Ambition; how to manage success and failure throughout our lives

Gilbert Brim

By the time my father died several summers ago, he was 103 years old. He grew up on a farm in Ohio and was the only one of seven children to leave farming, finding his way through complicated paths to Harvard and Columbia, getting his Ph.D. in rural education and teaching at Ohio State University until he was 60. Then he and my mother bought an old abandoned farm in northwest Connecticut, remodeled the house, and moved there to live.

For many years he roamed the hillsides, thinning trees and taking pride in looking up at his dean and tidy mountain. As he grew older, his legs and back would tire earlier in the day, and sometimes he would hire a young man to help him keep up the place.

Over the years, almost unnoticeably, the upper part of the mountain was no longer within his range; and gradually his level of aspiration lowered, coming down the hillside, so to speak, into the trees and land around the house. One year he did not plant the gardens, and his attention turned to the little border flowers around the house and to four large outdoor windowboxes.

The windowboxes served well for years, but then his failing sight and muscular strength meant that he could not tend even these without great effort. In the end, the tree work, farm work, and gardening all were given up. But he focused on a new activity: listening to “talking books.” This man was as happy and fulfilled at 101 as he was at 60. In dealing with the gaps between his desires and achievements, he had an unyielding drive for growth and mastery, a rational mind, and a capacity for change. But these traits were not unique to my father; they are part of every human being.

Our Drive for Growth and Mastery

I believe we are not content with what we already know and can do; we want action and growth–opportunities to explore our competence and mastery. Young or old, we want to be challenged. We want to shape, form, and build our own lives. One of the most vivid events for parents is to hear their little child, scarcely a year and a half old, shout out the demand, “Me do it! Me do it myself!”

Judith Rodin and other psychologists who study aging find that growth and mastery are central to older people’s sense of well-being. Studies of job satisfaction give convincing evidence that challenge an autonomy make work more satisfying. Even if our work situation is confining, repetitive, and boring, we create a way to grow.

The drive for growth and mastery is, though powerful, curiously bounded. We choose challenges that are difficult enough to perplex and test our powers, yet not so tough that we are likely to face severe or frequent failure. Most of the time we try to arrange things so that we are neither pushed to the limit nor coasting, neither overloaded nor underloaded. We seek a level of effort that the psychologist Nicholas Hobbs called the level of just manageable difficulty.”

Part of the art of choosing difficulties is to select those that are indeed just manageable. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring; if they are too hard, life is defeating.

In the actual management of our achievement gaps, we change the elements of our actions. If we fail, we cut back by decreasing the degree of difficulty in a new task. This may mean searching for new behavior that works better, extending our timetable for achieving a particular goal, or reducing the amount or quality of the result we expect from the resolution of the task. If none of these strategies works, we will, in the end, give up this goal.

Winning sets a different process in motion. When we win, the response is to increase the degree of difficulty. We set a shorter timetable for the next endeavor, raising expectations of how much we can achieve, even broadening out and adding new goals. We will try to get there earlier or faster, and to get more or better results. In other words, winning raises our hopes; losing lowers them.

There are broad implications here for what happens to people when they are successful at work. Once you get good at a particular job, it no longer takes most of your ability to do it well. So you set your sights higher and push on to more demanding work. Ongoing studies of American Telephone & Telegraph executives show that those who were successful in reaching the middle-management level after eight years gradually became more work-oriented. The less successful men, by contrast, focused their energies more on their families and their religious, recreational, and social activities.

Finding the Right Level

Were is the right level of difficulty? We can define it for ourselves, subjectively, and tell others when we are there or when life is too easy or too hard. But objectively, who can say? There are three dues to what may be going on. One way to describe a level of difficulty is in terms of the probability that our action will succeed or fail. Research on artificial tasks shows that we are most strongly motivated to try to achieve success when we know the risk of failure to be about fifty-fifty. The joy of winning is enhanced by the threat of failure. Activities that involve no risk cannot provide the joy of achievement.

A long tradition of research in psychology confirms common-sense beliefs about the relationship between risk and reward. If we want something very much, we are willing to take more of a chance–a long shot–to get it. Thus, the chances of losing will usually be greater in situations where we place a very high value on our goal. It follows that a given person will have different risk levels for various situations, depending on how much one values success in them. One person will be more risk-oriented in love affairs but less so in purely monetary matters. Another person will be just the opposite.

Here is another approach to identifying the level of just manageable difficulty. The economist H. F. Clark has reported that no matter what level of income Americans reach, we want, on the average, about 25 percent more. When we have that, we want another 25 percent. People in all social classes, regardless of their income, set goals for about 25 percent more than they have. Research in economics shows that when we get tax cuts, we put more into savings at first but gradually increase our spending. We react the same way to wage increases: instead of putting money away in savings, we spend it. Riches enlarge rather than satisfy appetites.

The third and best way to get at the meaning of levels of just manageable difficulty is to consider the relationship between the effort we put into the performance of a task and our actual capacity to do it-our “performance/capacity ratio.” In some situations, one may have an easy time, drawing little on one’s capacity. At other times, one draws on one’s reserves, pushing oneself to the limit. If one is expending a lot of effort in one sector of life over a long period–in a situation demanding a high performance/capacity ratio–one likely to ease up in some other area of life during the same span.

Beliefs About Our Capacities

We set our levels of effort to accord with our beliefs about our capacities–how intelligent, strong, healthy, vigorous, wealthy, creative, physically attractive, sexually virile, and so on, we think we are. For example, one friend who, though slight in stature and subject to attacks of flu, has intense desires of many kinds, describes himself as a Rolls-Royce engine in a beat-up chassis. He is aware that his physical strength will not support the burden of his strong ambitions.

The psychologist Deborah Phillips has made studies of third-, fifth-, and ninth-grade students, concentrating on those who underestimate their actual abilities. Approximately 20 percent had beliefs about themselves that were significant underestimates (what she calls the “illusion of incompetence”).

Why should we have these mistaken beliefs about ourselves? First, although we usually want to know as much as we can about our abilities, in fact there are occasions when the information hurts. Rather than deal with the knowledge and change our plans for achievement accordingly, we sometimes try to screen it out and hide from it as long as possible. As a result, some of our beliefs about our capacities are unconscious and have never been examined critically.

Second, although we sometimes underrate our capacities, most often we overestimate. Ninety-five percent of American men, for example, estimate that they are in the top 50 percent in social skills. National surveys report that we feel about nine years younger than we really are, and that we believe we look about five years younger than we are.

Some psychologists describe this as denial or repression, assuming that we do know our capacities but that we inflate our estimates to gain self-respect. Another explanation is that optimism is a human characteristic, a built-in inflation factor that says, “I am better than they think,” and is linked with the drive for growth and mastery.

Because even the scientific measures of various capacities and personality characteristics are themselves imperfect; in the end we must still face the question of how much faith we should have in ourselves. We can stand apart from ourselves and analyze our beliefs about our capacities. We can think about why we think the way we do–the way we get confused. We can have knowledge about our knowledge–about how little we know. We have emotions about our emotions, as when we are ashamed of being shy, or get angry because of having gotten angry. We have motives about our motives, as when we want to overcome the desire for food, drink, or another person.

In the same way, we can think about our beliefs about capacities. We might respond by saying yes to the personality test item “I seldom have any doubts about my abilities; I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses,” and even say, “There isn’t much a psychiatrist could tell me about myself that I don’t already know.” But other people will agree with “I often wonder what kind of person I really am.”

Is it foolish to believe we can achieve a particular goal without some firm basis for the belief? When should one throw in the towel? What is courage in this sense? When we see people who persist in the face of contrary evidence and succeed, we think of them as heroes overcoming impossible obstacles. But when one of them fails, we think of that person as headstrong, foolhardy, and bent on self-destruction.

The lack of precision in standard tests of capacities and the likelihood, if not almost certainty, that our abilities are not correctly assessed by our contemporaries, means that most of us must and do make up our own minds. In setting our levels of difficulty, we cannot be sure of how much or how little we can do. We can use what facts we have; and beyond this, life is a gamble–an adventure in winning and losing.

Competition and Selfishness

There are two basic ways of classifying human purposes–competitive versus cooperative, and selfish versus unselfish. Some people are made uneasy by thinking about winning and losing, and about ambition, almost as if they were taboo words from the world of selfish competition.

Yet winning does not require that we be against someone else; we can reach our goals through competition or cooperation. Winning is not just the result of selfish individualism. Ours is not a world in which the price of one person’s happiness is someone else’s unhappiness. Many have a vision of a world in which individuals achieve happiness by cooperating with others to increase the happiness of all, rather than by winning at others’ expense and lessening their happiness.

Even though ambition in the service of altruism may seem contradictory, Albert Schweitzer certainly had a powerful ambition to do good when in the 1930s he left behind his career as musician and theologian and established the little hospital in the jungle in Lambarene, Africa. And similarly for Mother Teresa who today assists the sick and poor in Calcutta. Are we supposed to think that these persons were less driven toward their goals than are “selfish individualists”? Whether in competitive or cooperative form, selfish or selfless, the general desire to achieve can be expressed in many ways throughout life.

Women and Men

Social custom may channel the interests of men and women into different sectors of life, where they win and lose in different kinds of venture. But everything in the process of dealing with achievement gaps is similar: the dreams, the motivation, the management of winning and losing, the creation of new goals.

Some women say, “I don’t see the world in terms of success or failure, or of winning and losing”; but rather, “We are not in the picture–it doesn’t fit us.” I believe this is simply a matter of framing things differently, a matter of language and what we choose to call achievement.

In the traditional male and female roles, a man piling up and defending his money is no more intense than a mother raising and defending her children. Women’s aspirations are just as high, and the wish to achieve is just as powerful in creating close and supportive interpersonal relationships, as men’s are in creating occupational careers.

There is no reason to believe that the man’s ambition is more powerful than the woman’s. Where losing and winning are concerned, in situations defined as equally competitive for both boys and girls, there are no differences in achievement striving.

Hundreds of experiments show no gender differences in levels of aspiration. It is only in stereotyped, role-defined activities that differences appear: boys’ attainment standards are higher in athletic and mechanical skills, while girls’ standards are higher in artistic, verbal, and social skills.

When women get into what have traditionally been considered strictly male roles, they are as competitive and concerned about winning and losing as men are in these activities. Research shows that women, when in the role of executive, are more like executive men than they are different, in terms of goals, motives, personalities, and behavior. The Center for Creative Leadership summarizes this research and points out:

Over the years, many people have argued that the abilities and attitudes of male managers are very different from those of female managers. Historically, the perceived differences have been used to keep women out of the ranks of management, but now it has become fashionable to say that the differences are beneficial, that women will complement men in the management ranks and bring a healthy balance to business.

As it turns out, the data show that these alleged gender differences are not truly present in the workplace. Research has revealed that executive women are not more impulsive, are not better able to reduce interpersonal friction, are not more understanding or humanitarian, not less dominant, not less optimistic about success, and not less able to define and attain goals than men.

Research on men describes how in midlife they become more interested in intimacy and nurturance. This change may occur because they are starting to top out in their careers and thus to move their interests and energies into different sectors of life where they can find challenges–in many instances, their families and their interpersonal relationships.

Changing Levels of Aspiration: Deciding How Much Is Enough

In our mobile society, many of us have had the experience of setting a price for selling our house or condominium. Drawing on the knowledge of a real estate agency, on information from friends, acquaintances, and newspapers, we set an ideal asking price, a minimum bottom price, and a price we expect to get. We learn from observing the performance of other people or groups–both those we see as our superiors and those we see as our inferiors. And we observe the wins and losses of those we think are most like us. From these observations we set our levels of aspiration.

We can think of these as the ideal, the minimum, and the realistic levels of expected achievement. The line between ideal aspirations, on the one side, and grand illusions, on the other, may be thin but it is there. It is the line between aspirations that have some chance of realization and a reality-escaping fantasy.

The ideal and the minimum are the “best case” and “worst case” scenarios. The realistic level usually is the level of just manageable difficulty. To achieve more requires a performance/capacity ratio that is too demanding; below this level, we are underloaded.

There are obvious individual differences in the willingness to take risk, but studies have not been able to find any personality traits consistently related to such differences in risk-taking behavior. Some people set their aspirations so high that they often fail. Others set lower levels and more often exceed their aspirations. In raising aspirations after winning, one person may advance

slowly, inch by inch or five percent at a time, while another person attempts 50-percent increases in achievement.

Social custom influences us to set our aspirations higher. In our daily lives, the mass media intrude to influence our standards. The rising aspirations for good health have exceeded what is realistic. As a result, since about 1970, health professionals in both England and the United States are encountering more self-reported ailments than before, when the definition of “feeling well” was set at a lower level. Similarly, “how to” books on sexual fulfillment may have raised performance expectations and thus increased a sense of inadequacy.

Yet we also understand the “happy losser.” Placing second in a contest may not be considered a loss if our performance exceeds our expectations. If we know ahead of time that winning is not possible, then our aspiration may become simply to make our best effort and make it close. Subjectively, this is winning.

I hear “second place only pays off at the racetrack,” but this is not always true. Whether it pays off depends on what we are after. If we are shooting for first place and miss it, then there is no payoff. If we are shooting for third place and win second, then our victory is even greater than we hoped.

The main body of research on shrinking aspirations is about work careers. For most timed and ordered careers, positions can be ranked according to money, power, and prestige. The nearer you get to the top, the harder it is to move up the pyramid. In general, at each step up the corporate ladder, there are 30 percent fewer jobs than on the rung below. Young lawyers joining a firm may work sixty-hour weeks for six or seven years and then only one fourth of them become partners. Out of the one thousand who work in an advertising firm, at least one hundred, if not more, may mistakenly believe they will end up with the top job.

Some aspirations are of little importance to us, and we can reduce them with ease. Others mean more to us, and we may never get over our failure to fulfill them. Psychiatrists may say that giving up part of our lives should cause mourning over the loss.

This may indeed happen during the transition, and the mourning may last longer than that in some cases. But the more likely emotion is joy at finally ridding ourselves of hopes that have turned heavy with disappointment. In the end it is relief, not grief, we feel as we relax into a state of lowered ambition.

Fire at Evening

A popular view of ambition through life is that there are just so many jumps in the rabbit, and that these get used up along the path to old age. But the myth of no ambition in old age will not hold up. A truer picture is that the rabbit keeps jumping, but the jumps are not as high nor as far as in the early years. The drive for growth and mastery is still there, but not as obviously as before.

It is also a mistake to assume that the diminished endeavors of one’s later years are not as meaningful as the grand plans of one’s youth. The level of performance may decline on an absolute scale, but it remains pegged at the level of just manageable difficulty. The familiar channels for growth and mastery are now dosed to them, and they must find new challenges.

From the baby in the crib to the 100-year-old man feeling the texture of the earth in his window boxes, we look for challenges that are right for us, for what we can just manage, and in this way form and shape our lives and conduct our many missions.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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