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Great ambitions

BY TIM MIDDLETON

We have previously considered how ambition can be dangerous and unhelpful to children if they, like the Shakespearian character Malvolio, are blinded by ambition and grandiose thoughts of themselves as well as the lure of greatness. He was the man in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night who received the note that stated, “Some are born great; some achieve greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them” and he took those words as an encouragement, an invitation even, to consider his desire to be married above his station as being supported and encouraged. Ultimately, he paid for his ambition, yet is ambition so bad?

When thinking of ambition, Timothy Leary, an American psychologist, jokingly proclaimed that, “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition” (wait a minute — was it a joke?) while Steven Brust, a popular science fiction writer, more seriously argued that, “A young man without ambition is an old man waiting to be.” We may whittle away our lives by not having ambition, by not aiming for greater heights, is his argument.

Robert Greene, an author on strategy and power, alludes to this as he brings some perspective to the matter: “Ambition has become a dirty word, and I believe it is a great evolutionary force for the positive. If people fail or go astray in their ambition I can live with it but not with people lowering their expectations, wasting time, slacking off and glorifying failure and stupidity.” Yes, young people need to have ambition; they are wasting their time and talents if they do not. They may not achieve their ambition but at least they have tried and in trying they have gone further than they might have done if they had not set the target. They must look to stretch themselves as much as they can; not doing so is, in the eyes of many, unforgivable. There needs to be that balance.

Many people, however, use the lines about greatness as a template for everyone to set high ambitions and children are accordingly encouraged to aspire to greatness, especially in sport. As a result, Roy T Bennett, a motivational author, urges people to, “Distance yourself from negative people who try to lower your motivation and decrease your ambition. Create space for positive people to come into your life. Surround yourself with positive people who believe in your dreams, encourage your ideas, support your ambitions, and bring out the best in you.”

So in a school context, such thinking may be found in a youngster aspiring to be a Prefect or to make the First team or to be awarded trophies and prizes at Assemblies or Speech days. Beyond school, it may be found in someone aiming to play for his country, to win big tournaments, to be in leadership positions, to make huge amounts of money. Is there anything wrong in thinking such thoughts? For all the negative thoughts about ambition, is it not healthy and beneficial to aim high?

Anthony Trollope, an English novelist, also made the case for ambition when he said that, “It is a grand thing to rise in the world. The ambition to do so is the very salt of the earth. It is the parent of all enterprise, and the cause of all improvement.” The greatness here, “the grand thing”, is not to be great (as Malvolio would think) but to rise higher, to go further, to have higher aspirations.

The theologian Thomas Merton argued that, “When ambition ends, happiness begins.” Samuel Johnson from a different era echoed such a view when he said, “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution.” That is achievable for all of us, whereas playing for our country will not necessarily bring the hoped-for happiness. Being happy at home will help children achieve their ambitions; parents pushing them to their own ambitions will not.

So then, ambition certainly needs to be sensible, achievable, suitable and thus not become a dirty word. We as coaches and parents of sporty children need to make it our ambition to help them map out their way forward; ensure they are setting their ambitions with the right motives, resources and results; help them deal with the predictable (and unpredictable) setbacks along the way. There is no greater ambition than that — and people will certainly not be laughing at or humiliating us when we do.

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