The Autistic Perspective: Passion vs. Ambition

John Hagel has a paper in which is discusses the difference between passion and ambition. I don’t want to go into all of the differences he raises between the two. You can read the article for that. But his distinction immediately made me think of myself and of those of us on the spectrum.

People on the autism spectrum do not have ambition. But we do have passion. Equally, I think the farther away from the autism spectrum and the closer you are to the solipsistic end of the neurotypical end of the neurodiversity spectrum, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. This would imply that the more top-down your thinking, the more strategic a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be ambitious rather than passionate. The more bottom-up, the more analytical a thinker you are, the more likely you are to be passionate rather than ambitious.

Naturally, these things are on a spectrum. But we have to wonder in what ways ambition and passion are really opposite things. We hear of ambitious politicians, but rarely truly passionate politicians. We hear of passionate scientists and artists, but rarely truly ambitious scientists and artists. Is it any surprise to learn that there are plenty of people on the autism spectrum in the latter group, but few if any in the former?

If we think about the dynamics involved in, say, a business, we can see what might happen. The passionate will be happy working at whatever they are passionate about. Meanwhile, the ambitious will move up the company, get raises, etc. And they will do so on the work of the passionate. Worse, many who are passionate at their work will often be viewed as not worth promoting precisely because they are perceived as not having enough ambition — which often really means, “We don’t perceive him as caring as much about the company.” But that is wrong. The passionate worker is the one who cares more about the company, while the ambitious worker cares more about himself. Of course, since it is the ambitious who are at the top of the company more often than not, they will naturally relate to others’ ambitions. Thus, rewarding the ambitious over the passionate is institutionally reinforced.

People need to come to understand that the person quietly working over in the corner, from whom you hear little or nothing, but who is working constantly, is the one who cares about the work, who cares about the job, who cares about the company. Those are the things that ought to be rewarded more, rather than personal ambition.

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