In a recent discussion, I overheard the question: “why do some succeed while others do not?” One very significant factor is ambition. Success is having positive outcomes on accomplishing a goal. That desire to succeed is a trait seen in most ambitious people. But can we teach ambition? The answer is yes; by stimulating that innate drive in all of us, we foster and encourage ambition. Identifying and promoting students’ self-interest and the benefits of ambition leads to greater engagement among graduates who will seek more from education to achieve more in life.
What is ambition?
Ambition is a strong desire to do or achieve something; it is a desire and determination to achieve success.) Every child is born with natural curiosity and develops their brain and abilities through it. A child watches and tries to copy as they learn behaviour from everyone and everything around them. Success comes from seizing the opportunities that ambition presents.
But ambition is both positive and negative. With positive ambition, the person and society benefit. With negative ambition, the person is selfish and greedy, and society suffers.
Why is it a concern?
There are many opportunities for students to succeed, but few are taken, and fewer still reach their full potential.
Successful start-ups and ventures succeed because the founders are driven to succeed. This ambition is stimulated and nourished by families and schools (mostly outside Thailand).
Some international schools in Thailand place great emphasis on ambition. This disparity in scholastic approaches partially explains why certain families appear successful; Expectations and ambition begin at home. Therefore, schools must foster and develop ambition that is already there and instil it when it is not.
Many Thai students seem to take the first option presented or do what they are instructed to, and rote learning continues. Or they wait for someone else to take charge and bullies take advantage at the start of the academic year. Yet when things go wrong, they blame someone else. The teacher is too hard, cannot teach and so on, even though the student did not read the class material, prepare beforehand or put in the work required. When in the workplace, they accept no responsibility because they are just following what their supervisor or boss told them. There is little drive to do more.
Many countries encourage ambition hence their academic and workplace success. Americans boast, “if you have a dream, you can succeed here with hard work.” Ambition in the workplace has been changing as the pandemic is redefining success. However, ambition is still regarded as an essential trait in the workplace.
What can be done?
We must ask why ambition needs to be taught. Family life, and life in general, have changed. Thus education needs to be more holistic as gaps in development previously filled outside school may no longer be getting the attention they need.
Merely urging learners to ask, “if someone else can do it, why can’t I?” contributes to the learning process. Schools need to encourage students to ask questions about things around them. Research show that stimulating early ambitions leads to career success. Questioning builds awareness, stimulates curiosity, and hopefully inspires learners to do more, explore, and push their limits.
Ambitions require interaction. Schools must provide examples for students to follow. Some of these interactions are already happening with exchange and international students. But more needs to be done. For instance, in 2018, while teaching at another university in Bangkok, I conducted a focus group interview with international students. They mentioned that most Thai students were not interested in interacting as that meant using English. English was the second language for many of these visiting students, but Thai students preferred engaging only when the international students wanted to practice Thai. To succeed and be ambitious, students must seek out interaction with various people, disciplines and languages to seek out opportunities to improve.
The continuous identification and nurturing of individual motivation (and self-interest) helps drive students to think more of what can be achieved.
Can you teach ambition?
But how do you teach ambition? Critical thinking, curiosity, engagement, project-based, concept-based, or simply active learning methods are all part of the toolbox. There is no one way to teach ambition. We start by building awareness of the environment through reading, observing, exploring and constructive discussions. Then we encourage questioning. Asking the questions of – why is that, what else can be done, how others do it, is this all and so on. We can also show how things can change using small class projects outside the classroom, such as community projects. Eventually sharing these results in interschool and national competitions or public relations events. Creating an environment where students become aware of all options, fully participate, and act on their curiosity to become more ambitious. Schools must be open laboratories for exploration so that students are encouraged to succeed in a way best suited to them.
Example of how ambition can work
As a result of COVID-19, some tertiary students have been pushed to be more inquisitive. Scholarships are increasingly sought after, even though an accessible national database is lacking. Students are not fully aware of the different scholarships on offer at various universities. Opportunity exists for those ambitious students to create a database and use the database as a launching pad to entrepreneurship. Both parents and students will benefit. Opportunities abound for the ambitious.
Call to action
Ambition is a natural ability that family, school and culture all help to nurture. Working hard is good but combining that hard work with ambition can lead to even better results. Therefore, schools must play a more significant role in identifying, nurturing and developing student ambition by creating an environment and programs that support driven individuals and encourage others.
If Thai students are more positively ambitious, the society will benefit from growth in innovation, achievement and opportunity.
In the words of American senator Bill Bradley, “Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”
*Dr. Mariano Carrera, Business Lecturer, Dhonburi Rajabhat University, Bangkok, Thailand