Working On The Hill: Is Having Ambition A Good Or Bad Thing?

By Bret Bernhardt

The simple answer is yes, but it depends on the kind of ambition it is. Regardless of our ideology or political affiliation, most everyone who works on Capitol Hill shares a similar energy, passion, and ambition.

Bret Bernhardt, former chief of staff for senators Don Nickles and Jim DeMint.

Interestingly, these character traits look similar among staff and Members of Congress across the political divide. What separates them is the purpose for which they are used.

Take the example of the Apostle Paul. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus, he was passionate, zealous, and ambitious. Then look at Paul’s personality after his conversion. He continued to be passionate, zealous, and ambitious but the difference — and it’s a big one — is that these energies were re-focused on love of God rather than love of the law.

To say someone is ambitious is often not a compliment. That’s because ambition is often expressed in excessive zealousness and self-interest.

However, this shouldn’t cause us to shun all ambition and how God has gifted us to use it for his purpose. As we seek his will, that ambition will be molded and crafted into what He intends. No longer will it be used for our own self-interest but rather for the interest of God and others.

Our ambition becomes destructive when it’s all about us. Philippians 2:3-4 puts it well: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

How do we know the difference between self-ambition and self-less ambition? The answer is in the second verse. As we look to the interests of others rather than our own, we find the key to maintaining the proper ambition in our lives.

“Our ambition becomes destructive when it’s all about us.”

And how do we know when we’ve crossed the line from selfless to selfish ambition? From my experience working on the Hill, folks aren’t shy about letting you know. The wise person then course-corrects when truly called out for self-ambition.

This was made clear to me in my first year working in the Senate. I was a legislative assistant for a freshman senator and my issues included the budget and overall appropriations. As an ambitious twenty-something, I took liberty with what I thought that meant.

It didn’t mean that I was responsible for every appropriation bill, but that didn’t stop me. I was intent on involving myself in the details of every one of them and making sure the senator knew I was. One of my co-workers had come from the staff of the previous senator and had more experience than me.

When I stepped on her turf by briefing the senator on her bill, she made very clear that I was over-stepping my bounds. My ambition had made me oblivious to what I had been doing. But, thankfully I course- corrected when she confronted me.

Interestingly, a few years later after she had left the staff and retired, she told me that she enjoyed working with me. I was grateful for her comment, as well as the biblical guidance of acting in the interest of others.

“When I stepped on her turf by briefing the senator on her bill, she made very clear that I was over-stepping my bounds.”

This isn’t to say that people who act out of self-ambition aren’t successful on the Hill. In fact, many are successful. But, it’s a matter of what you value and how you define success.

There’s a point at which selfish ambition takes its toll. It takes a lot of energy and effort because all eyes are on us and not others. Much like the shark that has to continue swimming to stay alive, it’s difficult to sustain this type of ambition, especially in the shark-infested waters of D.C.

So, there’s a rule at play when practicing biblical ambition: You reap the rewards of joy and peace as a result, which can’t always be measured by professional or financial success. As you practice godly ambition, He will reward you in secret, and occasionally in public, but it will always produce the fruit in your life that brings true fulfillment.

Bret Bernhardt served on the Hill as chief of staff to senators Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He is now a member of the board of directors of Faith & Law and the Conservative Partnership Institute.


Check out this five-part HillFaith series by Bret Bernhardt, former chief of staff for Senators Don Nickle (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Bernhardt has a wealth of experience, insider insight, how-tos and obscure terms (know what a “golden reference” is on the Hill?), plus lots of helpful links.

The Best Resources for Finding a Job On the Hill

Where Your Best Job Lead is on Capitol Hill May Surprise You

Getting in the Door on Capitol Hill

Here’s Nine Valuable Tips for Interviewing Well on Capitol Hill

Working on Capitol Hill is the World’s Best Job (Or at Least My Best Ever)


Author: Mark Tapscott

Follower of Christ, devoted husband of Claudia, doting father and grandfather, conservative lover of liberty, journalist and First Amendment fanatic, former Hill and Reagan aide, vintage Formula Ford racer, Okie by birth/Texan by blood/proud of both, resident of Maryland. Go here: