Initiative without Ambition

There are a lot of books and advice columns focusing on how high-profile leaders made it to the top. The characteristics required to be a CEO or business founder include ambition, risk-taking and je ne sais quoi, among debatable other qualities.

Much less is made of what it takes for the pragmatic person to have realistic career success.

There’s a great quote by George Bernard Shaw that I think highlights what I’m getting at:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

To reach the pinnacle of any field you have to have an unreasonable level of ambition. So what if my goal isn’t to adapt the world to me, but just to have a modicum of success while trying to enjoy my small slice of life? How can I ‘get ahead’ if my ultimate goal is only to improve my view a rung or two, not climb all the way to the top?


Not to be confused with ambition. Ambition is wanting results inconsistent with probability. It’s mandatory to cause major change, but it’s certainly not necessary to live a good life, and absolutely tertiary to success at work.

Ambition isn’t possible without internal motivation and passion – not everyone has that, I certainly don’t. Initiative however, is entirely in our control. Much like another success characteristic, Enthusiasm, we’re entirely in control of our level of initiative. These aren’t innate personality traits, they’re learned behavior.

Initiative is the proactive performance of your responsibilities. You can, and should, do this even if you don’t have ambition. Initiative is a choice, every personality type can do it, no excuses.

What Initiative at Work Looks Like

You don’t need to be handed explicit assignments. You find productive work to do and begin working on it without being instructed to. You’re proactive.

This gets easier the longer you work somewhere. You begin to learn what tasks are needed and you set in on them without prompting. In the end this creates less work and stress for yourself as you’re able to complete tasks when you have the time available.

Your boss will love it. Keeping track of everything that needs to be done and monitoring progress is tedious work. Managing yourself and your own time will not just leave a positive impression but will absolutely set you apart. Enthusiasm will make you liked at work, initiative will make you trusted. 

You Don’t Even Have to Know What You’re Doing

Showing initiative is possible even when you’re brand new. If it’s your first day and your internet doesn’t work, don’t ask your new boss to fix it, instead ask for the Help Desk phone number. If you’re working on a new assignment, ask questions. Asking questions is one of the best ways you can show initiative.

A lot of people sit at their desk and spin the proverbial wheels, thinking that asking too many questions shows they aren’t getting it. It’s the exact opposite. If you work on something for a long time and produce nothing, it shows you aren’t getting it at all. In fact, you’re so far off you don’t even realize you need help!

Initiative Assuages Time Management Problems

A major component of an effective work environment is making sure people are spending their time on the right things. If you sit too long being unproductive it shows you don’t value your time. Not only that, but on a personal level it will leave you stressed and potentially burdened with tight deadlines later.

When you get stuck at work, try for a brief period to figure it out, then go ask for help. This way you’ll be able to intelligibly talk about what you’ve tried and will demonstrate to your manager that you’re not someone who needs to be checked up on.

If you have no idea what you’re supposed to be working on, go ask your manager that too! Phrase it as, “I know we have x deadline coming up, what can I be doing now to prepare for it”. This is a pointed way of letting your manager know you’re being proactive about work responsibilities without asking for more work to do. It’s not that you have nothing to do, it’s just that you want to make sure you’re on top of things. A subtle, but important distinction.


A common misconception is that lacking ambition is a negative. Quite frankly I see it as a positive. Ambitious people can certainly be inspiring, but they are also usually exhausting. It’s a lot easier for an ambitious person to stumble into greed and ego.

It’s OK

Ambition isn’t mandatory and I’m not convinced it’s even desirable. Ambition is often associated with adjectives like zeal, passion and drive. But it could just as easily be lumped with unfulfilled, dissatisfied and relentless.

Instead of wishing you were born with ambition start working on a quality you have control over – initiative. It’s a rarely practiced trait with no pre-requisites. Showing initiative and peppering in a little enthusiasm is sure to set you apart and improve your work life.

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