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

Freedom above utility

S. Polgar is mentioned in Tough's book. Her website is here:

Susan Polgar is mentioned in Tough’s book. Her website is here:

One of the gifts I received this year is the book How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. It’s a quick read that dovetails many of my interests: education, psychology, character, motivation, philosophy, & childraising, among others. There are several aspects of the book I could write about here; but today my frame of mind has wrapped around one particular passage having to do–well, in the book, with chess–but metaphorically and personally, with why I bother to write poetry.

In the chapter titled “How to Think,” Tough offers the stories of several chess-for-children programs and connects these endeavors with education, as well as with traits of persistence, grit, and critical thinking skills. He cites examples of chess masters the world over, of child prodigies, and of chess teaching methods; then, he connects these strands with the notion of learning “character.” That’s one of the book’s arguments: that character is learned, made up of other habitual traits, that it is not the same as temperament. One skill that good chess players learn is how to fail, how to overcome confirmation bias in decision-making, and how to immerse themselves through the habit of study (persistence). This does not mean that chess players naturally extend these abilities to other areas of their lives, but they could do so since they do possess these abilities. Tough finds it fascinating that many chess players still manage to screw up other areas of their lives…they do not choose to extend, or apply, their chess traits to things like academics, career, or personal relationships.

So choice (“volition” as he terms it, though he defines volition as closer to willpower) interferes with our application of learned ‘good’ habits. Ah, the old ‘free will’ trap…


But I digress.

The part of this chapter that grabbed me is a quote from chess master Jonathan Rowson. He says: “the question of chess being an essentially futile activity has a nagging persistence for me…I occasionally think that the thousands of hours I’ve spent on chess, however much they have developed me personally, could have been better spent…[yet] chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit, which allows us to experience a wide range of uniquely human characteristics.”

Sounds familiar to me. People say the same sort of thing about writing poetry. Then Rowson says chess is “a celebration of existential freedom, in the sense that we are blessed with the opportunity to create ourselves through our actions. In choosing to play chess, we are celebrating freedom above utility.”

Oh, that says it so well. Freedom above utility–choosing to create myself through my actions, which allows me, as poet and as sentient being, to experience all of those messy and sorrowful and complex and delightful human characteristics.


I have spent my 10,000 hours writing and am “expert” at it, yet it has brought me not money nor favor nor fame. So why pursue the path? Because it is beautiful and freeing. Because it is my form of gift–I have a small talent that I have labored at, but I am not “gifted” as a writer…yet I can see my way to thinking of my poetry as part of the gift economy Lewis Hyde elaborates upon in his book The Gift (which I’ve mentioned in a previous post). Ambition is not the same as willpower, and I do not have single-minded willpower in the task of promoting my work or my persona as a poet–no “poetry diva” am I. But I do have persistence in this one area: the writing practice and all it entails; and I do have experience with it, and I possess deep and abiding curiosity about poetry and gratitude that it exists and that I can continue to try my hand at it.

Even if it seems futile or pointless or non-productive to some people.


As an aside, I note that David Orr’s recent book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry has been both enthusiastically and scathingly reviewed, so I must get to it soon. Perhaps Orr’s work will clarify my thinking on the non-remunerative, generally unacknowledged occupation that chose me long ago.

Or perhaps it does not need clarifying. Perhaps celebration is enough.