How to Properly Focus Your Ambition


On the left side of the Pyramid of Success, below faith, there are four additional pieces of mortar: ambition, adaptability, resourcefulness and fight. These qualities encompass the resolve, ingenuity and resilience of the human spirit.

In his book Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, with Jay Carty, John Wooden defined ambition and its importance this way: “Ambition is a feeling or a desire to achieve a goal. Usually that goal revolves around a person’s definition of success or greatness. I believe we are most likely to succeed when ambition is focused on noble and worthy purposes and outcomes rather than on goals set out of selfishness. If our ambition is to be highly publicized, receive a lot of recognition, attain a position of power or prestige, or make a lot of money, we do not have noble goals. If we are focused away from ourselves and on the team and others, we possess noble goals.”

Under each piece of mortar on the Pyramid, in parentheses, there is some brief application advice for that mortar. In the original Pyramid under ambition, the application advice said, “properly focused.” Later, Coach changed the application advice for ambition to say, “for noble goals.” Coach’s motivation for the change is clear: He wanted to make certain that we understand that our ambition is “properly focused” when it is for a “noble goal.”

Related: How to Live Your Life With Intentness

Coach defined ambition as an important quality. As the saying goes, “Those who plan to accomplish nothing always reach their goal.” Ambition, when properly focused, can be a tremendous asset, but if it is out of focus, it can be a fatal flaw for any team. We should make sure that we do not have members of our team whose ambition equates to a win-at-all-cost mentality. We want people who are great competitors, but who are equally intent on playing by the rules. As Coach Wooden put it, “Never let ambition cause you to sacrifice your integrity or diminish your efforts on any other aspect of the Pyramid. At the same time, you’ll never reach a serious goal unless you have the intention to do so.”

A goal is noble when its accomplishment benefits others. Coach Wooden had great ambition as a coach. He wanted to win a national championship, but that was not his goal. His goal was to get the best possible players and help them become the best players and citizens. He also wanted them to improve as a team. Coach liked to refer to the championships as “icing on the cake,” while reminding us that “doing our best” was the cake.


“Be more concerned with what you can do for others than what others can do for you—you’ll be so surprised at the results.”


Coach’s quote, “Be more concerned with what you can do for others than what others can do for you—you’ll be so surprised at the results,” describes the importance of including others on our journey to success.

If we are to attain success, we must have ambition with integrity directed at a noble goal. Selfish personal ambition will not accomplish this. As Coach liked to say, “Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.”

Coach advised us to keep our ambitions in proper perspective: “Do not get so concerned with making a living that you forget to make a life.”

Related: The 3 Most Important Things in Life

This article originally appeared on and has been republished with permission.

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As Coach Wooden’s grandson-in-law, Craig Impelman had the opportunity to learn Coach’s teachings firsthand and wrote about those lessons for his site, He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.

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