and achieve what no one else thought could be achievedforever changing the context of their art or science or industry, opening the way for hundreds of other innovations. By flying the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, Charles Lindbergh triggered the rise of global airlines and foreshadowed space exploration. By charting the human subconscious for the first time, Sigmund Freud invented psychoanalysis and undoubtedly changed the role of religion. By organizing an assembly line for the first time, Henry Ford launched worldwide auto-mobility and its profound economic consequences.
We believe these achievers, and others like them, have much to teach us. Their challenges were, in principle, not so different from those that anyone aspiring to greatness faces today. Yet, the quest for greatness has lately encountered something new and acutely important. Both ambition and achievement now rise and fall with unprecedented speed.
This new condition grows out of a sea change in our technological context, a kind of seismic wave that sweeps over the world every half-century or so and reinvents our lives. Each new context brings forth its own versions of the three archetypal figures of achievement.
First come those we call the Creators. They are the true innovators, who pioneer a new technology to the point of making an old field technically obsolete. In the arts, dancers like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham shook off the constraints of classical ballet and introduced the modern age to dancers everywhere. Cubism in painting showed us another way of looking at the objects around us and led the way to the twentieth century explosion of abstract expressionism. And Ernest Hemingway's terse style broke the florid tone of Victorian writing. In the sciences, pioneers from Albert Einstein to Norbert Wiener to Jonas Salk gave the human species unprecedented control over nature.
Next come the Capitalizers, who market the innovative technology so energetically that a whole new infrastructure is required to accommodate its distribution. The nation's electronic subsystem, for example, has been rebuilt at least three times in the past seventy years or so, from telegraph to telephone, from radio to television, from cable to Internet. In the arts and sciences, the followers and imitators of the Creators have capitalized on the freedom to experiment and try out new ideas and approaches. One of the great Capitalizers was Albert H. Barr, who made the most of the modernist ferment in New York City in the early twentieth century to create the Museum of Modern Art. In the same era Lincoln Kirstein helped galvanize and organize the modern dance movement.
Finally come the Consolidators, the professional managers in business and the museum curators and the theater producers in the arts. In business, it is the ambitious Consolidators who make new technologies work consistently and profitably in corporate settings. Eventually, however, Consolidators tend to look inward to their own corporate cultures rather than outward to changing customer needs, thereby losing the creative and subversive impulses that had brought forth the new technology in the first place. Thus the opportunity is opened for the cycle of creative destruction to begin anew.
The first technological sea change in the United States, born during and after the Civil War, was the fifty-year explosion of late-nineteenth-century industrial and railroad expansion that tamed the continent and turned the United States into a world power. The biggest winners were eight or nine of the most ambitious opportunists ever to soar straight up from poverty to plutocracy, among them Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Jay Cooke, Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour, James Hill, and John D. Rockefeller. In a few short years of cutting corners and dodging convention, they focused on turning the superabundant resources of the United States into personal wealth beyond the wildest dreams of even their own fervent imaginations.
The Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, for example, was a seventeen-year-old telegraph clerk in 1852 when he began formulating the huge aspirations that eventually made him the country's top steel tycoon. His goal, the boy clerk wrote, was "to become independent and then enjoy the luxuries which wealth can (and should) procure." Within two years, Carnegie was turning stock market tips into a fortune, all on borrowed money.
The second technological revolution arose in the early 1900s from the mass-production techniques of Henry Ford, a classic Creator. His Model-T spawned the automobile industry that soon challenged the railroad industry, created a booming oil industry, and enabled Americans to become suburban car commuters after World War II.
Detroit's automakers changed the world's business and cultural contexts, with immense consequences for everything from air quality to the fate of big cities and small towns. And not surprisingly, in a pattern familiar to business historians, those automakers eventually became inward-turned Consolidators, slow to understand their customers' sudden switch to Japan's far more efficient cars during the oil crunch of the 1970s and 1980s.
The third technological turning point, now in full sway, has basically derived from the convergence of information and communications technology. These technologies have together created an entirely new context, the information economy, which the Internet supports in a now instantly connected world. Like the printing press, the steam engine, and the automobile, the computer has transformed the very nature of work, introduced extraordinary efficiencies in advanced countries, and instilled others with a consuming ambition to catch up.
But all this progress has a double edge: While triggering great high-technology breakthroughs and enormous opportunities, it also has vastly increased the pace of business and the intensity of competitive pressure. Growth is at such a breakneck pace that whole industries seem to coalesce one year and obsolesce the next. The average life cycle of the strongest companies has reportedly shrunk to less than fifteen years, half of what it was in the 1950s. The driver is, of course, the avalanche of innovations that keep streaming out of start-up companies that, last year, may have been mere garage shop operations.
Not only business but all other aspects of our society have been profoundly altered. In one generation, medicine has changed radically. Diagnosis now relies on an array of tests. We have CAT scans, PET scans, ultrasound sonograms, MRIs, and many other sophisticated tools. Artists today use computer imaging in their work. Mixed media in entertainmentbe it serious plays, pop performances, or movie special effectshave become almost old hat. Professional athletes train by observing themselves and their rivals on the computer screen, as do golfing hopefuls watching their idols execute the perfect swing. There is little in the realm of human endeavor that has not been touched by continuing advances in technology. Just as cyberspace has pushed the boundaries of the earth, so technology is a tool that can help achievers ascend the arc of ambition.
These new tools not only force us to alter our present but also leave us with a largely unusable past and unknowable future. Often, we seem to be caught between two choices: Hunker down (and fail) or bravely improvise (and hope). As an early employee of Bill Gates's Microsoft admitted later, "We sold promises."
In virtually every change-pressured fieldfrom cyberspace marketing to genetic engineeringthose who do plunge ahead typically lack precedents to guide them. As early explorers, they resemble Christopher Columbus sailing blindly into uncharted seas, or the Elizabethan adventurer Sir Martin Frobisher vainly attempting to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic, or Vasco da Gama struggling around the tip of Africa to find a route to India.
Like the Citigroup, Inc., executives trying to merge former rivals into a global financial supermarket, or the ambitious attempts by Mobil Corporation and Exxon Corporation to create a worldwide energy empire, today's achievers frequently have great visions. But getting from A to B is often as dangerous and mysterious as sailing off into unknown waters was in the age of exploration.
Ambition has always required creativity, daring, and timing, to name but a few of its components. Today it requires all these and more. For example, you can't be successful with a new Internet company just because you are incredibly imaginative, have the heart of a lion, and boast a new stock issue that thousands of seemingly irrational day traders bid up 300 percent the moment it hits the market. Most of all, you need extraordinary perseverance and skill to wait out the time it may take for a new technology to progress from a market dream to actual profitability. And, while you hang in, time may suddenly pass you by when some even newer technology pops up to render yours obsolete.
In these demanding times, when the forces of creative destruction have never been stronger, success clearly requires an ambition of exceptional intensity. And, yet, corporations are still largely run by cautious executives marching to the measured drumbeats of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., long the presiding genius of the General Motors Corporation. It was Sloan who, in the 1920s, saved troubled GM from dissolution by introducing the disciplines of strategy, financial controls, and vertical integration.
Sloan was a brilliant man, responsible for much of what we define as good management today. But what he did to save GM, so right for his time and place, has left the wrong legacy for ours. Even now, most companies employing a Sloan-like ethos of management control create more fear than visionand stifle ambition in the process.
Fortunately, changing times have favored a new breed of business entrepreneur. But how much their fresh spirit can reshape management is an open question. As soon as their own companies grow large and unwieldy, one price of success, they tend to develop corporate antibodies that can kill the very ambition that launched them. These antibodies include elements of overcontrol, parochialism, orthodoxy, and cynicism. Howard Schultz of Starbucks says that he would not rule out hiring someone "because they came from a bureaucratic company. But I would be more skeptical and more probing to see if that person can escape that culture."
What happens to society when ambition is blunted, especially in large organizations? One possibility is that, over time, the dwindling number of companies and individuals that retain zesty ambition will become fewer and ever more powerful and eventually control the worldas did the barons of the last industrial revolution. If ambition becomes the dividing line of business between the world's haves and have-nots, then wealth will become even more concentrated in the hands of a few.
We are not socialists. We believe that extraordinary accomplishments deserve extraordinary rewards. History, however, has shown that if wealth or power becomes too concentrated in a few institutions or a few people, the result is often arrogance, abuse, and eventually failure. Such experiences may explain the ambivalence that many people feel about ambition.
Ambition, we think, needs a better reputation.
No society can afford to belittle it, especially now that technology promises ever-greater opportunity. Moreover, history confirms that ambition is more often good than bad. Good ambition is the lifeblood of human advancement.
Excerpted from The Arc of Ambition by James Champy Nitin Nohria. Copyright © 2000 by James Champy and Nitin Nohria. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.