Raw ambition: Get an Ivy League paycheck without the ivy
By Penelope Trunk
I recently read in the New York Times about a study that found that the best indicator of how much money you will make is not where you went to college but where you applied. The study, conducted by economics professor Alan B. Krueger of Princeton and senior researcher Stacey B. Dale of Mathematica Policy Research, concluded that acceptance to a college was less important than the ambition it took to apply.
Not sure if you have ambition? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Do you think big? Thinking big means being a dreamer. You can imagine yourself beyond your current circumstance, beyond the parameters of what everyone else can imagine for you. The college counselor will say, "You can apply to Harvard, but you'll never get in." Most people say, "You're right, I'll never get in." The person who thinks big says, "I don't care what my chances are– I'm applying."
Do you make plans? Part of thinking big means making a road map for yourself. If you can't imagine how you're going to meet your goal, then you will never know what path to follow to get there. For a college applicant, the road map is charted by researching schools and filling out applications (though for many high school seniors, this is harder than it would seem). For an executive, making a road map requires a clear-headed understanding of the small steps you need to take in order to get to the big dream. If you have no destination, you can't begin to figure out how to get there. The good news is that a road map is never set in stone.
Do you take risks? Often, people can tell you what they want, and they may even be able to tell you what they need to get it. But it stops there. They cannot actually take the steps from point A to point B. Maybe you know you need to go back to school to achieve your professional goals. Or you know you need to live in Europe. Remember that most people who have achieved huge goals have taken huge risks. If a high school senior doesn't apply to a particular university because the likelihood of acceptance seems slim at best, that senior has already failed. If Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) chair and CEO Carly Fiorina hadn't stood up in front of analysts to say something along the lines of "I'm going to initiate the riskiest merger in computer-industry history and I need your vote of support," there would be no HP-Compaq. Still not sure what you need to do now? Think about what you would do with yourself if there were no risk of failure – and then do that.
Do you bounce back? Study after study shows that people who are successful in business are not people who have never failed; rather, they're people who have failed well. They don't see failure as an opportunity to sulk instead of working out at the gym; they see failure as an opportunity to try plan B. For the Harvard reject, this may mean going to the state university and having smaller school loans at graduation. For the executive, bouncing back means turning a sour project into a plum, or finding a better job after you get laid off.
Not everyone has ambition. Some people will look at this list and say, "I'd rather go to yoga class than worry about this stuff" or "I can't stomach risk." Many people, though, do have ambition but find themselves stuck. If you're stuck, you're probably missing one of these four attributes. For example, you think big, but you don't plan. Or you take risks, but you get derailed easily. If so, focus on the area where you're lacking. Not even a rejection from a top, first-choice school will stop people with ambition from reaching beyond their grasp.
This essay originally appeared in Business 2.0.com.