crazy guy working in middle of street

Are You Ambitious About Your Career… or Delusional?

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If you paused for a moment before answering, that’s a good sign. It means you’re aiming big enough that even you think you might be crazy.

No one ever achieved something great by reaching for low-hanging fruit, so it’s good to be on the border between delusional and ambitious.

But does it really matter which one you are? Can both be good?

Ambition is good, sort of

When growing up, many people are told, “You can do anything you put your mind to.”

Such encouragement is supposed to engender a sense of ability and capability, positive notes for anyone. Sometimes this idea sticks and people go on to think and do big things.

Other times it leaves people with a sense of entitlement and imaginary accomplishment. These people think, “I know I could do better than so-and-so, but I just don’t want to (or, more commonly, “I don’t have time”). They feel capable without showing they are actually able.

So ambition is good, but not if it just leads to wanting to do well. Ambition must be paired with action and execution to be truly meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just a daydream.

Delusional is better

According to Psychology Today, delusional people are happier and more productive. The first part isn’t too surprising – after all, ignorance is bliss. But delusional people also tend to be more productive, which is less obvious. Why? Because delusional people are more optimistic about completing goals, and humans, as emotional beings, are more likely to work toward (and execute on) goals we think we have a good chance of completing.

Another benefit is that delusional people imagine and build the impossible. Elon Musk was completely delusional about his company, Space X, sending a private spacecraft into orbit and then docking with the international space station. That was impossible and ridiculous, and he did it.

Walter Isaacson talks repeatedly about Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field,” and how it enabled him to push boundaries and do the impossible. Delusional people are disruptive (which is why we often dismiss them), but they advance great things even in failure.

How to get there

The best way to move from ambitious to delusional is to constantly reevaluate goals and look back on past successes that made you most proud. Those wins were probably not layups. Rather, they were likely long shots that worked, or a payday that resulted from measured risk and months of hard work.

If you haven’t thought of yourself as crazy in a while, you’re probably not delusional just yet. Look for areas you can really stretch and push boundaries. That’s where you can really shake things up.

Everyone wants to succeed, but it’s only the ones who set crazy goals and do the requisite work who log big wins. The idea of being delusional is scary to some, and totally necessary to others.

So if you want to make a splash, start looking to the “crazies.” They’re usually on to something.

Tim Murphy is a writer and the founder of ApplyMate – a free job application tracking tool. When he’s not writing about career issues and entrepreneurship, Tim is running, writing gear reviews, and eating his way through Chicago.


  1. Delusional is a good beginning, but there’s more. It also takes courage, the ability to let the naysaying bounce off you and, as you stated, hard work. Not every delusional scheme works out, so you also need the ability to take failure in your stride, simply learning from the mistakes and doing better next time. Great train of thought, though. Why settle for good when you can be great?

  2. “Ambition must be paired with action and execution to be truly meaningful.”
    And I must get some of this “reality distortion field” thingy… I think it may also go by another name-phrase: unfettered imagination?

  3. Where does delusional start to become dysfunctional though? There are times when forging ahead with the courage of your convictions can blaze trails and disrupt industries to create new opportunities. There are also times when you can screw up and ruin shareholder value and/or jepordise people’s jobs (New Coke is a perfect example)… I’d say it’s superb to aim very high but keep listening to your customers and more importantly your non-customers and be prepared to change direction as needed.

  4. I think the biggest takeaway here is simply not being afraid to set lofty goals, work hard towards them, imagine the impossible and cross otherwise intimidating boundaries. Perhaps that’s easier when you’re delusional, but certainly not impossible if you’re not. Regardless, it’s a good message to marinate on!

  5. Kind of an off topic comment but I can’t help myself: “Elon Musk was completely delusional about his company, Space X, sending a private spacecraft into orbit and then docking with the international space station. That was impossible and ridiculous, and he did it.”

    Impossible and ridiculous? We’ve been ferrying cargo and docking with ISS for more than a decade. And yeah, we went to the moon 40+ years ago; then, how is going into LEO impossible and ridiculous?

  6. Being “delusional” in a healthy way broadens our imagination. This enables us to be more enthusiastic about possibilities. Add the pursuit of worthwhile goals and any ambition that starts out as a delusion can become a reality. Great thoughts, Tim!

  7. I think they are using a very watered down definition of delusional. Being able to extrapolate new and innovative technology based on existing technology then combining your skill set with the skills of others to achieve that new technology isn’t delusional. As impressive as Steve Jobs was and private space flight is, it’s all just a linear progression of technology. The end result of all technology will be human consciousness on a chip connected to a virtual world that interfaces with the physical world giving us immortal god like abilities. Is that delusional because it will never happen in our lifetime or is it logical extrapolation based on current and cutting edge technology?

    • I believe delusional is incorrect termiinology b–incorrect word usage in this matter. What Brazen is describing as delusional is probably creative, innovative and pushing the envelope. Delusional denotes non reality based. Marg

  8. I don’t believe we’re on the same path: I believe in ambition plus pushing the envelope (in some situations). But, I cannot honestly agree with a delusional mindset. I am a realist regarding careers & palcement. Primarily, because companies and interviewers do not hire delusional applicants.

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