How to be successfully ambitious

Ambition Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Sky and Clouds.

Successfully ambitious – can someone be unsuccessfully ambitious? Doesn’t the word ambition itself mean a desire and determination to achieve success?

By definition, it does. However, ambition–in excess or pursued without humility–is also a word that is linked to selfishness, greed, and the quest for power and fame. In these circumstances, ambition can be quite unsuccessful to the development of an inclusive community of learners.

Ambition is not about being the best – it’s about being your best.

Ambition means identifying your passions or goals, starting a daily process through which to achieve these goals, making regular reflections about your progress, celebrating accomplishments, and making changes to the process when necessary.

Identify passions

Steven Pressfield, an American author writes:

“Ambition, I have come to believe, is the most primal and sacred fundamental of our being. To feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls.”

But when do students know the ‘unique calling of their souls’? There is no doubt that some individuals can identify their life’s purpose and desire from an early age; however, most elementary school students do not yet have a ‘calling,’ nor do we want them to feel that pressure to decide.

Instead teachers can help students identify and explore their passions and provide opportunities to extend the curriculum beyond the classroom walls. The new BC curriculum promotes student-centred learning and allows greater flexibility for teachers to connect student interests with the Big Ideas in each curricular area.

Teachers can model life-long learning by sharing their own passions and connecting students with real-world mentors in their local and online communities. For more ideas, please see, 25 ways to promote passion-based learning in your classroom.

Outline your system or process

Identifying a passion or setting a goal is just the beginning. If achieving the goal is the only important element, students will be left with merely a yes or no answer. As James Clear writes:

Consider someone training for a half-marathon. Many people will work hard for months, but as soon as they finish the race, they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it, that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?

Focusing instead on the process allows students to develop skills that will transcend the goal, be applicable to a variety of situations and support long-term, sustainable growth. The smaller steps – the process or system – become a habit and can provide confidence to try new things. See Try Something New for 30 days for more inspiration.

The Core Competencies in the BC curriculum reinforce the importance of process in becoming a lifelong learner. The Competencies represent facets of thinking, communication, and personal and social skills that will be developed over time – throughout a student’s schooling career and beyond. They are not meant to be checked-off and never revisited, but rather represent a continuum of skills that learners will improve and confidently apply with greater practice, maturity, and reflection.

Schedule reflection time

I’ve previously written about the importance of reflection in building learner self-confidence and self-efficacy. However, reflection in a school setting for some high-achieving students can also become a comparison of skill sets that can undermine this confidence. As learners gain more ambition, they may also feel, as suggested by Andrew Dumont, unsatisfied. Dumont writes:

“no matter how much you accomplish or how hard you work, you haven’t done enough. There’s always more to do. There’s always others doing more… This feeling doesn’t stem from a place of failure, it stems from a fear of not living up to your potential.” 

Dumont counters this feeling by scheduling quarterly ‘board’ meetings with himself to focus on and to determine the progress he’s made to date. When students become more comfortable reflecting on the Core Competencies and teachers become more comfortable providing these regular check-ins, students will also be able to focus more on the process – not to focus on whether or not the skills have been achieved but rather how frequently and confidently the skills have been utilized in a variety of learning situations.

Celebrate accomplishments… and frustrations

Frustrations are a natural part of the learning process that seem to slow down the perceived linear path to success; however frustrations often lead to increased questions, wonderings, and further exploration of key ideas and concepts. They should be celebrated in the same way that accomplishments should be celebrated – as learning opportunities that provided inspiration for new ways of thinking. New ways of communicating student learning to parents include specific areas for student voice where these frustrations and accomplishments can be identified by students, recognized for their importance to the student’s learning, and celebrated as natural steps in becoming a reflective learner.

Modify the process or begin anew

Ambition is having the desire to improve in order to achieve personal success. But this is not a single goal with a clear ending. It is a growth mindset that affects all aspects of learning. Ambition leads to more ambition – a persistent desire to become more competent in any task and a willingness to change the process depending upon the task.

According to a 2012 study by T.Judge and J. Kammeyer, when fostered and celebrated, ambition:

“does not make one miserable nor does it create feelings of unquenchable desires for outcomes beyond stretch goals.  Instead, ambition, an habitual level of striving for or desiring accomplishment in life situations…correlates with educational attainment and educational prestige.  These in turn related to higher wages, more prestigious work, and greater satisfaction with life…ambition operates as an important predictor of positive life outcomes.”

We need to encourage students to be ambitious and to share their ambitions – in a variety of areas such as reading and writing, but also in music, sports, robotics, and beyond. And we need to remind one another that ambitions keep us humble, recognizing that there is always room for personal growth, regardless of the status, grade level or title we currently hold.

We can all be successfully ambitious.

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