I wrote a somewhat-cathartic blog post over at the Praxis site yesterday about why young people should be more open and honest about their ambition.
I think young people who can otherwise be more ambitious like to hedge their ambition for a few reasons, none of them particularly good upon examination:
- If you don’t show your hand, nobody can know when you fail. This is probably the most common reason that high-achievers don’t broadcast bigger ambitions; they aren’t used to failure. They may have a goal to build a billion-dollar business or to publish a number of best-selling books someday, but if they announce that to people before it happens and then it never materializes, they end up looking like idiots.
- I don’t like this one because, although it makes the most sense to me, I think that downplaying your ambitions has an adverse psychological effect on yourself. As you continue to repeat that your ambitions aren’t as high or aren’t as big as you’d like, you will start aiming for those lower ambitions in time. If you contradict those lower ambitions in your thought and behavior, you still have to deal with the fact that you are actively contradicting yourself, which has confusing psychological effects.
- Even if you don’t hit those goals, ask yourself, “What’s the big deal?” Lots of people fail at the first few attempts at anything (failure is a necessary condition for learning quickly and effectively). Instead, ask yourself, “What’s the worst and best that could happen if I set my goals high?” and “What’s the worst and best that could happen if I set my goals low?”
- In the first case, the worst that could happen is that you swing for the fences and miss. You are allowed to take more than one swing, so you correct course and try again. If you swing for the fences and hit, you achieve something very few people ever achieve.
- In the second case, the worst that could happen is you swing and miss. The best that could happen is you swing and achieve something most other people achieve.
- The point of this analogy is that setting big goals is not a necessary and sufficient condition for success but it is a necessary condition. Nobody has ever accidentally become successful.
- Broadcasting ambitions before you have achieved anything else comes off as arrogant and cocky. Nobody wants to look like they think they can actually build that billion-dollar business (or whatever the goal is).
- The best way to think of this one is to ask yourself, “Do I really want the approbation of people who think that ambition is generally cocky?” We grow up being taught these stories of great men and women who moved mountains and achieved so much in their lifetimes and are then taught that it is haughty to want to model them. “Better lower your ambitions, kid, because life will beat you down.”
- At best, this is a cynical approach to the world. At worst, it crushes the human spirit. Even if the world can be harsh on people and even if everybody doesn’t achieve their goals, that doesn’t mean that once we fail to achieve those ambitions our lives are over and we are complete and total failures. People who are psychologically spritely know how to shift their goals at failures and take them as learning opportunities to move on to the next ambition.
- Big ambition implies the chances for big failure. Young people are insulated from and avoid failure for the first 16-22 years of their lives and want to avoid rejection when possible. Applying for that exclusive job or going for that big deal means that you could lose them. Nobody wants to experience that, so they hedge.
- Like 1 and 2, the question here needs to be asked as “compared to what?” Yes, losing that big deal does hurt, but the deal can never be had or lost in the first place if you don’t go for it.
- Failure is a natural part of learning and, while it should be minimized within reason, is a process through which you can learn, correct course, and move forward.
- Big failure is not debilitating. Even complete, total failure in the modern United States isn’t that bad. The bottom isn’t that far and you can always pick yourself back up and get moving again.
Cherishing the ambition you have as a young person is a powerful tool. It is the spark that sets apart all of the hard-working young people with whom I am excited about working. If you want to set yourself apart in the long run, don’t like that spark die out.