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on Leading the Next Generation


Podcast #16: How to Stop Stealing a Kid’s Ambition

In the last podcast, we talked about “How to Stop Stealing a Kid’s Ambition“.  We went through three different types of incentives that we’re seeing in kids and how we can build ambition through that. Today we are talking about six practical ways that we can foster ambition in kids.


A recent story broke out in Paris, France about a young teenage girl who was stressed about an upcoming test. As a result of her anxiety over the test, her mother decided to dress up as a young 19-year old to go in and take her daughter’s test for her. Can you believe that? She was discovered and escorted out of the test location by police and her daughter is now banned from taking standardized tests for three years. Good intention, wrong approach.

Statistics are telling us that kids are showing less ambition and less drive than their parents at that age. There are exceptions to this of course, but the majority are lacking ambition and end up leaving college without knowing what path they want to pursue, often leaving them stuck post-college.

I believe we’ve cultivated entitlement through excessive trophies, awards, stars, and other rewards we’ve given because we want our kids to feel good about themselves as they grow up. By telling them they’re great, doesn’t actually build ambition or self-esteem. It builds good feelings, or maybe even narcissism.

I’m sure most everyone has seen at least one episode of the initial American Idol try-outs. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if they are doing a song or a comedy act. You listen to them, and wonder what kind of inaccurate feedback these kids are getting. Kids need to know what their gifts are.

Consider these two thoughts to give you wisdom as you lead students:

  1. I believe as a young person’s possibility of failure goes down, so does their value of success. One of the most valuable commodities we can cultivate is ambition (which is the result of incentive, deriving from internal motivation).
  2. I feel most valuable when I add value to others. Your reward should come from the value that you contribute. Whether that’s in sports, your community, or with chores at your family’s household, adding value gives you a sense of self-esteem.

How do we actually build ambition in students?

  1. Let our students fail. But when they do, interpret the failure with them.
  2. Tell them stories about your own failures. This is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our students, they want to know they’re not the only ones who fail.
  3. Help them identify what they really want to achieve. Ambition may start from curiosity.
  4. Establish rewards that only come as they work hard and make progress.
  5. Discuss your ambitions, and how you felt when you accomplished them. Kids lean in to stories and the power of narratives.
  6. Communicate your love and belief in them, regardless of what happens. They need to know they’re in an environment of unconditional love; whether that’s at home, school, or in sports.

A great example of this is the story of Zach Hunter. As a 14-year old, he developed a curiosity and passion for anti-slavery around the world. He found out there are more slaves today, than at any point in American history. Zach started raising money, through a movement he calls “LOOSECHANGE2LOOSENCHAINS“. He’s raised thousands of dollars to give to organizations that were helping to stop trafficking of children and adults in slavery. Zach ‘s passion was ignited not only because he was told he was great, but because he was doing great things.

I would love to hear your stories. How have you built incentive and ambition in kids today?




  1. susan barber on October 15, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Interestingly enough, my blog post yesterday covers the same topic with a slightly different spin. I believe that adults set the bar too low for students thus boring them and not issuing a worthy enough of a challenge for work. The bottom line is that adults can have an impact on student motivation through a variety of means if we just take them time.

    • Tim Elmore on October 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Very good point. There are several factors that underline the low expectations from adults, that need to be overcome. I enjoyed reading your article, Susan! Thanks!

  2. karen on October 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Sometimes failure can bring success and can also bring more failure. When students fail teachers need examine why he/she failed and then encourage the student toward success. Often times teachers don’t acknowledge when a student is struggling with their self esteem after failing because they do not take the time to meet one on one with their students.

    • Tim Elmore on October 23, 2013 at 7:42 am

      So true Karen. It takes some extra time and effort, but the long-term benefits of investing in our students makes it worth it!

  3. Richard Jr. Copeland on October 21, 2013 at 9:10 am

    We are told to learn from our mistakes, but if we aren’t allowed to make mistakes how are we supposed to learn?

    • Tim Elmore on October 23, 2013 at 8:24 am

      Richard, I appreciate your comment. I do not think it’s possible to avoid making mistakes. Mistakes are accidental, not intentional. I believe the key point here is to use mistakes as a learning opportunity to grow and develop into authentic leaders.

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Podcast #16: How to Stop Stealing a Kid's Ambition