We try to inspire our kids. We try to motivate them. We try to incentivize them. We want them to care about winning–that’s why we push them into sports. We want them to go to a good college–that’s why we reward them for their grades. We want them to succeed in this world–that’s why we tell them stories of the greats (that’s the idea behind The Girl Who Would Be Free and The Boy Who Would Be King, for instance).
We want our kids to be ambitious.
But the question, as always, is ambitious for what? “Fire them with ambition to be useful,” John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife. His biographer David McCoullough would say that this is what Adams learned as a child himself. That it wasn’t ambition to be rich or famous that drove him, but a desire to be of service, to contribute, to leave the world better than he found it.
It can be so easy as a parent to default to easier metrics, to latch on to impressive but ultimately superficial goals. That you want your kids to get good jobs, that you want your kids to make a good living. But we have to remember that this is just a proxy for what actual success is as a parent, that this is secondary to the most important kind of ambition there is: We want kids who contribute, who want–more than they want money or power–to be positive difference makers.