Our Perspective

Redefining Ambition: How to Escape the Under-Achievement Trap


Who do you want to become when you grow up? We ask our children.


I remember being asked this question in class many years ago. Not surprisingly, there were many aspiring Engineers and Doctors. The talkative types wanted to become Lawyers. Some were liberal enough to want to become artists. There was one guy who wanted to take over his father's business. And me? My 11-year-old-self answered "paleontologist." My friends were un-impressed, and the teacher gave me a look that I would best describe as a mixture of pity and concern.


Oh wait, I was wrong. We don't ask "who do you want to become?" Instead we ask "what is your ambition?" (at least my teachers did.) This is where the problem starts.

We throw in a strong word, ambition, and then expect, and train, our children to narrow down its meaning to be associated with a prosaic profession. In effect, we stereotype their entire foreseeable existence. Some of us eventually manage to see beyond this forced perception. Most of us don’t.


Our schools are just a part of the problem. (Before you accuse me of stereotyping) think about what would've triggered those answers I've mentioned in the beginning of this article.


The Importance of Social Capital

If you're a parent, think about what you would expect your child's answer to be when you ask her about her ambitions, and what your natural response to that answer would be. No matter how noble you think your intentions are, you are predisposed to derive a strange satisfaction from seeing your child as a second shot at life (if you're not this parent, I tip my hat to you). What if your child says that her ambition is to be happy and free? Would you tell her to find a wealthy husband? What if she wants to become a scientist? Would you tell her to 'polish her culinary skills' instead?


In a country like Sri Lanka general social relationships (the ones you're born into or are ready-made for you; parents, family, classmates for example) are extremely valued (sometimes to the point of nausea - remember those condescending aunts you never liked?). In a study that examined the impact of social capital on the well-being of Sri Lankan rural populace, Dr. Nishadi Somaratne et al argue that relationships without material, moral and human resource elements serve no purpose; that the quality of our interactions, not the quantity, matters more.


What then, comes out of the frail relationships in our lives?


An African proverb now frequently cited in contemporary discourse says that it takes a village to raise a child. Then it logically follows that a hysterically conservative village with nonsensical stigmas and obsolete social norms would raise an equally inept child. We are part of this process, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not.


The casual use of the word ambition is just one outcome of this herd mentality.


Undermining Our Potential To Achieve

I have long outgrown my passion to pursue paleontology. In fact, I went through several phases. Engineer, Lawyer, Diplomat - I fell out of love for each of these paths pretty quickly. But the journey helped me discover something else: I don't have to be X or Y. I don't have to specialize in just one thing. Why see in black and white when I can see in color?


In a world where white collar jobs are being taken over by AI, and knowledge is increasingly becoming commoditized, the best profession to be in is no profession at all.


In fact there are arguments that the more universities feed graduates with specialist knowledge for jobs that don't exist, the more economic disparity arises. Apparently this renders the very concept of the Knowledge Economy obsolete. While I am not disputing the importance of intellectuals well versed in certain disciplines, I do think they'll be doing themselves a favor if they cast wider nets.


So, what we do when we ask our children to become Doctors and Engineers and Lawyers and what not, is limiting their potential to become so much more. (Note that I do not associate achievement with advancement in the career ladder - that ladder is now redundant as organizations become flat and nonhierarchical.) We're shutting down their inherent curiosity that would otherwise have had them pursue diverse interests.


It could be surmised that the erosion of Social Capital (to which the 30-year war was a major contributor among others) resulted in the dysfunctional welfare state Sri Lanka has come to be. Not only are we killing off our budding generalists, we're depriving them of a strong economy to thrive in.


Figuring out, and asking the right questions is the best way to foster (within yourself and within others) curiosity and the predisposition to keep exploring things. The death of curiosity is the death of civilization as we know it. Perhaps, our road to redemption could start with redefining what it means to have an ambition.

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