Tuesday, September 5, 2017

How to Teach Ambition

Mom and I

You can’t!

At least I don’t think you can teach driving ambition and learned hunger from a book or video or TED presentation. I believe it’s something that is inherently part of a person’s psychic or personality. A trait intrinsically linked to or inherited at conception and like the gift that it can or can’t be, it is released when outside forces force that desire to the surface.

Two children are born of the same parents and raised in the same household. Yet surprisingly both individuals can be radically different in their demeanor, tastes, interests and ambitions. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. It is the hand they were dealt. Go figure!



One of the great illusions of life is that we must all be blindly ambitious because we’ve told (falsely) that all the greats of stage and screen and sports and business have somehow corralled that magic formula for success and therefore are infinitely happy with the results. That fable is no more relevant than the bulletin board in our daily lives that keeps hinting that the status-quo is never quite good enough.

I think there should be a balance between ‘who is hungry’ and ‘who cares.’ If a person’s existence is satisfying and fulfilling to them, it hardly matters what the pundits say about the need for more of anything in their lives. Ambition is neither a gift nor a curse; it simply is what it is. Properly harnessed it can do great good. Unbridled, it can cause great harm.

My mother on the farm

My Mother had a sixth-grade education because her parents insisted she stay on the farm to feed the chickens (true story). She eventually left St. Martin, Minnesota to become a maid on Summit Avenue then a short order cook in downtown Saint Paul. By most standards of the day, she and her husband were a very ambitious couple married during the war years. Housing was scarce and jobs hard to find. They started a restaurant but when it failed he turned to drink and she turned to prayers.

My mother with two kids

After my father disappeared my mother was left with two small children, no visible means of support, no formal education, and few marketable job skills. Yet she somehow managed not only to survive but also thrive. She built her own home and sent her kids to Catholic grade school. Unlike her married sisters, she wanted more out of life and got it by hard work, enormous sacrifice and praying a lot. There were seven siblings in her farm family and she was, by far, the most ambitious one of the lot.

Mom and I

A good friend of mine has suggested that most of us learn by example. He believes that many people have a built-in hunger threshold that can trigger a desire for more even if it can’t be defined or explained. Perhaps that’s how you can explain a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Both men were born into comfortable, loving middle class families and yet at an early age both had a desire for more than just the status quo. The Beatles and Bob Dylan knew at an early age that they were not going to simply follow the accepted pathway to success as all their classmates were doing.

For the clear majority of retirees, the next stage after full time work is one of relaxation, reflection, and satisfaction with a life well-lived. There is nothing wrong with that. Most folks embrace the opportunity to do those little things they’ve never had time for or to keep dipping into their proverbial bucket list to keep checking off experiences that have eluded them in the past. It would hardly seem to be the time to push forward with new ventures and challenges and needless worries.

For some this desire for more is a curse, robbing an individual of a good night’s sleep, quiet days reading on the porch, social banter at the coffee shop and several rounds of golf. But this curse has a good side to it. Doing what one must do.


For those folks, it is a hunger born of a thousand ‘what if’s’ and nebulous goals yet unfulfilled. For them, it is the answer as to why they’re here on the planet and for those lucky individuals, all the other questions matter not. They’re doing what they want to do, have to do and couldn’t do anything else. It’s why they get up each morning and have trouble sleeping at night. With the time remaining, it is what keeps them alive and moving and seeking their very own vision quest.


And each hopes in their own very distinct way that when the final curtain is drawn, they’ll still be hard at it (whatever it is) and it was still satisfying even up until the end.