I spoke to a high school faculty member who works with at-risk students in lower socio-economic conditions. These students have been booted from a traditional public high school, and her school is their last chance to graduate as a teen.
What moved me in our conversation was her passion to teach them and offer wisdom that will help them later as an adult. But, alas, she confessed, her students simply had no ambition to learn at all. There was no fire inside. But if you think the problem is poverty, however, think again. Kids in middle- to upper-class homes share the same problem. A new survey has revealed the top fears of the world’s wealthiest people, and one of the most common worries is that their children will lack the ambition and drive to do well. According to the study by law firm Withers Worldwide, fears over children’s ambition come above worries about investments failing, inability to provide for the family, and even divorce. In short, both the rich and the poor are anxious over the same thing: our children’s ambition.
Even in America’s middle class, we see signs of lower ambition in students:
- College now takes six years, not four, to complete.
- Kids wait at least a year to get a driver’s license when eligible.
- A majority of young adults are moving back home after college.
- Most teens are not working jobs to earn money or gain experience.
- Students are sedentary and gaining weight as higher numbers are obese.
May I suggest just one reason for all of this? They may have little incentive.
The world so many of them grew up in either removed incentives or gave them artificial ones they didn’t have to earn. Ribbons. Trophies. Accolades. Reflect for a moment on the long-term impact of this kind of world. When a child gets to swing at a ball until he hits it (there are no strike outs), when coaches decide not to keep score (there are no losers), and when everyone gets the same award in the end (we are all equal), it can begin to de-motivate kids, especially boys. It takes the steam out of their engine. They begin to think: Why try? I’m going to get the same reward, whether I put out any effort or not.
I recognize we must use incentives that are genuine, not artificial. And we can’t cultivate ambition in our kids with promises or threats we don’t plan to keep. They see right past our empty words. All legitimate incentives are about benefits and consequences. This can actually be quite simple—if you stick with them. For instance, when my daughter Bethany went off to college, I told her, “Sweetheart, I will pay for four years of college. All four years. If you take five or six years, you will need to cover those extra years.” Guess what? She made it in four.
My son Jonathan is in the same boat. He wanted to attend an expensive private college in southern California. I told him I would cover all four years…or if he prefers to attend the first two years at a local community college, we could split the money I saved. It didn’t take him long to make that decision. He just finished his General Ed at a local school and is off to California this summer with cash in his pocket.
Building Ambition Through Incentive
1. Watch what they pay attention to most and seem to love.
Researchers at London University’s Institute of Education asked more than 11,000 seven-year-olds what they wanted to be when they grew up. They found that ambitious children who had big dreams tended to have fewer behavioral problems than those who didn’t. In short, inspiration came from aspirations. As a result, we as adults should attempt to build incentives around the stuff our kids love, want, or need to learn.
2. Furnish autonomy, mastery and purpose in their aspiration area.
I’ve written about this before. Author Daniel Pink reminds us that true motivation emerges when people’s activity includes autonomy (I can do it on my own), mastery (I am getting good at this) and purpose (I believe this really matters). Lasting ambition and motivation moves from external to internal.
3. Lead by example—model passion and healthy ambition.
If my kids enjoy a life of passion and ambition, it will likely be because they watched their parents and most of the adults around them work at something they were passionate about. We all love our work. We are vested in what we do each day. They see me get up early, eager to go to work. This is the norm around our world.
4. Make failure an option in the process.
Many students’ ambition evaporates when they see failure as fatal. If they believe they cannot fail, or that failure will ruin their self-esteem, identity or reputation, they will never take appropriate risks and try new ventures that will expand them. Work to create an environment where failure is safe and frequent. Teach them to not take themselves too seriously.
5. Remember—passion comes from exposure.
Finally, don’t forget rule number one when it comes to passion: People become passionate about something when they are deeply exposed to it. Keep it engaging and fun, but expose your young people to issues and places that might just capture their imagination. Let them choose to join you. Don’t think “impose,” think “expose.”
Students learn on a need-to-know basis. They grow on a need-to-grow basis. We must create a need to know and grow. What else would you add to this list, to combine incentive and ambition in kids?
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