Napoleon Hill wrote in every chapter of The Law of Success, “you can do it if you believe you can.” Henry Ford famously said, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t — you’re right.” Now new psychological research shows that, yes, they were right.
Researchers Timothy Judge and John Kammeyer-Mueller have shown that people who believe they can accomplish the goals they set are more likely to accomplish them. This is because if you believe you can accomplish your goal, you are more likely to put in the energy and effort required to attain it.
That may have been what Napoleon Hill was thinking when he said “you have to believe to achieve.”
Achievement is something that all ambitious people desire. Dictionaries define ambition as “a strong desire to achieve something, generally requiring discipline and hard work.” And as we have seen above, this discipline and hard work generally requires belief.
In the West, we assume that ambition is the seeking after of fame, prestige, or wealth. This is not necessarily the case. Regardless, Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller found that almost all definitions of ambition include the setting and achieving of goals. The authors define ambition as “the persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment.” They cite research on goal-setting that shows while at first setting goals may lead to dissatisfaction, once those goals are achieved, people tend to set higher goals, which lead to higher levels of life satisfaction.
Most psychologists in the past have theorized that ambition was a trait, something you were born with. Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller found that it is a “middle-level” trait; both nature and nurture affect the development of ambition.
This suggests that there are some personality traits correlated with ambition, such as extroversion and conscientiousness, but that you can develop ambition if you want to.
Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller set up a very interesting distinction between achievement motivation and ambition. In short, ambitious people want success regardless of skill, while people with achievement motivation want skill regardless of success. This is similar to Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on mastery vs. performance orientation, which is best explained in a school setting.
Mastery-oriented students have a strong desire to increase their mastery of the material (their intrinsic level of skill). On the other hand, ambitious people (performance-oriented) just want to get an A, regardless of their intrinsic level of mastery.
Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller’s study found that people who were ambitious attained higher levels of education and income, and had more prestigious careers. Ambitious people’s life satisfaction was found to be higher than that of their more apathetic counterparts. Another notion, that ambition shortens your lifespan, turned out to be false.
The study showed that ambition led to higher levels of income and occupational prestige, which predicted more life satisfaction, which in turn predicted longevity.