At the crossroads between the art and science of decision making are aspirations and ambitions. If our goal is to make good decisions (or advise others to make “good” decisions, hello all professional service jobs), aspirations and ambitions are here to guide us through the process.
Keeping it simple, ambitions are related to things we want to get done and aspirations are related to things we want to become. When we’re making a decision, we look into the future at some outcome. If the outcome requires some obstacle to be removed, it’s likely tied to an ambition. If it requires some obstacle to overcome (i.e. for personal growth), it’s likely tied to some aspiration. Differentiating between the two and recognizing the role each play can be deeply helpful in real-time.
Imagine you’re advising two students on an art history course. Both students want to pass and it’s your job to help. Odds are it would be a mistake to treat them identically. If Student A wants a good grade for their transcript as proof of well-roundedness, but Student B wants to foster a genuine appreciation of art, how would you help each with the course?
Both students have plans greater than the course. The role the course plays and the decisions for how to approach it are going to shape the advice you offer. Student A’s ambitions will likely lead you to advise a strategic study plan. Student B’s aspirations will likely lead you to advise an approach based on personal enrichment.
The quality of the decisions, and your advice, will be gauged in hindsight against what each student got out of the course. If Student A gets a lousy grade because they tried to immerse themselves in the renaissance masters but never “got it” they’ll be frustrated. If Student B just memorized facts the whole time but doesn’t really get any of it matters they’ll also be frustrated.
Seeing ambitions and aspirations can keep us on track for where we actually want to go. When we’re giving advice we can look for clues for why a person is choosing the path that they’re on. We can only really help, and really create value, when we understand why.
See also Joshua Rothman’s 2019 New Yorker piece, “The Art of Decision Making.”