This post is by staff writer April Dykman.

“What do you do for a living?”

That’s one of the first questions we ask each other in our society. The choice of how you earn a living tells others a lot about you, whether those preconceived notions are accurate or not. If you’re at a party and someone says they’re an neurosurgeon, that’s pretty impressive. You know that meant years of study and took a lot of ambition, and comes with a salary of a few (or several) hundred thousand dollars.

Being a go-getter has its benefits. A fancy degree or three, the impressive salary, the big house purchased with the big salary — all are indicators that someone is on top of their game, we think.

But ambitious people aren’t necessarily more successful in life, according to a new study by Timothy Judge, professor of management at University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The study, “On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition,” will appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“If ambition has its positive effects, and in terms of career success it certainly seems that it does, our study also suggests that it carries with it some cost,” Judge said in a press release. “Despite their many accomplishments, ambitious people are only slightly happier than their less-ambitious counterparts, and they actually live somewhat shorter lives.”

Measuring ambition
Judge followed 717 high-ability people using multiple criteria to measure ambition at different points in their lives. The education of participants varied, from high school diploma to community college to attending top universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Northwestern, Cornell, Berkeley, Oxford, and Notre Dame.

Unsurprisingly, high-achieving children went on to earn higher education degrees, attend top universities, obtain impressive-sounding jobs, and make more money. It would appear that young go-getters are set up to win the game of life.

But Judge found that while ambition had a positive effect on social standing and salary, it doesn’t have the same effect on life satisfaction. When compared with a control group of laid-back, “Type B” people, the high achievers weren’t much happier. What’s more, being a go-getter might have a somewhat negative effect on lifespan. On average, the Type Bs outlived the Type As.

Success at the expense of longevity?
While high-achievers enjoy more success in their careers, Judge says that doesn’t lead to a happier, healthier life.

Although the study doesn’t address the reasons for higher mortality rates for Type As, Judge speculated that maybe “…the investments they make in their careers come at the expense of the things we know affect longevity: healthy behaviors, stable relationships and deep social networks,” he says.

In other words, yes, brain surgeons are well-paid and enjoy a prestigious career, and rightly so. The idea of cutting open someone’s brain and tinkering around in there dumbfounds me. (And makes me a little nauseous.) But as Judge’s research indicates, an impressive career doesn’t necessarily make someone happier. It’s also possible that what it takes to reach such a high level of achievement comes at a cost to longevity. Consider what it actually takes to be a surgeon, such as the following:

  • High competition to get into medical school
  • The most demanding education and training requirements of any occupation — usually four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of internship and residency
  • Probably a mountain of student loan debt — according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2007 85% of public medical school graduates and 86% of private medical school graduates were in debt for education expenses
  • Working long, irregular hours, typically more than 60 hours a week, and many of those hours on your feet

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

That’s a lot of stress, and you can imagine the implications those long, irregular hours might have for your family life. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be ambitious — the world needs brain surgeons! But this study shows that, as with many things that might appear to be ideal, there’s a tradeoff.

I was frequently guilty of thinking someone with a high-paying career and an impressive job title “had it all.” It wasn’t until years of seeing that hypothesis disproved that I realized that every career has its benefits and drawbacks. For example, I had a friend who was marrying a doctor. He makes a lot of money, but their budget was tight because he’d just bought into a partnership in his practice. She was worried about their budget and wanted a simple wedding, but felt pressure to make it a more elaborate (read: expensive) event because of her husband’s social standing and his work associates.

Judge also warns that while parents understandably want their kids to be ambitious and have successful careers, they shouldn’t equate that with a happy life. “If your biggest wish for your children is that they lead happy and healthy lives, you might not want to overemphasize professional success,” he says. “There are limits to what our ambitions bring us — or our children.”