The differences between ambition and grit — and why they matter in a pandemic

During turbulent times — say, like a pandemic — leaders are challenged to dig deep into themselves for strength. Not only do they need a positive attitude to keep others focused and morale strong, but they also have to find the energy reserves to push forward into the unknown. If you ask life coaches, two of the most critical interpersonal feats to master are ambition and grit. And while they may appear similar in definition, when put into action in the workplace, they are very different. Though they are both powerful on their own, when paired together, they are unstoppable. So, regardless of if you’re managing a team through a crisis, looking for a new opportunity after being laid off, or needing a perspective shift, consider focusing some time on these two life skills.

What is ambition?

Life coach Kalina Leopold defines ambition as the desire to achieve something. But this doesn’t mean a blanket, single sentence phrase that you say every morning. Or a goal you come up with and never reframe. Instead, Leopold says ambition is a deep, innate longing that moves you toward your aspirations with passion and focus. “Ambition is inspirational—it is an initiatory force—a desire to be greater and a willingness to put the time and effort to get there.”

In practice, ambition looks like staying in the office past everyone else to finish a project. It looks like practicing your presentation speech for the board meeting for another hour. It’s also what makes you get in the morning, serving as a purpose and an accelerator. But while it may push you forward, Leopold says it requires grit to fulfill its need to accomplish.

What is grit?

If you have had to pivot, readjust, reconfigure and create a whole new working world for yourself over the past four months, you’ve been tapping into your grit. Think of water boiling and the tea bag hanging on strong. Think of an athlete who somehow gets the momentum they need to beat their opponent, three seconds before the clock runs out. Leopold explains grit as courage and resolve, and the produce of experience and practice. You can only hone in on your grit when you are vulnerable and confident in your abilities.

“Grit is the voice in your head telling you to get back up on your feet and a reminder that you can and you will. Grit knows you will land on your feet even when you can’t see the ground. It is the knowledge that you can face whatever comes at you because the past precedent has taught you that you will survive,” she explains.

The essential differences between grit and ambition.

They don’t always go hand-in-hand.

Ambition and grit can go together, but they do not always. As Leopold shares, someone can be very ambitious but have zero drive to put in the work, so they just aspire to be something, but they never take action. “In a professional workplace that can be a manager who wants a higher title and salary, but never takes the initiative to put in the extra work,” she continues. “Ambition without grit does not make a leader.”

In fact, it’s grit that makes someone a more attractive candidate for a job or a promotion. How come? It demonstrates your ability to be flexible, bounce back from hurdles or setbacks, and receive constructive criticisms and make changes. When you have the ambition to guide you and grit to get you there, you’ll always meet the goals set before you.

Ambition is universal, grit is personal.

Author, motivational speaker and life coach Lisa Bien says ambition is like a wish list where you want something, and you reach for it. Two people can have the same ambition—like a c-level suite position, starting their own company, or working a three-day workweek. However, true grit is personal. As Bier puts it: it’s what helps you get what you want. “It’s a trademark, a calling card, an attitude, a style. It’s inside. I have mine. You have yours,” she continues. “It’s that unique way we go about our business of checking off the to-do list—to achieve a successful outcome. It can manifest through courage, endurance, or confidence, an innate ability, to name a few.”

Bien says some of the grittiest people she knows are doers rather than talkers. But, they’re not necessarily ambitious. “In the workplace, ambition sets the agenda, even drives the project. Grit gets it done,” she adds.

Think of it as the difference between destiny and fate.

According to board-certified doctor of natural medicine and public speaker Dr. Oliva Audrey, the difference between grit and ambition can be equated to the difference between destiny and fate. “It is said that fate is what you are given; destiny is what you do with it. In that same way, ambition can be a natural additive to lift a project off the ground or initiate a contract. Still, the pliability to continue to form and reform it comes from the amount of grit an individual has,” she explains.

When you’re going up against a challenge with unpredictable ebbs and flows, professionals should utilize both to get through it. Dr. Audrey says when someone survives with passion, they’re ambitious. And when they survive with tenacity, they’re gritty: “Both of these qualities are equally important in a professional setting because ambition is required to get your foot in the door and a goal off the ground, but grit is what will see it through to completion.”