Healthy ambition
Oliver James
January, 2017
Healthy Ambition

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. Emerson declared:

"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.

Two Forms of 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.

Why 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.

The 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."
They 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 at all.

The 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 chore.

"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 self-motivated."

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.

Emotionally Healthy Ambition

"A fundamental issue of ambition is the extent to which its goal is social or career achievement, or internal well-being."
In 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’. 

"You 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.
In 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.

You 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.

Your 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 manipulation.

You 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.

"When 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 professional circles."
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.