“A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve,
not by the desire to beat others.”

The above is one of many popular Ayn Rand quotes circulating in social media, and it highlights something distinctive about Rand’s view of personal ambition and the motives that drive creative individuals.

“Ambition” means the systematic pursuit of achievement and of constant improvement in respect to one’s goal. Like the word “selfishness,” and for the same reasons, the word “ambition” has been perverted to mean only the pursuit of dubious or evil goals, such as the pursuit of power; this left no concept to designate the pursuit of actual values. But “ambition” as such is a neutral concept: the evaluation of a given ambition as moral or immoral depends on the nature of the goal.

Rand holds that a social climber’s ambition to gain “prestige” or a demagogue’s ambition to wield political power are fundamentally different in motive from a creative individual’s ambition to create values. A creator’s primary focus is not his standing relative to others, but his own work done his own way — his own achievement relative to his own goals and standards. For this reason, Rand writes:

As a rule, a man of achievement does not flaunt his achievements . . . ; he does not evaluate himself — or others — by a comparative standard. His attitude is not: “I am better than you,” but: “I am good.”

“Competition,” in this sense, Rand states, “is a by-product of productive work, not its goal.” A creator’s ambition is to produce values — be it a novel, a factory, a computer, a play, a scientific theory, or understanding in a child’s mind. In this sense, productiveness is not simply an admirable career trait; it is, for Rand, a crucial moral virtue:

Productive work is the road of man’s unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values. . . . It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.

If you’d like to explore Rand’s thinking on these issues in greater depth, here are some ARI Campus resources that may help:

The Ayn Rand Lexicon collects Rand’s essential views on more than four hundred topics. Especially relevant here are the Lexicon entries on Productiveness, Ambition, Creators, Values and Competition.