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Friday, November 7, 2014

Is ambition a product of our kid's environment?



A friend of mine who had been living here in Japan for many years decided to take his family back to his home country last year, India.  The two boys in the family had been going to a very good International school in Tokyo and found the transition to the local public school in India challenging.  They are good kids though and thanks to a supportive Mom and Dad they were soon adjusted to their new life.  A year later I had a chance to catch up with my friend on one of his business trips back to Tokyo.  Inevitably, our conversation turned to the kids and how they were doing and our hopes and dreams for them.  We are both entrepreneurs, have hired and fired people, and know what the challenges are to finding a meaningful career.  We both want our kids to grow up to be confident and self-motivated... and ambitious.

I was curious about the boys and their school life.  My childhood experience (both my own and for my kids) has been limited to the United States and Japan, both arguably well developed countries.  India, at least according to the IMF, is labeled a developing country.  This developing country though is expected to grow 6.4% in 2015 whereas Japan is 0.8% and the USA is 3.1%.  Probably based on my extensive research of life in other countries around the world (mainly thanks to Hollywood movies) I have the impression that kids are more driven, hungrier, and ambitious if the country they grow up in has fewer amenities.  So, I asked, "Is school life different for your boys now?  Do you think they are more or less ambitious than when they were going to school here in Japan?"  His answer was immediate and definite.  "Absolutely," he said, "the competition at even the lower grade levels around age 8 or 9 is aggressive and out in front."  The children are very aware of who's father makes more money or has a more impressive title or drives a fancier car.  When the test scores come back there are immediate comparisons throughout the class.  When you ask the kids what they will do when they grow up, you get the usual responses such as professional athlete (maybe soccer or cricket in India and soccer and baseball in Japan) but you also get answers like CEO of a big company or just billionaire.

I certainly dreamed of being rich when I was growing up and I know that my son (maybe even my daughter) understands that with more money you can buy more toys.  But, I never felt that "hunger" or "drive" to get there.  My ambition was more laid back.  Reading that last sentence I have to wonder if ambition can be laid back...  Anyway, my point is that our kids growing up in more "comfortable" countries like Japan and the USA do not seem to have the drive that kids have in some other parts of the world.  We are not likely to move to India anytime soon (although I did suggest it but was vetoed by my lovely wife). So, how can we "teach" our kids to be more ambitious regardless of where they grow up?

Dean Simonton, from the University of California in an article in Time Magazine makes the point that ambition, is actually just a combination of energy and goals.  Having one without the other is not enough but someone who has both of them together is they guy or gal you would say is driven.  Back to the question then, can we teach our kids to set goals and then get them energized about achieving them?  My feeling is that goal setting is a skill that can be learned.  There are countless books, classes, podcasts, etc. on how to set and manage goals.  The challenge with our kids (and us?) is how do we convince them to use their considerable supply of energy in pursuit of those goals?

Many of the examples I have read or seen about people who transformed from a laid back, take life as it comes attitude into a driven, ambitious, seize life by the throat mania, have done so because of a dramatic change in fortunes.  They are living an easy life and suddenly Mom or Dad loses their job and they have to sell the Benz and move to a small apartment.  The slap in the face of dropping down the income scale triggers the energy to go after the goals that more than likely existed already.  But can we do this with out kids without giving up the good life?  Or without sending them to boarding school in a poorer country?  There must be a way to trigger that singularity of focus right here at home.

If we look at the example given in the preceding paragraph, perhaps we can adapt it to other aspects of our kid's lives rather than just focusing on money.  The theory being that if we can encourage the "habit" of ambition, it may carry over to other goals.  We can choose a goal that means something to our kids at their age.  Most likely getting good grades or practicing the piano is not high on their list so how about starting shortstop for the JV baseball team.  It is a clear goal and one that your kid may be willing to exert some energy to achieve.  With goals, a key component is the belief that they can achieve it.  That confidence comes with having achieved something (anything) in the past.  If we can encourage and support them to put in the time and practice to make the team and get the position we will have helped them establish a benchmark on what is possible if they make an effort.

I think all kids have goals and dreams and if they are more confident about their chances of achieving them (thanks to past experiences) then they will be more likely to put in the energy.  Goals + Energy = Ambition.  There you go, problem solved.  Right?

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