The Achievement Ideology

“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly” – Radiohead

Imagine you are at a funeral. A close friend of the deceased steps up to the pulpit and proceeds with the following eulogy:

He was a hard worker… highly organized and independent, a skilled communicator who could work well with others, detail oriented, and was able to work efficiently in a fast-paced environment.

He was a wise man… never received a grade lower than an A-, balanced a full course-load with extracurricular activities, and maintained a full scholarship throughout college.

He was a loving man… he loved the sweet taste of victory every time he closed a deal.

He was a committed man… always committed to the bottom line, he could consistently increase profits by 30% every quarter.

You would be startled by this friend who completely neglected the things that actually matter. Rather than a eulogy, it would look as if the friend were speaking on behalf of the deceased for a postmortem job interview. But if these things don’t actually matter, why do we spend the majority of our time focused on building these resume virtues while neglecting the eulogy virtues?

In The Road to Character, David Brooks illustrates how we are living in an age increasingly dominated by the resume virtues. He argues that our increased focus on building our resumes has distracted us from deeper virtues. These deeper virtues include a deep an abiding philosophy of life, the ability to love compassionately, and the ability to commit oneself to the discipline of service to a larger moral cause.

So what’s wrong with “ambition,” and the desire to get ahead? Nothing is wrong with having ambitions; the problem is having an unbalanced level of ambition associated with the resume virtues, while completely neglecting the eulogy virtues.

Consider a person who goes to professional conferences for the sole purpose of building their resume and promoting their “personal brand”. They pass from person to person, handing out their business card, trying to weasel into conversions with prestigious figures. They operate on an autopilot “what can I get” mentality, spamming everyone who is deemed useful. A thin veneer of self-importance masks their inner-fragility, but no one is fooled. Like Radeohead said in Paranoid Android, “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.”  

As a lecturer in sociology at Eastern Michigan University, I have seen this resume-focused culture among students who feel crushed by the pressure to constantly preform to the point where anything lower than an A seems like a failing grade. Many students have come to view their education as an obstacle to overcome so they can look impressive on paper in order to attain high paying jobs. But this is not necessarily their fault. The impersonal bureaucratized education system uses GPAs and standardized tests to sort through the large number of applicants.

This system produces grade-obsession, overshadowing self-cultivation and character development. Simply memorizing a set of factual bullet-points for the exam has become the main goal for many students. This type of ambition is neither in the best interest of students or the broader society.

The real world does not want someone who simply knows a lot of facts; we have google for that. The real world wants people who understand how to use knowledge to solve problems. In order to solve the world’s problems, we need people who are self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and have a disciplined sense of commitment to serving a larger cause. These are the characteristics associated with the eulogy virtues. These are the characteristics that will save us from ugliness.

Like this article? Join the mailing list to receive email updates when new ones are published:




  1. Thanks for the follow! Your blog is one of the very few that I can say I got genuinely excited about after taking a look at your posts. None of us are veterans here, but what you write about are things we in my household talk about every day (or at least it seems!). I very much enjoy reading how the philosophers put things, so I haven’t read them in a long time.

    Regarding this post specifically, it’s sad, but it just seems like people adjust to whatever is needed for survival in their society (so who makes this society, and how?). When it’s so competitive, it’s not surprising. If companies didn’t make so many employees work 60+ hours a week, then maybe those who are underemployed or unemployed might find work. It’s like you have to scramble to get a good job where you end up overworked, or else settle for virtually nothing.

    1. Thank you for this comment! I’m glad you are enjoying the posts! I love what you said here: “It’s like you have to scramble to get a good job where you end up overworked, or else settle for virtually nothing.” This is exactly the problem, and one of my main concerns.

  2. I have an imbalance in the other direction, but understandably, since I saw how much the world needs the eulogy virtues. When following those virtues, I keep getting disappointed and screwed over by people fully focused on the resumee virtues (or not even that), while playing the popular act of being a great person, since that is more socially acceptable and needed to sucker in the decent people.
    There was a time when I had compassion for certain people, but no longer, when I realized how many know exactly what they’re doing and why – because if you can dump a burden on someone else, why not? They cannot develop their emotional intelligence because they don’t want to practice it even when given all the greatest opportunities to do so.

  3. Great article! We should always strive for a balance. I don’t know if it’s a typo but “was a” was repeated twice in the first sentence of the eulogy. Thanks once again for the amazing content!

  4. This is so true, it really is scary that we spend so much time on things that ultimately don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Very insightful. Thanks for sharing and all the best!

  5. Well said!I think there`s too much emphasis on achievement. How about doing what makes you happy not endlessly climbing the endless ladder to success? Happiness is an achievement in itself

  6. Beautifully written. Straight from the heart. I hear you on that score. I used to be nervous about spending so much time cultivating those “Eulogy virtues,” (love that term by the way) thinking that I should be concentrating more on the other ones. But I found that success both financial and personal has been a natural consequence. I’m more positive and nicer to be around, I’m more creative and fearless and this has naturally just opened so many doors for me.

  7. Reblogged this on 4782 and commented:
    A great read on the role of ambition in failures. Move towards building your character and away from bullet points on your resume! #StayAwesome

  8. Awesome points in this post. I actually just read a book which deals with the idea of living for eulogy virtues. I posted about it here ->
    Your point about getting anything lower than an A- really resonated with me because my husband still likes to tease me about a time I thought I had gotten a B and cried my eyes out. It’s almost as if, in my twisted way of thinking, getting straight As was a type of eulogy virtue because I knew I was capable in that class and I didn’t want to be remembered as not giving my all. Anyway, your post made me think. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks! That looks like a great book.. I like anything from Seth Godin. Regarding your experience of getting lower grades, it seems like your disappointment actually comes from the eulogy virtues. You are disappointed in a failure of character rather than a failure to be impressive to others on paper.

  9. The eulogy was not only a revealing and powerful hook, but also a poignant demonstration of how we as human beings and members of society cannot allow our externally-derived potential overshadow our internally-derived selves. In other words, ambition as a concept is neither good nor bad, but rather its particular exercise by an individual and its resulting outcomes determines its effects on the soul, mind, and body. Our choices in relation to ambition either result in unnecessary burden or philosophical or spiritual transcendence. As mentioned by Dr. Rose, balance is key between the resume and eulogy virtues or between external and internal pathways of being and living in the world. Excellent piece! Thank you.

  10. Great blog Dr. Rose! And of course, being from The Great Lakes State myself, and having attended a MAC school (Ohio U) and spending my career in Toledo (U of Toledo), I have an affinity to smart people in the midwest! Well done, sir! Can’t wait to read more from you!

  11. Great post! Perhaps the reason we focus so much on resume virtues is that we feel that’s all we have? We live in such a driven society that resume virtues are valued more than character virtues? Hmm . . .

    1. I think the character virtues are actually valued more. The problem is the distinction between what we idealize and what we actually do. It’s easier to develop a veneer of outward impressiveness without having to do the hard work of personal growth.

  12. Because we live in a world, where our values are formed as a result of interactions we share with the external environment, and it would be, very difficult, to keep the values we were taught to keep in mind as children as the most important as we got older, because as we grow older, we’d become, a part of the world, and, it would be, very difficult, to NOT let the world’s opinions of us get to us.

  13. Nicely said. I’d be interested in your take on how to respond to someone who is in or comes from an impoverished or disadvantaged state, and sees the job/resumé virtues as necessary–perhaps much more necessary than the eulogy virtues. Is a focus on eulogy virtues a luxury of those who have more basic needs met?

    1. In Aristotle’s time, developing the virtues was considered a privilege of the wealthy. I don’t think this is true today. I actually think it is perhaps the reverse. Coming from a disadvantaged background can result in better character development among individuals who have had to cultivate resilience to persevere through the hardships with which they have been confronted. On the other hand, the laxity that comes with privilege can inhibit the growth of these virtues. People who come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds may suffer from the inability to develop resume virtues, but I don’t think that necessarily prevents them from developing character virtues.

  14. Very nice post. Liked the resume and eulogy virtues part. So very true. Being ambitious may not be ugly if pursued in a proper way without intruding on other’s space and without stepping on others’ toes? Your thoughts?

    1. I think that is for sure part of the distinction. With character virtues would come an emotional intelligence and level of awareness that could result in treating others the way you would like to be treated, hence, not infringing on their space or unfairly taking anything from them.

  15. Now I think I will rewrite my resume. Just kidding, but an awesome post nonetheless. You put the way I like to think into words.

  16. The smart rather than knowing it, know where to look for it. While commanding our Regiment, a young Captain came to and said ” I have a problem at hand…”. Without waiting for him to narrate his problem I said “There are only two problems in the world, known to me. without a solution. It is cure for AIDS and Cancer. In case you can find a solution, you are a sure-shot Nobel Prize winner. Now, with your problem in hand, look for a solution and in case you do not find one, then come back”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s