Grow Your Ambition with Your Capabilities, Not the Other Way Around

For most of my life, whenever I set off to do something, I aimed to be (not do) the best. During my brief stint with physics, I was consumed by the desire to emulate Richard Feynman. When I studied history, I daydreamed of eventually studying law at Yale like the Clintons. In short, it was like having a powerful GPS system but lacking the fuel to drive far enough.

My excessive self-expectations often led to frustration and impatience, hindering real and concrete personal growth. After all, progress takes time but self-doubt sprouts quickly. Therefore, I’d like to share with you two profiles in leadership to illustrate why we should grow our aspiration with our capabilities, not the other way around. Common sense can take years to learn.

Profiles in Leadership: Adams vs. Lincoln

Two American presidents’ contrasting stories shed light on how we should pursue our personal growth.

Two American presidents’ contrasting stories shed light on how we should pursue our personal growth.

In the last issue, we already observed that this problem is not immune to statesmen (Mrs. May) and visionary leaders (Ms. Ocasio-Cortez). The contrast between the growth of John Quincy Adams and Abe Lincoln effectively illustrates the advantage of growing aspirations with capabilities than growing capabilities with aspirations.

A life burdened by aspirations

John Quincy Adams was the son to John Adams, the second U.S. president and a Founding Father. Rumoured to possess the highest IQ among all U.S. presidents, Adams was appointed by George Washington as the Ambassador to the Netherlands at twenty-six and became a senator at thirty-six. Yet Adams suffered from his parents’ high expectations and felt inadequate throughout his life.

Campaigning in the 1824 presidential election, a stressed Adams wrote “I have more at stake…than any other individual in the Union”. That election turned out to be a deadlock between Adams and Andrew Jackson and the Congress would pick the president. Adams secured his presidency by winning the supporters of Henry Clay, another presidential runner-up. However, his immediate appointment of Clay as his secretary of state was accused by Jacksonians as a “Corrupt Bargain”.

That bargain was not his only miscalculation. Adams presented on his first annual address to Congress a program so ambitious that it bursted the capabilities he could blow—he asked for a full package of federally financed roads and canals, uniform weights and measures, the creation of a national university, a naval academy, and a national astronomical observatory. His great ideas, too ambitious and untimely, won him nothing but the certain fate of his single term in the White House. John Lewis Gaddis summarizes:

Great expectations inspired, pursued, and haunted Adams, depriving him, at critical moments, of common sense. Overestimations by others—which he then magnified—placed objectives beyond his reach: only self-demotion brought late-life satisfaction.

A life empowered by capabilities

Abraham Lincoln faced what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls “obstacles unimaginable” to his political rivals. Born in a log cabin to farmers, Lincoln’s early life lacked comfortand security. No one would expect anything out of young Abe, who nevertheless seemed to noticed that he “was unusually gifted and had great potential”.

Lincoln had fierce ambition to win the veneration of other men by “rendering [himself] worthy” of their esteem. Nevertheless, he always anchored his ambitions to his extraordinary drive that “drove him to devour books in every spare moment, memorize his father’s stories in order to captivate his friends, [and] study law late into the night after a full day’s work.”

Never set foot inside a college, Lincoln trained himself through books and compensated for the lack of formal education with sheer “Herculian feat for self-creation”. Lacking social status and family network, Lincoln toiled hard and patiently to build his political career and earned wide respect with his character and personality, all of which would end up serving him to climb to the peak of leadership. Again, John Lewis Gaddis summarizes:

No expectations lured Lincoln apart from those he set for himself: he started smallrose slowly, and only when ready reached for the top. His ambitions grew as his opportunities expanded, but he kept both within his circumstances. He sought to be underestimated.


Alas, ambition and drive are great gifts. But on the road to personal growth and success, we must learn to balance our aspiration with our present capabilities and opportunities. Therefore, when we feel impatient about our present situation, it might serve us well to remember John Quincy Adams’ failed presidency and Abraham Lincoln’s slow and steady rise.