Still more on ambition

My experience with college students and their wildly varying achievements, coupled with my long-time interests in temperament and neurology, led me to rejoice in the extensive sources listed in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. Angela Lee Duckworth’s studies on grit, persistence, interest, diligence, and ambition are particularly relevant to my job–she’s at University of Pennsylvania, and the site for her research is here.

Ambition implies a goal; as used in the studies Tough cites, that goal is the desire or drive to be the best. Persistence is what gets us to the goal–sometimes–or at least keeps us plodding in the general direction. Diligence is what we feel we owe to the work or to whomever assigned the work; i.e., careful attention to the job and the completion of each task. Interest means we can focus without becoming distracted by other ideas, novelties, events, or tasks. And grit is composed of all of these traits but includes a crucial element: the ability to carry on after failure or loss–the determination to surmount obstacles, evade them, or compromise; or even to fail to do so, then dust off and carry on anyway.

I administered the long version of Duckworth’s questionnaire to myself and the sense I get is that the results seem fairly accurate. I’ve asked family members and colleagues to take the survey; the results jive with our intuitive “measures” of these traits among ourselves. It came as no surprise to me that I scored below the median in ambition; but when I mentioned that outcome to a colleague, she expressed surprise. She said I am “ambitious” about my poetry, noting the time I devote to reflection, revision, trying to get the poem “right.” But is that ambition or something else?

So the spectre of ambition in poetry appears again (see my previous posts here & here). Having just breezed through David Orr’s delightful if somewhat flawed book Beautiful and Pointless–a Guide to Modern Poetry, ambition in relation to poetry screams out “Do not ignore!” And the coincidence of having the “grit” research to mull over and connect with the idea of ambition and the arts. Language being flexible within context as it is, I will stay with the Duckworth definition of ambition (and my low-ish score) and state I am not an ambitious person. Nor am I an ambitious poet, but I am ambitious about my poems. I want the poems I write to be as beautifully stated as they can be; I want them to communicate as well as possible on as many levels as I can achieve; and I want them to be relevant or revelatory to as many potential readers as possible. I want the poems to exert upon their readers the desire, even the need, to pause and reflect upon necessary things. Those are ambitious aims, and I cannot claim I ever achieve them in my work. But I try.

The poets whose work is great do achieve these things–and more–in their ambitious poems.

An ambitious poet is something else again. Walt Whitman claimed himself a “loafer,” and he may not have been ambitious as a person–but he was certainly an ambitious poet. Orr positions Robert Lowell among the ambitious poets; I’d say Edna St. Vincent Millay qualifies. These writers, who composed ambitious poems, were also ambitious poets. My personality does not support this from of ambition; hence my lower score on the ambition scale reflects my personal trait, not my attitude toward my work. Duckworth’s scale isn’t meant to measure the latter.

It’s been an intriguing exercise to explore interpretations and to revisit poetry and ambition. Now,  I wonder where Emily Dickinson, or Federico Lorca or Muriel Rukeyser would score in terms of ambition. Meanwhile, I am ready to go back to my own work. Plodding away. (Yes, I score above the median in persistence…)

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

6 comments on “Still more on ambition

  1. KM Huber says:

    What a cogent and thoroughly enjoyable discussion on ambition and art. As for me, I am ambitious about the words I write, re-write, re-vise, which feels quite comfortable and always has.



    • It has been interesting for me just to analyze the many way we define words such as “ambition” and the many ways we can apply the term. Before psychologists began to examine human motivation, that sort of thinking and defining fell to the philosophers. Well, and the poets, perhaps. 🙂


  2. I’d be interested in how Rilke would score…a great post parsing out different ways of thinking about ambition. Sometimes I feel things get oversimplified when analyzed by psychologists or sociologists (I’m thinking here of my own former studies and the distinction sociologists make between guilt and shame–one, as someone who’s studied theology and philosophy (who is not a sociologist) seems terribly devoid of nuanced and lacking in depth and understanding of the complexity of human emotion. And yet that is precisely it’s strength–it helped to bring out differences and definitions that provided a great place from which to start a dialogue and consideration. Like looking at an understanding of ambition here.


    • I imagine Rilke as starting out very ambitious as a poet initially; but as he aged and fell into various malaises of the heart and mind, perhaps that goal receded. Certainly he was ambitious in the poems–he worked, he strove, in the direction of the art itself.

      Oh yes, guilt and shame are other terms that get tossed around often and the definitions of which change subtly (or not so subtly) depending upon era and discipline. Thanks for pointing that out.


  3. Years ago, I listened, enthralled, as the professor and a visiting student argued Emily Dickinson.
    The visitor cited poems from memory to support this theory that Dickinson lacked ambition (lacked a goal) and was reclusive, dreaming of everything except ambition. The professor listened, looked at his watch, said that since we were past time, he add a final thought: Emily Dickinson’s ambition was proved by the very fact that she did not crave publicity, but met her goals by writing in seclusion.


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