Sunday, 14 March 2010

Ambition, Competition, Motivation

I've been trying for quite some time to write something along these lines. I've written, rewritten, and deleted this post more times than you might imagine. Aidan's thoughts about wasted education finally galvanised me to try again.

It started with ambition.

I wanted to say "I'm not ambitious", but if you look at the kinds of goals I set for myself then you might disagree. (Semantics? Maybe, but I think semantics are important. Words are, after all, a huge part of how we understand one another.)

I'm not sure I can define ambition well enough to talk about it meaningfully. Is it ambitious to want to "do stuff"? Is it ambitious to want to do things well? And what if I simply want to do these things to the best of my ability, and enjoy the process, and never mind whether I succeed?

Let's leave ambition to one side, then.

I can say with certainty that I'm not competitive.

Oh, I'll compete if I'm playing a game - and I love games, but only so long as it's fun. Competitiveness-in-games is one of the many things I've learnt to switch off if it causes me any level of stress. I don't need extra stresses from things which should be enjoyable... but that's a topic for another day.

As I've grown up, I've come to realise that quite a few people see their lives as one long competition against everyone else - and sometimes people assume that I see things that way, too.

I think it started in school, although I can't put my finger on specific instances to back up this theory. It's hard to make this next point without sounding immodest - but if you've been reading for any length of time, you've probably gathered that I'm an academic sort of girl. So it probably doesn't come as much surprise that I always got good grades in school. And I have a sense that some people thought I got good grades because I was in some sense competing for that 'top of the class' position (when really, I was simply interested in doing my best).

It's taken me many years to unpick this, and to understand some of the consequences. It explains a lot. If people thought I was getting good grades because I wanted to beat them, it's not surprising that there was some resentment. And it also explains the strange assumption that seems to affect careers advisors in particular, that a clever child should want a BIG career, scrambling up some corporate ladder or competing (that word again) for a place in a profession such as medicine or law.

I don't doubt that some people are motivated by the idea of competing against their peers, just as some people are motivated by money. It just happens that neither of those things motivates me.

Why is this even worth talking about? Why am I so determined to tell you what doesn't motivate me? Struggling with the answer to this question may very well be why this has been so hard to write. But I think it's simply because so many people over the years seem to have assumed that these things would provide sufficient motivation.

And yet I seem to have no shortage of motivation.

So I started to think about what does motivate me, and I think it essentially comes from the desire to feel that I'm contributing something. I suppose that's why I like crafts so much (making 'things' that didn't exist before), and writing (likewise), and research (contributing, hopefully, to the sum of human knowledge).

What motivates you...?


mel said...

though i'm not proud to admit it, i think praise is one. i was that A+ kid in school, not because i wanted to compete(tho sometimes did with the other smart girl) but moreso because i craved the attention and praise of being congratulated for my work.
"good work" "great job" "way to go!"
the entire school system, report cards, my parents - it all fed in. then, enter the real word - having to work terrible jobs like customer service and getting yelled at for being sold out of a video game - that throws you for a loop.
i'm trying to work through and get over this.
as for creative pursuits, i am also motivated by the desire to complete something that is entirely my own - to surround myself with beauty and offer something to the world which didn't exist before.

lakeviewer said...

You're wise for your age! People spend their whole lives not knowing what they are after. You've nailed it. You want to contribute, make things. And since you are willing to work hard, you'll make enough money to take care of your needs as well. Eureka!

Stephanie V said...

Reading this was a deja vu experience. I've often had these kinds of thoughts - you've articulated it well. It took me a lot of years to figure out that I am motivated by two things: contribution and variety. You could pay me in peanuts if you gave me enough variety and I thought I was making a difference.

Anonymous said...

Bravo. Great post. You had me with the ambition statement. I think I struggle with this - I have assumed ambitious was the right word for me even though it felt uncomfortable. I equate ambition with career ambition but I am not, in my working life, remotely ambitious. Couldn't really care about that. But for myself? For my sense of achievement on the whole? I suppose ambitious might be the right word but I think you're right, motivated is better.

I like to feel like MY time isn't wasted, that I've got something to show for myself in whatever it is that floats my boat - blogging, writing, knitting, making things, connecting with the world, being able to face myself in the mirror with my head held high - that matters. Im ambitious about things that don't matter to the world at large and I'm ok with that.

I sometimes feel like teachers would think I had failed because i was a Grade A student who isn't now running some big company or a well known journalist or any of the thigns i said I was going to do, but those things didn't seem to fit with me so I didn't pursue them. Recognising these things about ourselves is important.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting, Rachel. I think there are many ways to be motivated beyond ambition and competitiveness. In fact if anything I think that issues of success and failure tend to be enervating for a lot of people.

Heidi Ashworth said...

I remember being told that I was ambitious as a child. It led me to believe that ambition is measured by the gulf between your capacity and your desire. (For example, it is ambitious to want to lose 300 pounds. It is not terribly ambitious to be thin when you already are.) I DO feel competitive--but not with others so much as with myself. I enjoy the mental gymnastics of acheiving certain goals, many of them certainly ambitious. It seems to me that what you are saying is that you are very smart and that you think differently about a lot of things than others. It can make you easily misunderstood and create feelings of isolation. That is why the internet is so wonderful! I have found many more people who think the way I do than I ever dreamed. Have a great day!

Tabor said...

You convey ideas and feelings in an outstanding way which is not something every 'good' student can do well. I was also a good student and in high school motivated by praise...but I realize now in my old age I was also motivated by the challenge and the fun of learning new things. Now the frosting on that cake would be making a difference for someone.

Penny said...

I think it's unfortunate that ambition is viewed so negatively. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines ambition as "the determination to achieve success or distinction." I believe that determination is an important part of the equation. If you're ambitious, you are prepared to set goals and to work hard in order to achieve them. You won't be deterred by setbacks or challenges. The next trick is probably to define "success." I am not looking for public acknowledgement of my achievements - I want to satisfy myself that I have done my best - and that for me is success.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I got good grades in school a few years ago, as you said, I didn't do it to compete, but I just kept content and kept working.

I seemed to have got lazy, in the past few years, and have not being doing as well as I should.

I was (and am ) great at English language (essays... creative writing.. thats so me!) but I was never good enough to get the certificate.

I was often called up and asked to read my essays to the class, when I never even expected it.

Its not even that I tried, I remember sweat running down my forehead as I wrote it, because I thought I was running out of time.

A few years ago I remember a girl told the Teacher who taught us English, that she had been presented with the 'English Certificate' the previous year, and I'd feel very disheartened.

This girls friends, made it a point to put me down and bully me... they made a laugh of me all the time.

I'm kinda short for my age, I look at least 3 years younger than what I am. I was teased by them. MY confidence was always low. This wasn't helping.

I talk to them now, but they think they are so much better than what I am, and don't even think I'm worth looking at...

The last year has been hectic. I haven't being paying as much attention as I must towards my studies. All my subjects are alright, except maths. Just when I thought I was getting better, it turned out to be nothing of the sort....

Now, I'm about to leave 6th, and move on to 7th grade. This year holds many expectations.

Not because I want to compete, but I want to prove myself. Not for a certificate, because all the certificates that I've achieved, came as a surprise. I have to mention, that the competition is high out here, If you're not good at acadimics, you're considered good for nothing...

I'm dropping by from SITS, have a great Monday! x

Denise said...

Great post!
Stopping by from SITS to say Hi to a SITSah!
Stop by for a visit:

Anonymous said...

I know a lot of people who are competitive. The whole idea of an American law school is competition (you are graded based on not how well you know the subject, but how your knowledge of that subject compares to that of others). But I'm not myself competitive, and I think that people who strive to be competitive and constantly measure themselves up against others are secretly very insecure. I think your motivation to want to contribute is very commendable.

Emily said...

This is a really interesting post and I agree that it's important to sort through the things that don't motivate you so you can find the things that do. It's amazing, really, that so many people do well in school because they want to beat their peers and not because they're interested in learning all the fascinating things there are to learn in this world. Don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Hi from SITS! I am a new member (

What motivates me? I am VERY competitive. I also fear failure, but I am not afraid to fail as long as I learn from my failure and can pick myself back up again. I am a former scientist who turned into a lawyer. I thrived/currently thrive in both environments. However, I was also a competitive athlete growing up so some things I guess just come naturally! I also have this warped view of myself as being a slacker (whereas most people that know me would just laugh hysterically as I said that). So I motivate myself by not wanting to be a slacker, even though I probably wasn't one to begin with.

Kazzy said...

I work to a deadline very well. I get things done. But I am not sure if that is ambition or guilt.

And I get competitive, but it really depends on the people in the competition as to how intense I can get.

Holly said...

I will admit I am competitive, but as I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser) is not so much with others but with myself. I am ambitious and motivated and sometimes feel as though I have not accomplished all I thought I would by this age...funny enough I just found a list I wrote at 21 of what I hoped for in the next 10 years...I am motivated, and that is by what is inside myself...that little (sometimes evil) voice telling me to "move it!" I will also say my children motivate me to be a better person and to be an example.

christine said...

It's really good to know yourself,and I can imagine how much of a struggle is was to write what you wanted to say, in the way you felt you needed to express it!

I've always loved to play games, and to win when I'm capable of it - but not if it causes any stress - that takes the fun out of it, and playing games is fun:)

I'm doing my degree at the age of 50+ for me, not for anyone else, not to get a good job, just for fun - to catch up on what I didn't do when I was younger.

My motivation is simple - I've reached an age when I want to do whatever I want to do, within reason, of course! And to do it when I want to do it, and in the order that I want to do it.

I love to create this and that - it's still magical to take disparate things and give birth to something new.

So ... time to put some words together to generate an essay!! said...

Collaboration and enthusiasm are my two biggies. If I'm working on a project I love to have other passionate people on the team - that's all it takes. I'm not competitive per se, but I really just like to have an goal in mind that I care about - if it's something I truly like then I have no problems getting things done and finding motivation!

Kate Coveny Hood said...

Sometimes I wonder if I was so UNcompetitive in life because I actually was competitive - but afraid of losing. Failing. Anyway - I have a hard time getting motivated by games. This causes my husband no end of heartbreak since there is nothing he likes more than a rousing game of my team - your team. I just don't care enough.

But like you - I feel motivated by creating. Even if it's just organizing a closet - making things look more attractive brings me so much joy. And I love feeling accomplished. Being able to look at my day and see a check list of "missions accomplished." Even when it's doing nothing: today, I worked out, got a hair cut and spent some time reading...that's accomplishment for me. I just like feeling like I'm moving forward I guess.

Chef E said...

Are we related?

Cheryl said...

Most of my life was spent being motivated by fears large and small. Competitiveness was just one consequence of that fear. I've finally stopped living a fear-driven life and feel free at last. Learning for the sake of learning now gives me goosebumps of joy.

I'd have said I'm not ambitious but in giving it some thought, I realize I am. Not professionally, rather in things that are intangible ~ lending a helping hand, smiling at the harried bank teller, or listening to a friend in need.

Ronnica said...

I'm not motivated by competition (though I'm plenty competitive in actual competitions). I am motivated not to disappoint MYSELF. In school, I was always the one most disappointed when I didn't pull out an A, not my parents (though that's where I attributed it at the time).

Anonymous said...

Your idea of competition and mine sound so very much alike. I can be super competitive, especially in things like sports or games (which I love) but when it comes to life in general, nope. I lead my life the way that makes me happiest and I have people ask me quite often why I don't do A instead of B. Well, because B makes me happy. Nice to know there's a kindred spirit out there!

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Much of what you said sounded like me. I got good grades and did things well, so I assumed I'd have a great career. I've become an excellent writer and have created good and effective print pieces, etc. But I was somewhat less great as a supervisor and as a person who could sell an idea and motivate an audience (or a stubborn boss). So I scaled back my idea of Success, to exclude the kind of status that would wow the masses, if you know what I mean.

These days, I'm motivated by doing what is satisfying...a combination of the kind of writing in which I specialize plus a few riskier things I haven't done before. And being with my grandkids.

ScoMan said...

I'm very competitive.. but only with myself.

I don't care what other people are doing, as long as I'm doing better than I have in the past.

When I was studying I chased good grades because I knew I was capable of them, and if I got an 83 in one semester, I would try to get at least an 85 in the next (even though the subject material was very different, but when you start a new semester you're basically starting at zero and work your way up with learning techniques, time management etc)

I'm the same with the sport teams I support to. I don't care if they win or lose, as long as I see gradual improvement in the team then I'm happy.

Karen said...

I think lately I've been pathetically UN-motivated. I'm not all that competitive either. I even let people win board games (without telling them) because winning doesn't matter that much to me.

I want to be a writer and I'm doing what I can to hone my craft. But I'm not even competitive there. I figure I'll write the best novels I can and if someone wants to offer me money to publish them, great. If not, that's okay, too.

Emma said...

Interesting question. I have always been a driven person, even as a young kid. I suppose I started out wanting to please my parents and teachers, but I now, I pretty much just want to please myself, to know that I've done the best I could. However, as life gets crazier, I've also had to learn that doing everything perfectly is impossible. These days, I pick a few things to really delve into and just get by on the others.

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