Own Your Ambition

“Ambitious artists hire me because they want more recognition for their art and support as they get their art out of the studio and into the world.”

I strung together these words during a small group discussion at a conference. One of my Inner Circle members happened to be sitting next to me and flinched at the word choice: ambitious. (You should have seen her face!)

Geri deGruy's Equanimity

©Geri deGruy, Equanimity. Fiber on quilt backing and batting, 26.25 x 30.25 inches. Used with permission.

Then she challenged me on it. The word just didn’t sound right, she thought.

I said, “You’re ambitious. Don’t you think?” She thought a bit, and agreed with a little hesitation, “Yes, I probably am. It’s just the word I have problems with.”

Ambitious Artists

Definitions of ambition include:

  • A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.
  • A desire and determination to achieve success.
  • An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.

If you don’t see yourself in any of these definitions, you might want to rethink your path as an artist-entrepreneur (all successful artists are also entrepreneurs).

Without the desire, there’s no motivation to take action. Without the action and hard work, there are no results.

“Ambition” isn’t something that’s usually associated with artists, and it’s even been viewed as a negative attribute for women to possess. Yeah, I know. Really? In the 21st century??

We still have problems with ambitious women? Women still have problems owning their ambition?

C’mon!

We also have a tendency to worry about what other people will think of our ambition. Yep, you may lose friends when you become stubbornly focused on your dream. If that happens, were they really your friends in the first place?

Hey, I get any hesitation around embracing the word. I hesitated myself. Can I really say this?

Then, I found the courage to speak the truth.

©Joan Farrenkopf, Pea Pod. Oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches. Used with permission.

I’ve worked with artists for more than two decades. I know what it takes to run a successful art business, and ambition is near the top of the list.

I’d even put ambition above, gasp, talent. Because if you have enough ambition, you will do whatever it takes to develop your talent.

Ambitious artists seek to better themselves. Money isn’t usually the driver. I have found that artists’ main goal is to have eyeballs on their work so that they can communicate their ideas with a bigger audience.

They seek accomplishment for its own sake.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Ambition doesn’t give you a free pass to step on people, be rude, or ignore the rules.  Ambitious artists are still courteous, generous, and kind.

Defend Your Vision

Owning your ambition means you’re focused and determined. You have a vision, which you defend to anyone who questions your goals.

Here’s what this looks like:

  • You don’t wait for someone to ask you to take action. You just do it. And you find the support you need for the journey.
  • You don’t procrastinate because you don’t know how to do something. You find the answers, roll up your sleeves, and get to work because it’s important to you.
  • You know that you have just one life to live and you won’t feel as if you lived it if you don’t do your best work.
  • You don’t make excuses, and you don’t have time for other people who make excuses.

I embrace the word and encourage you to do the same. Own your ambition.

Jeanette Jobson's Storyteller

©Jeanette Jobson, The Storyteller. Oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches. Used with permission.

Your Turn

Are you ambitious?

What’s an acceptable alternative to being ambitious? Hey, I’m open to it. Just leave a comment below.

Send to Kindle

96 comments to Own Your Ambition

  • Thank you! Stated eloquently.

  • When I read this post my reaction was, “If you are hanging around Alyson and you don’t consider yourself ambitious, then I think you might need to do some self reflection. LOL!”

    Or perhaps you are wanting her ambition to rub off on you?

    She is a positive role model for ‘ambition,’ which is a good thing! 🙂

  • What an inspiring piece, thank you so much for giving me the permission to be ambitious and to do what ever it takes, with style and grace.

  • Deb Wicks

    AMBITIOUS is absolutely right on! It’s the only trait that makes things happen. Passion won’t reap success – it’s just not enough. My prior business career taught me….AMBITION = SURVIVAL = NO APOLOGIES.

  • This is a great post. Thank you!

  • You have raised a very difficult societal issue…..the disdain that ambitious women face, whether it is in business, medicine, music, art or elected office. Even in the 21st century there is still a lot of negativity and even hostility towards women who are ambitious in many fields, while it is fine for men to be ambitious and admit it, it is not ok for women to, especially in “co Ed” situations. I went to an all girls high school and it was fine to be ambitious..but that changed Ina mixed gender university.

    • We need to change that, Susan. Right on!

    • My current art installation is about this disparity, along with all the other disparity that still exists in the so-called post-feminist culture (even if Hillary becomes president, we’re treated no where near equal in so many ways, and we know it). Thanks Alyson for bringing this up, and I notice that many (all?) of the responses are from women… interesting stuff. @kmwatsonvt

  • Ambitious can come across as a hard, cold word. There can be fear people might not like us if we are “ambitious”. We need to move pass our fear. Ambitious is having goals and acting on them. There is joy and growth acting in working toward goals.

  • Marcia

    Dictionary definition aside, the word ambitious often has a similar connotation as hubris, which may be why your seatmate took exception to using that word, not that artists shouldn’t be as driven to succeed as anyone else.

    Using your dictionary definition, I am definitely ambitious. I may always be a struggling artist, because I won’t let having the necessity of supporting myself by other means stop me from also nurturing my creative side. But it takes a lot of work! I have friends who chose material wealth over artistic fulfillment. You know, the ones who “used to draw” or “wished they hadn’t given up (fill in the blank)”. I don’t envy them.

  • Dear Alyson,

    You just made me realised how ambitious I am!
    Every single day I have this urge to create new paintings with new techniques to get better and better. Better is not good enough. …
    I always want to know more and try new techniques. More isn’t enough. ..
    I am always very excited to share my new pieces on social medias
    Every single day, I ask myself “What can I do to get more visibility? ”

    I have watched your free video and learned a lot!

    Can we be too ambitious?

    Thanks Alyson! I really hope to have a session with you in a near futur:)

    Marie Manon -CALGARY, Canada

  • I completely agree! Well stated, Alyson, and I am glad you opened the discussion. The Art World is so strange in the respect that ‘ambition’ is a somewhat dirty word, especially for women. And this makes absolutely zero sense to me. For me, my ambition and passion are inextricably linked and it has always been that way.

    • Mary Beth: So nice to see your name here. Do you think it’s just women that have a problem with other women being ambitious? It stinks to think that, but maybe it’s just us.

      Do you think men have a problem with ambitious women?

  • I spent 32 years at an aerospace company dealing with the animosity toward “ambitious” women. My philosophy was always to do my best, knowing my best would make me stand out – and it did. I had several “first woman to…” opportunities during that time and discovered my love of clay while pursuing a way to relieve stress from it all! Now that I am blessed to work in clay every day, my ambition is still to do my best and stand out from the rest. I have lost some friends along the way but found they were never true friends at all. Thank you Alyson, for all your support and guidance along this amazing journey.

    Carolyn Bernard Young

    • Thank you for sharing that experience, Carol.

      Was it other women or men or both that had the issues with you being ambitious?

      • Mostly men but some women as well. I was usually the only woman in a room full of men and had to learn not only to be heard, but to stand my ground. Things have changed 1000% in that industry and I like to think I was one of the trail blazers for women (at least that’s what my sweet Sam tells me). Making and marketing my art is a whole different thing though and my introvert self takes over more than I would like. I’m getting better though with your help!

  • Ok, I will:

    I’m Ambitious. I embrace it 😉

    Thanks Alyson!

  • Thank you! This was such a good reminder that it is indeed okay to be ambitious!

  • My boyfriend of three years felt that I was too involved (ambitious) in my art and he came second … And ended our relationship!

  • Yes I too want to own my ambition and embrace the journey it brings me

  • I’m ambitious, happy to admit and embrace it. It’s taking me to some incredible places and I feel I’m only just beginning!

  • We’ve all been ambitious and accomplished goals in our outer lives however large or small they may be, and the 3 bullet points above describe their motivation perfectly. But something different happens with artists because they are pursuing their inner self. Their thoughts are not on power, fame and wealth. That hampers creativity. The artists main goal is to discover their unique take on this life, so I prefer to use the words- USE YOUR WILL POWER – see it through to its completion-make it an accomplishment. Visualize the published book of your art on your coffee table.
    So for me these words are a more motivating and acceptable alternative than saying to myself “be more ambitious” when it comes to my art.

    • Doesn’t something have to precede will power, Robin? A reason to have the will power?

      • I was addressing more of why your friend cringed at the use of the word and was just offering alternatives. Using your will power to fulfill your life desires is all you need. The motivating force goes beyond materialism which is what the word ambition evokes for some people.(why your friend cringed)

  • Teri

    Thank you! I have to admit it, that I am ambitious. I wonder where the shame in that came from? Still, it is true and that is probably what keeps me going. Even if it a personal goal for myself to “get the message across,” it is a motivationg force. I love that you connected ambition with communicating and seeking to better ourselves. I think it’s the connotation not the denotation that people take issue with, so we just need to change the connotation…

  • The that word has been a thorn for me.
    I fight off the people saying get a real job or
    paint animals… sorry, not inspired. I always say I have
    worked hard to master this trompe l’oeil and I will maintain that
    focus of it must be my best if my name is on it.
    But ambitious? I have never felt driven and get trapped
    in “how can I make that happen?”… not chosen images
    but inspired by “how?” I am a self doubter and struggle
    with it.

    • Stephen: Thanks for being the first guy to step in here.

      Remember this: You don’t have to know the HOW – you just need to know WHY. Why do you want this to happen? That’s your motivator. You’ll find a way.

  • Hello Alyson….

    Over the past weekend, I was told by one of my siblings that I focused too much on my art. Then she went on to do a descriptive action placing each hand on the sides of her face. This was NOT meant as a compliment.
    That brought to my mind a race horse running down the race track toward the finish line. There has to be focus to move toward that goal or finish line.

    I think there has been ambition to get where I am so far. I have gone against some tough obstacles along the journey….dealing with serious depression at one time, and panic attacks at another time. (Not to mention other things.) I am certain we all have had the ups and downs of life….and none of us need critical remarks from siblings or others.

    I felt insulted and it was upsetting being said by one of my siblings…who should know better.
    My family knows that my life has been about art ever since I was a little girl. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about other things around me….or those I love, and other people. ……….Especially, artists must be aware of all that is around them. They must experience life.

    Good grief I am a mother and a wife and raised two daughters, and now have 5 exceptionally brilliant and talented grandchildren!! One is a Doctor,…… one is going for her Phd., another one attends Lehigh University. He is an outstanding student, artist and athlete, another is heading to college.. a music school on a 70% scholarship, is outstanding in athletes as well as in music. Plays piano, guitar and the drums..and sings. Writes her own songs also. And, another started his own business after college and is in the million dollar range.

    I write all this because somewhere along the way, I must have done something else or something right besides my art to have such great and wonderful children (two daughters), and great and wonderful grandchildren

    I should have asked her what her point was.
    If anything, I do not focus enough. Plus, I have never had the confidence in myself and my art. (No one would suspect that. despite having won national awards and recognition, been in book & magazine publications, have worked in soft pastels, oils and watercolors and acrylics, and play piano. IT has been and is a struggle. There have been many rejections along the way…..believe me….many. Just received three rejections from national juried shows in a row. )

    There was a time that I had a hard time calling my studio……my studio. Because I felt unworthy of having a studio. It took a while to be able to call myself an artist even. Time goes so fast, and I am not as young as I once was. When I look back, I always feel like there is so much more that I could have done. Not far enough right now. (Have done outdoor art shows since my 20’s, and have work in only a few galleries, Wish I could be in more galleries though.)

    I just think focusing goes hand in hand with ambition.

    Guess I got carried away here. Sorry. I left my heart out on my sleeve. BTW, I did write a blog about focusing and as artists we have that right. http://www.sandyaskeyadams.com

    I love your book. Had purchased it when it first came out. It is always near-by…but I have to read it again. Thank you!!!

    • Sandy: I’m so happy that you could share this with us. We’re here for you!

      And if I may be so bold as to offer advice, please tell your sibling that she crossed the line. That you love her and love your art and you need her support. If you don’t set those boundaries now, you will surely encounter them again.

      Heck, send her directly to your comment so she can read for herself. Here’s the direct link: https://www.artbizblog.com/2016/06/own-your-ambition.html#comment-172862

      🙂

    • Hi, thank you for being so open and willing to share, it means alot, I have just experienced something very similiar this week and wonder if this is a silent pressure that we feel that comes out into the open when some says it outloud. A very close friend, who actively supports and encourages my work, and has bought several paintings from me, questioned me devoting time to my work. She said that I should be doing something for others instead such as teaching art to children or hosting art appreciation classes. The point of the comment was that it is selfish to make art and I should be doing something for the community/a real job. I explained that making art is my way of doing something for the community, I see it as being for others not just myself. It takes real sacrifices to make art and I do it for others not just myself. I see art as intrinsic to what it means to be human.
      I realise that her comment came from her own blocks as she would desperately love to make art but puts that energy into teaching art to children, however it really set me off questioning myself. It is a pressure I feel all the time from myself and from others to be more self sacrificing and give more to others. There is always an expectation that you can put your work aside to do something someone else wants from you, if you were in “a real job” they would accept that you cant because you’re at work.

      I find it hard to embrace my ambition as I feel it conflicts with my goal to be spiritually authentic in my work. But my interpretation of what you are saying is be ambitious for the opportunity to share my work with others and be ambitious for my work to be the very best at communicating those ideas it can be. I need to confront my aversion to that word and really question my thinking on this as I feel this has really been blocking my ambition. Thank you so much Alison and all those who have responded to this post for helping me to realise I really need to think about/explore what is hampering my ambition and seek some solutions.

  • My mother was an ambitious politician and she did a lot of good in the world, leading the American delegation in the Copenhagen Conference for Women for one. However, she battled discrimination and difficulties for everything she accomplished. I am ambitious, too, and have had problems with it, sometimes you want to throw it all in, but then something good happens and I am BACK!!
    Not easy being an ambitious woman, you have to work twice as hard as you want to!

  • Bravo!!! I am ambitious and not afraid to shout it out! Great article ….sharing.

  • I really liked what you wrote about the desire to communicate ideas, for folks to see the work, and while sales are definitely a byproduct of sharing my art with the world, I can really identify that desire to communicate as a driving force.

    As to ambition? As far as you defined it yes. I’m not getting a lot of support for being ambitious as an artist at the moment however. Or as an ambitious woman. So it’s hard to say the word, to acknowledge it in myself. It’s reassuring to know that just because I’m ambitious I don’t have to step on anyone along the way.

    • Beth: Communication is the main purpose of art.

      I hope you find the support that you need – if not from friends and family, perhaps from a coach or mastermind group.

  • “What’s an acceptable alternative to being ambitious? ”

    For me, it’s being fulfilled, being satisfied that I have achieved the goal (very much a personal one) that I set for myself which was to discover the form of expression that was ‘correct’ for me, to be able to complete pieces of work on a consistent basis and be able to say, “YES. That is even more than I had hoped for from myself.”

    I am in the very enviable position of not having to make a living from my art, though I don’t discount – now that I have achieved my own goal – that that could happen. I was just invited to display a retrospective of my last four years of work – the very journey that got me here – and also had the largest single sale of my work in the same month. Something has shifted, for sure.

    • I’m calling that ambition, Victoria. I know you have overcome a lot and have persevered. Not everyone would have done that – especially if it wasn’t a necessity.

  • I am totally ambitious and have no problem with the word. Because of your site and the help of your copy writer, Debby, I am finally having the confidence to completely switch in mid-stream and change my new website to be TOTALLY an artist’s website. I feel like I’ve been beating my head against the door trying to sell wholesale. I should have realized this sooner, but sometimes you have to come full circle. I own my ambition. I own my art. and I will own my new website about my art. And go back to my roots and do exhibitions and studio shows like I was doing when I started creating art. Your website spoke to me the minute I read it and we haven’t even had a consult yet. But that’s coming, I hope, very soon. I’m so glad I found your site just in time and it was all because a friend said “Just promise me you’ll talk to an art consultant BEFORE you launch your new website”. And that has made all the difference in the world. Thank you!!

  • Ambitious is not Passion. By itself Ambitious is cold and technical. As an artist Passion always drives me first and foremost. Having Passion lights up who I am. This and not ambitious opens doors. How many times have we all been to a piano recital and commented that it sounded good when in reality is was played technically correct. To me that is what ambitious is about in a technical way.
    However when ambitious is joined with Passion, desire for what one refers to as success comes available. The old saying, “It take two to tango” comes to mind in that Passion would be the leader and ambitious is the partner. I desire success like everyone else, but I will not let ambition drive who I am. Passion is the heart and soul of an artist. Embrace it first then add ambition, and you will be a success.

  • Well said, Bill. Ambition without passion is futile, although some have a passion for ambition and little else.

    I think the problem with ambition is when, as Alyson points out, the ambitious one walks over others in their path. I have never been that person. 30 years ago I was starting out as a cellist. It was a bitchy, nasty, dog -eat-dog world, but I never got into that. I was ambitious, but not interested in competing with other. I quietly pursued excellence for it’s own sake, for my own sense of achievement. In a world where others got ahead by forming cliques and putting down others, my approach aroused suspicion and animosity. I was passed over for permanent orchestral positions even after winning auditions (that were held blind), only to be told afterward that they “chose not to appoint”, which was code for “you weren’t who we thought you were and we really want to give the job to him/her”. I started hating going to work. I loved being a musician, I loved doing solo concerts, but working in orchestras, even as a free lancer became too painful. It broke my heart and I left the career that I loved.

    Now as a visual artist I have the same approach as before. I am ambitious, both in the scope of my work and what I hope to achieve, but I share with other like minded artists. In the visual art community I have found just that – a sharing community.

    The problem with women and ambition is that women often believe that they have to behave in the ruthless way that men have for centuries to be successful. It’s time for modern women to realise that the way forward is through mutual support and cooperation.

  • I didn’t know artists weren’t allowed to be ambitious. LOL! Must be related to the mindset that “artists shouldn’t make much money because they’re not really working”. Ugh! My father is friends with two very successful and talented artists, and they sure didn’t get there without ambition (though they are men, but I figured artists were regarded the same no matter our gender in our modern world where women don’t have to sneak around to paint and write and sign men’s names to their work, but admittedly I’m not much involved in the larger art community to know otherwise, and maybe that’s a good thing). I am both art and business oriented and I want to be successful with my work for the benefit of myself and my family, so I’d say I’m ambitious. I am steadily increasing my productivity and developing more diligent work habits to hopefully match my ambition one day! I think it’s the connotation of “climbing the ladder no matter who you step on along the way” that gives “ambition” a negative reputation, but it doesn’t have to be that way, as others have said.

  • A great post and response to it. I believe there’s a connection between not wanting to be seen as ambitious and the need to be liked. And that goes double for women. Once I realized not everyone was going to like me or what I was doing, I had no problem with considering myself ambitious. And telling people “no”, that magic word.

    • Absolutely, Donna. “We also have a tendency to worry about what other people will think of our ambition. Yep, you may lose friends when you become stubbornly focused on your dream. If that happens, were they really your friends in the first place?”

  • Thanks for this article Alyson! I’ve never really considered myself ambitious – but I guess I actually am. It’s a quiet, unvoiced kind of ambition, but ambition it is!

  • Doesn’t ambition just mean going for the life you want for yourself? Surely we all have that right.

  • Yes, I am ambitious by your definition. I’m on of the flinchers at the word because my late maternal grandpa was ambitious to the point of rudeness and not looking after his mental health. He got an Order of Australia for services to education but being related to him was unpleasant. My maternal uncle is similar..

  • ileana

    Well,I am coming back. Yes! Ambitious is there. It is for me especially as Theresa describes the meaning of ambitious : going for the life you want for yourself. Alyson, when your book came out some years ago, I bought it. I did a great job accomplished many artistic goals. Than I started to mix teaching as AP teacher and doing my art. Next year I will work again only in my art projects.

    Thanks to all you folk. I appreciate and it was very helpful reading all the posts and Alyson commentaries. I found pieces of me in most of them.
    Next close goal, to have again my web page.

  • I have been thinking hard about this issue. I realised quickly that I had always been encouraged to be ambitious, but then, on consideration, I realised the word ambition was rarely used. The encouraging words were success and succeed. Later new words were added including determination, commitment and win.
    These words all signify ambition. I checked in the dictionary but I can’t find anything negative about the meaning of ambition. Puzzling.

  • My son described me as ambitious in his Mother’s Day gift this year. I felt panicked that my 10 year old saw means driven – what kind of parent did that make new?

    The I read the rest of his description “When she wants a room cleaned she makes you work at it until it’s really finished.”

    Well okay then. Ambitious just means taking a big overwhelming thing and working on it until you are satisfied with your accomplishment. Whether that’s cleaning a room or bringing that imagined design to life and getting it into a customer’s hands.

    In that case, I am totally comfortable
    with the label ambitious. How else do you get things done?

  • Hell yea- great post!!!

  • Thank you, Alyson. A light bulb went off. Yes, I am ambitious. Now to embrace that fully too.

    In the beginning of your program I was not sure that I wanted to be an artist anymore. I accepted and embraced being an artist in the first module. Doors opened.

    Now it will be interesting to see what happens by embracing that I am ambitious…. 🙂

  • Ambition. Funny you should mention. I was wondering that last night as I sat and watched TV for the 5th hour. I have to work at it everyday always trying to fill myself up with positive thoughts and ideas.

  • I have been thinking about this a lot! I think that I give myself a double whammy of self doubt about this subject. On the one hand, I don’t think I am ambitious enough. Although I work hard, I don’t think I work hard enough. Then on the other hand, I am concerned that if I get too ambitious my marriage or other personal relationships would suffer. So I hobble along, unsure of myself.
    I have a good studio practice, but it isn’t perfect (I have been keeping track of the hours I spend making art, and it adds up to about 15-18 hours a week- it seems like a lot more, I’m always surprised that it is such a small number of hours!)
    The seeking venues and self promotion aspect is alright, but again, not perfect. It goes in fits and spurts.
    I show pretty regularly and even sell from time to time, but I would really like to have more success. I know I have to work harder to get to the next level.

  • I’ve heard the words
    bossy, arrogant, full of myself and worse.
    and I don’t just self promote, I promote others on social media…
    I’ve had a long art career and the competition out there is stiff.

    An acquaintance once witnessed uncalled for behavior of this nature and said simply ‘you stick out ‘ and if you put yourself out there, there’s always going to be somebody who wants to knock you down. Maybe you’re doing something they wish they were doing.

    Point is, if you focus on the lower vibration, they win . I try when I can to send positive energy their way, lord knows they don’t need more of the negative.

    And truthfully, I actually think most of these people are good artists.

    Am I ambitious, absolutely, could a first born Taurus be anything else ? lol

  • Thank you for the info. I googled “how to own it”. Inside we have so much power the art is to unleash it!

  • My ambition is to become the best artist I can be! My desire is to be recognized and valued as a contributor to my community and the world at large through my art work. As for ‘gasp’ ambition above talent, I read in a figure skating dressing room as I was lacing up one day,
    “Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard”.
    I believe being ambitious gives me the energy to work well and to push through and carry on.

  • I needed a word to get me jumpstarted again and AMBITION is the right one! I have been guilty of justifying procrastination and lazy habits as necessary focus on family issues – even as I know in my logical brain that I am really ready to push ahead with my art career. Both kids will be in college this fall, so no more excuses. I am going to seize my inner ambition and get to work with some real habits, instead of putting studio time after everything else.
    Thanks for the jumper cable blog!

  • Older…I find it hard to be ambitious even to the extent of getting lots of friends on FB or my Instagram.

  • •You know that you have just one life to live and you won’t feel as if you lived it if you don’t do your best work.
    Wow.
    Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  • I think that the blog is not just for artists. It’s a motivational thought for any person, who wants do something by his/her own. I know that it’s the artbizblog and you will talk about artists only. But it can be relate to anybody.
    And, ambition is the thing which contains passion and dreams. And if you are ambitious then you must have to be hard worker & strong enough to accept failure. Because these are some things which makes you successful in any field

  • Daphne Smith

    It is interesting that a large majority of the replies are from women.

    I’m working on making my art a priority and needed this blog. Ambition is definately the correct word. The successful artists I know have ambition and wouldn’t be where they are without it.

    Thank you all ambitious artists! We need your example to follow.