Does Ambition Lead to Success?

BY: KELLY JOY FJESTAD

I grew up believing ambition led to success. In school, if I studied and did the work, I would get an A. In sports, if I practiced hard, I was rewarded with more playing time. When I worked my first job, hard work equaled higher pay, more hours, and the admiration of my boss and coworkers.

My achiever personality thrives in that environment! I can finish a project in record speed. When I set a goal, I don’t stop until that goal is completed. I love making lists and checking things off. (I’m one of those crazy people who writes something I just did on the list, just so I can cross it off…don’t laugh, I’m know I’m not the only one!)

My determination runs deep. I can look at a situation and quickly assess what needs to be done. And then, I get it done! My ambition always brought the results I desired. Projects were finished and people were happy. I was happy.

But then, I grew up.

It turns out ambition is not appreciated by everyone. I began to realize some people were jealous of my ambition. They were jealous of the things I accomplished — and instead of celebrating with me, they used that opportunity to tear me down.

Other times, people were threatened by my ambition. Rather than work together on a project to see it completed quickly and successfully, I was left out, not invited, ignored.  I had people tell me they didn’t like me just because I had worked hard and succeeded in something.

Once, I got up in front of church and shared how God had worked in my life through the miscarriage of my second child. A few months later, a woman from the church told me she didn’t like me because I had the confidence to get up and talk in front of people about a painful memory.

Another time, at a Mom’s Group Bible Study, the speaker talked about the “she’s” in your life. She used the example of the “she” who hops on the treadmill next to you at the gym and takes off running in her size 0 leggings. The speaker said that part of her hated that “she” because she didn’t struggle with her weight in the same way the speaker did. Her jealousy caused her to dislike this “she.” Then, she went on to talk about the other “she’s” in her life — the women who she often struggled to like, women who caused her to feel insecure and jealous because of their successes.

Perhaps, I could have just moved on from that awkward teaching; except that afterwards, I sat in a small group of woman who for the next 20 minutes told me all the reasons they struggled to be friends with me because I was the “she” in their lives.

It was devastating. It sent me into six months of deep depression. I put my ambition on the shelf and was barely capable of caring for myself and my family during that time. I was heartbroken to think my ambition to be my best had caused others to feel bad about themselves. That was never my intention. I worked hard because that was how God created me. At that point, I succeeded because I worked tirelessly. I was able to accomplish things other people didn’t accomplish because I didn’t give up. I pushed through. I was driven to succeed. I never intended for my success to hurt others.

I decided it was better to sit back and do nothing. Maybe then no one would get hurt and people would like me. The problem was, I didn’t like myself. I wasn’t being true to who God had created me to be.

Over the years, my ambition has come in waves. There have been times when I have been confident in who God created me to be, and I have leaned into my internal ambition. But, there have been other times when I have been criticized or rejected because of my ambition, and I have pushed it aside.

As difficult as it has been to navigate my personality with the wants and desires of others, it hasn’t been my biggest setback. I recently encountered the biggest threat to my ambition — the realization that hard work and ambition does not always lead to success.

I wanted to believe if I worked the hardest, sacrificed the most, and persevered the longest, I would reach my goals. But, that is just not how life works.

Sometimes you can work as hard as you can, with all the passion in the world, and the door still does not open. Opportunity still hides in the distance. Dreams slip through fingers and success floats away on the wind.

Pursuing your dreams is not a straight path lined with open doors and rewards for hard work. Instead, it is often a rocky path filled with potholes, obstacles and setbacks.

So, if ambition does not lead to success, then what does? Is life really more about who you know than what you know? Is it worth it to work hard? Would it be better to just sit back and let life happen?

A few weeks ago, I was verbally processing the purpose of ambition with a sweet friend, and she reminded me I am not working for success, for promotion, or for the praise of man. Instead, I am working because I want to fully use the gifts and abilities God has given me. I am not working to please man, but to honor my Father in heaven.

Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

If I let the circumstances of my life determine the amount of ambition I have, I will never accomplish what God has called me to do. If I only work hard when I am rewarded for that work, then I will be limited in fulfilling my true purpose. If my ambition is dependent on the thoughts and views of others, I will have missed the opportunity to be the best version of me.

I have learned success doesn’t look like I thought it would. It turns out true success is more about sacrifice than open doors. More about giving opportunities than getting them. More about people than platforms. More about serving and less about significance.

Success in God’s eyes is not the same as the world’s definition of success. Healthy, God-honoring ambition must be focused on Jesus — He truly is the best reward!

“Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.”  Colossians 3:2


Kelly is a wife and mother of five children living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She is an ordained minister and author of PAUSED: Protecting Your Faith When God Says "Wait" and Pursuit: The Cross. For more info visit: kellyjoy.org