In 1851, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a eulogy for his
friend Henry David Thoreau where he respectfully criticised his notoriously
independent and self-determined companion for having had too little ambition.
"Had his genius been
only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and
practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so
much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting
it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering
for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party."
But what exactly was Emerson criticising Thoreau
for? After all, looked at from another angle, Thoreau is arguably one of America’s
greatest writers. It appears that there are really two quite different flavours
when it comes to ambition.
Ginny is slaving away at her GCSE revision, burning
the midnight oil. So is Sarah, working just as hard. Both want A*s; both have
realistic hopes of getting them. Yet, in terms of their mental health, one’s
ambition may be described as healthy, the other’s less so. Ginny has three brothers. Her mother
did not go to university and has been immensely supportive of her only
daughter’s ambitiousness. Her mother believes that Ginny was born diligent and a
perfectionist, that ‘It comes naturally to her to do well in exams’. Sarah is an oldest child. Both parents
read to her a lot when small and she devours novels now. She has a rich
imagination and likes to write stories too. When younger, she played a good
deal with her siblings. Her parents do not regard her as especially
conscientious; she has always enjoyed her schoolwork. In Ginny’s case, we can say that her
ambition is externally driven. When you dig deeper and speak with her and her
mother, it emerges that her principal ambition is to please her mother.
"Ginny is one of the girls at risk of
suffering mentally. In fact, the most mentally ill group in our society are 15-year-old
girls from the top social classes, the very same girls who achieve the highest
results (better than their brothers). The pressures for them have mushroomed in
the last thirty years."
Large samples of 15 year olds were
studied in 1987, 1999 and 2007. In 1987, 24 per cent of girls from the top
social classes were anxious and depressed, but this had risen to 38 per cent in
1999 and 44 per cent in 2007. Today it is probably half.
I believe that it is increased external
ambition in the girls studied above that has led to a doubling in depression
and anxiety. It was no coincidence that this was also the period in which girls
went from parity with boys in GCSE results to substantially better ones. The
social pressures on girls to do well at school were reflected in the concerns
they expressed: day to day competition with other girls at school and exam
results in the summer.
By contrast, Sarah’s motivation is
self-determined. She works hard because she enjoys the activity. She wants the
qualifications it will bring her not because it will confer status on her
parents, but because it will enable her to pursue a university degree which
interests her and will lead to a stimulating career.
It is more than a value-judgement to
call Sarah’s ambition healthy. Hundreds of scientific studies prove that when
activity is driven by praise or reward, people do it less well and are more at
risk of becoming distressed. Quite simply, healthy ambition is self-determined,
less healthy ambition is driven by people-pleasing – first parents, then
teachers, then employers.
Siblings are Different
"Ginny’s mother is making a common mistake in
thinking that her daughter was born ambitious, one we often make about ourselves
as well as our children. Ambitiousness is not in our genes."
One of the most extraordinary (and
least well-known) scientific discoveries of our time is that genes almost
certainly play little or no role in causing differences between siblings or
offspring. The Human Genome Project has been unable to find any genes, or
clusters thereof, which explain more than 1 per cent of the difference. As
Robert Plomin, Britain’s leading gene psychologist, admitted recently, ‘I’ve
been looking for these genes for 15 years and I don’t have any.’ Off the
record, molecular geneticists admit they are not going to find them; they have
looked everywhere they might reasonably be expected to be found.
By contrast, the evidence for the critical role of
childhood nurture is becoming overwhelming. The best study shows that 90 per
cent of people who suffered childhood maltreatment have a mental illness at age
18. Another study shows that adults who suffered 5 or more childhood
adversities (like abuse or neglect) are 193 times more likely to be mentally
ill than people who suffered none.
It is true that about one-third of
children are born difficult babies – fussy, irritable or floppy – but, in
nearly all cases, this is because of problems during the pregnancy or birth
rather than genes. The difficultness is completely eradicated if they get the
right kind of care after their birth. Depending on factors like our birth
order, the projections that our parents make onto us and the way they respond
to our gender, parents treat children so differently that this explains why
siblings are so different.
"The degree of responsiveness to
individual needs in the early years sets our brain’s electrochemical
thermostat. A characteristic pattern of brainwaves is established, as well as neural
connections and levels of key neurotransmitters, like the fight-flight hormone cortisol."
Based on this, we are attracted to some
environments more than others – get in with a good or bad set of peers at
school, pursue sport rather than smoking behind the bike sheds, and so on. But
it is a thermostat; brain plasticity is emerging as far greater than previously
imagined. The very size of different bits of brain can be affected by the
environments we choose. Hence, trainee London taxi drivers who acquire ‘The
Knowledge’ required to pass the test to become a cabbie have larger bits of the
relevant part of their brain. It is the same with exceptional musicians who practise
for many hours; the relevant part of the brain is larger.
So in thinking that one’s children were born with or
without ambition, we can say with great confidence now that it is not true.
Causes of Unhealthy Ambition
If you want to understand the true causes of
ambition, look no further for your first clue than the fact that 1 in 3 exceptional
achievers in all fields that have been studied lost a parent before the age of
15. That applies equally to prime ministers, American presidents, British
entrepreneurs and exceptional writers. Name a famous dictator and it is likely
to have happened to them.
"In such cases, early bereavement leads
them to make and execute the decision to wrest their destiny from fate."
may do so through artistic fictions, or through controlling people, or by
making themselves invulnerable to others through money. Whether it be the
relentless and overwhelming charm of a President Clinton, or a Jean-Paul Sartre
writing about nothingness (his specialist interest, which he related to the
absence of his father), both of them dealt with their loss by exceptional achievement.
Of course, that is an extreme, but it
is clear that many high achievers have been driven by childhood maltreatment or
misfortune. Depression and narcissism (me-me-me grandiosity) are more commonly
found in the more conventionally successful, and these afflictions are often caused
by childhood distress.
Quite apart from the link between
mental illnesses and success, there is also the startling evidence that it
takes 10,000 hours of practice to produce exceptional performance in many
skills. For example, all professional orchestral soloists who have been studied
have practised for that long, whereas no ordinary professional orchestral players
have done so. It is practice which enables the realisation of ambitions in such
fields. But what motivates someone to do 10,000 hours?
In the world of competitive sports, we
may think of world class sportsmen and women who go ‘off the rails’, whether
through drink, drugs or other addictions.
"For some of these sportsmen and women,
their particular addiction of choice may well come from parents compulsively
and rigorously hothousing them to become the best from a very early age."
There is a large body of evidence
showing that exercising self-control, such that you have to do ‘good’ things
(such as practising a sport every day) leads to ‘ego-depletion’: a much greater
likelihood of doing ‘bad’ things as compensation. Put crudely, if you do that
dreaded paperwork or housework for an hour, you may feel like munching a
chocolate bar or having a drink afterwards. Of course, the addictions of many sportsmen
or women is partly fed by opportunity. But it is also often fuelled by a strong
sense of ego-depletion from decades of self-control required by practising
sport at a parent’s behest. Interestingly, the exception to the
ego-depletion rule is where the person is doing the self-controlled act because
they feel they have chosen it – self-determined, rather than feeling it is
imposed. The implications of the above would
appear to be worrying: that if you are an ambitious high achiever yourself,
there must be something wrong with you. Of course, this is not the whole story
Causes of Healthy Ambition
"As we saw at the outset, in the stories of Ginny
and Sarah, it is possible to produce children who are both ambitious and
emotionally healthy. Sarah was self-determined. How is that achieved?"
A striking example of this are the Polgár
sisters, chess prodigies.
In the 1960s, László Polgár was a
Hungarian educational psychologist who had written several scientific papers on
the effectiveness of practice in creating excellence. As was common behind the
Iron Curtain, he used pen pal letters to communicate with young people in other
countries, and through one of them he met a Ukrainian woman, Klara. He
explained his passionate conviction that excellence can be nurtured to her and
she fell for him, as well as his arguments. They agreed to have children and to
turn them into chess grandmasters, choosing that game because it has an
incontestable, objective metric by which achievement can be measured.
Polgár was a mathematician by
specialism; doubtless that helped in his plan. But he was not exceptional, so
it is not valid to object that he passed genes for exceptional pattern
recognition to his children. He played the game as a hobby; his wife did not
play at all. Having read up on the best means for teaching it, he prepared to
conduct his unusual experiment.
As luck would have it, Klara gave birth
to three daughters. There had been no female grandmasters, and it was widely
assumed that females were born less capable of the mental activity entailed to
be exceptional at chess. If he could create a female grandmaster it would be
all the more telling, since the administrators of world chess forbade the participation
of women in top tournaments.
Starting with his eldest daughter
Susan, Polgár was careful to treat it as a playful activity, turning it into a
fantasy of dramatic wins and losses. By the time she turned five she was
excited by playing and spent hundreds of hours practising. Entered in a local
competition, she treated it as fun, winning 10–0, causing a sensation.
Meanwhile, her younger sisters were intrigued by this activity and László
allowed them to feel the pieces, seeing them as toys, without giving any formal
tuition until they were aged five.
Interviewed recently, all three girls described
playing the game as something that they loved doing; it never seemed like a
"Instead of messing about playing Monopoly, netball or going to the local
swimming pool, chess was just what they enjoyed in the Polgár family."
Sure enough, in 1991 the eldest
daughter became the first female grandmaster. The second daughter had ten
straight wins against male grandmasters, a performance rated the fifth best in
the history of chess. Her younger sister became a grandmaster at the age of 15,
the youngest ever (of either gender).
It is a matter of record that Polgár
had declared his intention of creating grandmasters before his children were
born. Neither he nor his wife were talented in relevant skills. It is very hard
to argue with this story as evidence for the overpowering importance of nurture
rather than nature in causing exceptional chess achievement. But more than
that, it is interesting in terms of how to create emotionally healthy high
achievers, as opposed to the many highly distressed ones.
That Polgár understood the need not to
coerce his daughters into playing is clear; he grasped that small children need
to enjoy fantasy play. Consequently, his daughters all seem to have grown into
satiable, well-balanced people rather than hungry success addicts. There is no guarantee
in any case that rigorously hothousing children produces exceptional achievers
(it often produces, at best, prodigies who do not usually go on to be
exceptional and who are liable to suffer emotional problems).
"Prominent prodigious sportsmen who
became desperately unhappy include Bjorn Borg, the cricketer Marcus Trescothick
and the rugby football phenomenon, Jonny Wilkinson. All of them were driven in
a quite different way from the Polgár sisters, externally rather than
A strong clue to the dynamics of the
Polgár family comes from a fascinating footnote to the story. When the eldest
daughter had been crowned as the first female grandmaster, forcing the sport’s
organisers to change their rules, a Dutch billionaire offered to pay for him to
adopt three boys from a developing nation to show that the experiment could be
replicated. Polgár was keen on the idea but his wife turned it down. A relaxed,
warm woman, unmotivated by money or fame, she felt they had already made their point
and that to do it again would take more energy than she had. In all likelihood,
she had given her daughters a very solid early infancy and secure life as
toddlers, standing them in good stead for the pressures of top chess
competition. On top of that, it suggests she was not someone who would coerce
them. Just as her husband had conducted the experiment in nurture with full
awareness of the need for small children to live in la-la land for much of the
time, so she had provided the loving, responsive base which is the foundation
of emotional health.
"A fundamental issue of ambition is the extent to
which its goal is social or career achievement, or internal well-being."
recent years, there has been a high emphasis placed on happiness as an internal
goal, but I profoundly disagree with this. Happiness is a temporary state,
mostly derived from material pleasures like eating delicious food or sexual
satisfaction. It is a fool’s game to chase happiness, a chimera that we can never
even approximate to.
More meaningful and realistic is the
concept of emotional health. This has six components:
Living in the present
Fluid, open relationships with others
Emotional health is the sense that what is
happening, is happening now. It is firsthand, immediate, rather than only
knowing what was experienced when you reflect about it later. You are, as the
sports commentators put it, ‘in the zone’.
feel real rather than false. You are comfortable in your skin: you do not wish
you could be someone else, nor do you look down on others for not being like
you. You know what you are thinking and feeling, even if sometimes that is only
that you know that you don’t know."
You have your own consistent ethical code
which enables you to distinguish right from wrong. You are stoical in the face
of adversity, realistic in your ideas and often seem to be wise in your
judgements. You have the capacity for insight into your own actions. You can
sometimes spot in advance when you are about to make a mistake and avoid it, or
can see when you are reacting irrationally to a situation and correct yourself.
This gives you that nectar of the soul, the capacity for choice, and therefore,
for change. Such self-awareness is what sets us apart from other animals.
your moment-to-moment dealings with other people, you are a good judge of what
they are feeling and thinking. You are able to live in the place where self and
others meet without tyranny. You do not get ‘jammed on transmit’, nor ‘jammed
on receive’ either. You live without flooding or dominating others, nor are
flooded or dominated.
are adaptable, but without losing yourself. When in social or professional
situations which demand a measure of falsehood, you can put on a face to meet
the faces that you meet without losing your sense of authenticity. Your real
self is as close as possible to the one you are presenting to others, depending
on what is feasible. If a lie is necessary, you lie.
vivacity is striking, the liveliness you bring to any situation, but it is not
frenetic and does not smack of ‘keeping busy’ to distract from bad feelings.
You are spontaneous and always searching for the playful way to handle things,
retaining a childlike sparkle, a conviction that life is to be enjoyed, not
endured. You are not bogged down in needy, childish, greedy, game-playing
may suffer depressions, rages, phobias, all manner of problems from time to
time. You make mistakes. But because of your emotional health, you are far
better at living in the present and finding the value in your existence,
whatever is going on, making you resilient.
people leave your company, they often feel better able to function, more
vivacious and playful. Your emotional wellness rubs off on them. You are no
martyr but you are widely regarded as a valuable contributor to your social and
Have you ever met anyone like this? No,
nor have I. None of us are emotionally healthy at all times, in all these ways.
For most, it is only in some respects, some of the time. A very few are, in
many respects, much of the time – perhaps 5 or 10 per cent of us. That is what
I mean by emotional health: a state that we can approximate to, more or less, rather
than absolute, like happiness.
There is, of course, a constant tension
between the pursuit of emotional health and of the glittering prizes of social
and career success. In the kind of society that we live, it tends to be assumed
that acquisition of wealth or the possession of beauty will bring emotional
health. This is far from what I believe to be the case.
Although there are no studies testing
the matter, I suspect that the emotionally healthy are more often to be found
among people with what might be considered relatively low aspirations, as
measured in conventional terms.
The challenge in our own lives, and in
the motives and goals we nurture in our children, is to balance out the pursuit
of emotional health against the pursuit of conventional achievement.
The best solution to that enigma is
self-determination, a concept Thoreau would have wholeheartedly signed up to. If
we feel that we are doing things because they matter to us, rather than to
people-please, we are most likely to achieve both goals.