Conversations in Management: Ambition

“Big results require big ambitions.”

Heraclitus.

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Ambition is one of those funny things. Your parents, teachers and other interested parties more or less demand it. And they’re quick to point out when you aren’t demonstrating it. Then again, too much ambition is frowned upon. It’s viewed as self-serving, arrogant and manipulative. On the other hand, have too little ambition and you’re considered lazy, feckless and a slacker. If all of this wasn’t complicated enough, there’s another dimension of ambition to worry about. That’s when you’re ambitious for someone one else—usually your kid. That’s also when ambition becomes vanity.

We’re all familiar with the type. It may be the dad who pushes his child into competitive sports. There’s little fun associated with the games as the grim expressions on the kid’s faces attest. Or it may be the mom who abandons the family and camps out with the “talented” one in Hollywood’s Oakwood apartments for the summer in hopes of being “discovered.” These efforts are more about the failed ambitions of the parents and the hope that their disappointment can be offset by successful children. What they end up doing is putting unbearable stress on the kids. No eight year-old enjoys having dad hurl insults at them from the sidelines or living with mom’s depression when the money runs out and the kid isn’t TV’s next Honey Boo Boo.

The recent fascination with Tiger Moms (hard driving moms who push, push push) is an attempt to legitimatize vanity parenting by lifting it above the Toddler’s and Tiaras set. And it’s succeeded. Now if you want to have something to really brag about you can hire a play date consultant for your toddler and feel smug about it. For a meagre $450 an hour the consultant will train your three or four year-old to wait for their turn and to make eye contact when asking a question. (Hint from a pro: put a sticker on your forehead to help the kid focus.) Of course, this is all designed to get junior into a prestigious kindergarten in the hopes it will lead to other prestigious placements. It all sounds good until you take a look at the long-term picture. A recent study showed that, among other levelling factors, by 26, folks who had attended private school enjoyed no more job satisfaction than those who had attended public schools.

So high dollar schools don’t produced better adults, sports obsessed dads don’t produce major league players, wanna-be stage moms don’t produce celebrities and, for that matter, pageant parents don’t produce beauty queens. Perhaps we should just relax a bit. Adults don’t need the stress of vanity parenting any more than the kids do. Stop programming every minute as if you were the tour director on a Disney cruise. Introduce the newest generation to the old fashioned joys of unstructured free play. Sure, big results require big ambitions. But big ambitions don’t always bring big results—particularly when they’re at someone else’s expense. So take the sticker off your forehead, shout encouragement with every missed shot and enjoy the school play.         —Ebert

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