Monday, June 5, 2023

The Source of Ambition

What makes people ambitious? Why are some people born with a fire in their belly, while others need something to get their pilot light lit? Why do others never get the flame of ambition going?

Is there a family anywhere that doesn’t have its overachievers and underachievers; its honour roll student and its high school dropout or its successful lawyer and its unemployed lay about?

People leave you wondering how they could have all come out of exactly the same gene pool.

Ambition is the desire for personal achievement. Ambitious persons seek to be the best at what they choose to do for attainment, power, or superiority.
Ambition is also the object of this desire.

Of all the impulses in humanity’s behavioural portfolio, ambition, that need to grab an ever bigger piece of the resource pie before someone else gets it, should come naturally to all of us.

Nature is a zero-sum game, after all. Every cow 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 its not. It seems that for every person consumed with the need to achieve, there’s someone content to accept whatever life brings.

The American magazine, TIME, once published an article entitled ‘Why some people are most likely to succeed’ and the article explored some interesting dimensions about ambition.

It has often been argued that women lack the ambition wielded by men which is necessary to compete in the cut throat business world. However, many behavioural experts say it’s not that women aren’t ambitious enough to compete for what they want; it’s that they’re more selective about when they engage in competition; they’re willing to get ahead at high cost but not at any cost.

As with so much viewed through the lens of anthropology, the roots of these differences lie in animal and human mating strategies. Males are built to go for quick, competitive reproductive hits and move on. Women are built for the it-takes-a-village life, in which they provide long-term care to a very few young and must sail them safely into an often hostile world. Import such tendencies into the 21st century workplace, and you get women who are plenty able to compete ferociously but are inclined to do it in teams and to split the difference if they don’t get everything they want.

Two of the biggest influences on your level of ambition are the family that produced you and the culture that your family live in. There are no hard rules for the kinds of families that turn out the highest achievers. Most psychologists agree that parents, who set tough but realistic challenges, applaud successes and go easy on failures, produce kids with the greatest self-confidence.

What’s harder for parents to control but has perhaps as great an effect is the level of privilege into which their kids are born. Just how wealth or poverty influences drive is difficult to predict. Grow up in a rich family, and you can inherit either the tools to achieve or the idleness of the aristocrat.

Grow up poor, and you can come away with either the motivation to strive or the inertia of the hopeless. When measuring ambition, anthropologists divide families into four categories: poor, struggling but getting by, upper middle class, and rich. For members of the first two groups, who are fighting just to keep the electricity on and food on the table, ambition is often a luxury. For the rich, it’s often unnecessary.

Overall, studies suggest it’s the upper middle class that produces the greatest proportion of ambitious people, mostly because it also produces the greatest proportion of anxious people. Its members of the upper middle class, reasonably safe economically but not so safe that a bad break couldn’t spell catastrophe, who are most driven to improve their lot.

Your level of ambition can also be attributed to the society in which you were raised. A study of high-achieving high school students conducted in Ohio State University revealed the lengths to which the kids and their parents were willing to go to gain an advantage over other suffering students.

Cheating was common, and most students shrugged it off as only a minor problem. Very different results were obtained when a similar study was conducted in a small village in Papua New Guinea. Usually, it was found, that the students saw school as a noncompetitive place where it was important to succeed collectively and then move on. Succeeding at the expense of others was seen as a form of vanity that was an odd thing to the New Guineans.

That makes tactical sense. In a country based on farming and fishing, you need to know that if you get sick and can’t work your field or cast your net, someone else will do it for you. Putting on airs in the classroom is not the way to ensure that will happen.

Human history has always been writ in the blood of broken alliances, palace purges and strong people or nations beating up on weak ones, all in the service of someone’s hunger for power or resources. While most ambitious people keep their secret conqueror tucked safely away, it can emerge surprisingly, even suddenly.

However, a yearning for supremacy can create its own set of problems. Heart attacks, ulcers and other stress-related ills are more common among high achievers.

Ultimately, it is that flexibility, that multiplicity of possible rewards that makes dreaming big dreams and pursuing big goals worth all the bother.

Ambition is an expensive impulse, one that requires an enormous investment of emotional capital. Like any investment, it can pay off in countless different kinds of coin.

The trick, as any good speculator will tell you, is recognizing the riches when they come your way.


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