Ambition

Time Magazine has an interesting article about Ambition.

“Of all the impulses in humanity’s behavioral portfolio, ambition–that need to grab an ever bigger piece of the resource pie before someone else gets it–ought to be one of the most democratically distributed. Nature is a zero-sum game, after all. Every buffalo you kill for your family is one less for somebody else’s; every acre of land you occupy elbows out somebody else. Given that, the need to get ahead ought to be hard-wired into all of us equally.

And yet it’s not. For every person consumed with the need to achieve, there’s someone content to accept whatever life brings. For everyone who chooses the 80-hour workweek, there’s someone punching out at 5. Men and women–so it’s said–express ambition differently; so do Americans and Europeans, baby boomers and Gen Xers, the middle class and the well-to-do. Even among the manifestly motivated, there are degrees of ambition. Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple Computer and then left the company in 1985 as a 34-year-old multimillionaire. His partner, Steve Jobs, is still innovating at Apple and moonlighting at his second blockbuster company, Pixar Animation Studios.

Not only do we struggle to understand why some people seem to have more ambition than others, but we can’t even agree on just what ambition is. “Ambition is an evolutionary product,” says anthropologist Edward Lowe at Soka University of America, in Aliso Viejo, Calif. “No matter how social status is defined, there are certain people in every community who aggressively pursue it and others who aren’t so aggressive.”

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, who studies genius, creativity and eccentricity, believes it’s more complicated than that. “Ambition is energy and determination,” he says. “But it calls for goals too. People with goals but no energy are the ones who wind up sitting on the couch saying ‘One day I’m going to build a better mousetrap.’ People with energy but no clear goals just dissipate themselves in one desultory project after the next.”

Assuming you’ve got drive, dreams and skill, is all ambition equal? Is the overworked lawyer on the partner track any more ambitious than the overworked parent on the mommy track? Is the successful musician to whom melody comes naturally more driven than the unsuccessful one who sweats out every note? We may listen to Mozart, but should we applaud Salieri?

Most troubling of all, what about when enough ambition becomes way too much? Grand dreams unmoored from morals are the stuff of tyrants–or at least of Enron. The 16-hour workday filled with high stress and at-the-desk meals is the stuff of burnout and heart attacks. Even among kids, too much ambition quickly starts to do real harm. In a just completed study, anthropologist Peter Demerath of Ohio State University surveyed 600 students at a high-achieving high school where most of the kids are triple-booked with advanced-placement courses, sports and after-school jobs. About 70% of them reported that they were starting to feel stress some or all of the time. “I asked one boy how his parents react to his workload, and he answered, ‘I don’t really get home that often,'” says Demerath. “Then he handed me his business card from the video store where he works.”

Anthropologists, psychologists and others have begun looking more closely at these issues, seeking the roots of ambition in family, culture, gender, genes and more. They have by no means thrown the curtain all the way back, but they have begun to part it. “It’s fundamentally human to be prestige conscious,” says Soka’s Lowe. “It’s not enough just to be fed and housed. People want more.”

That all makes sense to me, but I need more details. Later on the article offers the following.

“The researchers recruited a sample group of students and gave each a questionnaire designed to measure persistence level. Then they presented the students with a task–identifying sets of pictures as either pleasant or unpleasant and taken either indoors or outdoors–while conducting magnetic resonance imaging of their brains. The nature of the task was unimportant, but how strongly the subjects felt about performing it well–and where in the brain that feeling was processed–could say a lot. In general, the researchers found that students who scored highest in persistence had the greatest activity in the limbic region, the area of the brain related to emotions and habits. “The correlation was .8 [or 80%],” says professor of psychiatry Robert Cloninger, one of the investigators. “That’s as good as you can get.”

It’s impossible to say whether innate differences in the brain were driving the ambitious behavior or whether learned behavior was causing the limbic to light up. But a number of researchers believe it’s possible for the nonambitious to jump-start their drive, provided the right jolt comes along. “Energy level may be genetic,” says psychologist Simonton, “but a lot of times it’s just finding the right thing to be ambitious about.” Simonton and others often cite the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who might not have been the same President he became–or even become President at all–had his disabling polio not taught him valuable lessons about patience and tenacity.

Is such an epiphany possible for all of us, or are some people immune to this kind of lightning? Are there individuals or whole groups for whom the amplitude of ambition is simply lower than it is for others? It’s a question–sometimes a charge–that hangs at the edges of all discussions about gender and work, about whether women really have the meat-eating temperament to survive in the professional world. Both research findings and everyday experience suggest that women’s ambitions express themselves differently from men’s. The meaning of that difference is the hinge on which the arguments turn.”

This is still interesting, but disappointing to me because I haven’t found anything that grabs me. It all seems to be tied into commonplace expectations. Some people have more drive, men and women are different, experiences can change you etc.

I encourage you to read the rest of the article as I am curious to hear what you think. What I took from this more than anything else is that ambition is tied into culture, nurture and nature and as a parent it appears to me that my role is rather simple.

I plant the seeds of interest and education, water them, tend to them and do the best I can to encourage my children to work hard and be diligent in their studies. I also need to encourage them to find a career that they love and hope that what they are doing is practical enough to support themselves.

Again nothing profound, but maybe there is something more in this article, another lesson to be learned. I’ll have to read it again and as mentioned I am curious to hear what you think.

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5 Comments

  1. Mirty November 17, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    Lately TIME seems to rotate different covers around. I wonder if the subscription editions use different covers than the newsstand ones. (We get ours by subscription.) When they had their issue on “Being 13” one cover I saw had a white kid; the cover on ours had a Black kid. (That issue was read cover-to-cover by my 14-year-old.)

  2. Jack's Shack November 17, 2005 at 6:16 am

    Hi BFC,

    Only the best for your family.

    Mirty,

    You must have had a different cover because my copy was a man with a briefcase.

    DA,

    That is a good summation. It was a good topic but they didn’t nail it down as well as they could have.

  3. Daled Amos November 17, 2005 at 2:02 am

    I thought the article was confusing.
    First, ambition is “that need to grab an ever bigger piece of the resource pie before someone else gets it”–but seems more greed than ambition.

    Then “Ambition is energy and determination…But it calls for goals too.” That sounds much closer to the mark–but why didn’t the article start off with that?

    The test given to the students is pretty irrelevant. “The nature of the task was unimportant, but how strongly the subjects felt about performing it well–and where in the brain that feeling was processed–could say a lot.” — but the task is the whole point. If the student is not interested in the task, he has no ambition to do it. All the test measures is pride in one’s work, which is not the same thing.

    The article can’t offer anything of substance because while the topic is interesting, the approach was superficial.

    The article demonstrates a lack of ambition.

  4. Mirty November 16, 2005 at 6:21 pm

    The most interesting thing about that article was the picture on the cover of TIME. My step-daughter saw it and commented that the woman on the cover looked like a “crazed Barbie Doll.”

  5. BarbaraFromCalifornia November 16, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Actually, I have seen this article, and am saving it to read when things are not so consuming around here.

    Thank you for your kind comments on my blog.

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