As I write this, I’m sitting in a classroom. The carpet is forest green. Bright bulletin boards about “the great conversation” and Canada’s 150th birthday festoon the walls. The air conditioning is humming full-tilt.

It’s mid-June and my Grade 10 English students are frantically tapping away at their Chromebooks addressing the question, “Is ambition good or bad? Why?”

It’s not the most spectacular final exam essay topic, but it’s full-on relevant to their 15 and 16 year old lives.

When you’re smack in the middle of adolescence there are really only two ways to go — lingering in childhood or forging on to adulthood. Most forge.

I would say the pendulum between the two swings wide for this particular group: wanting freedom, wanting security; expressing self, feeling cautious; living loudly, doubting next steps.

Ambition can loom, scare, tempt, blind, fortify, and inspire young people, sometimes all at once. It’s a breath-taking climb, to be sure.

This class is a thoughtful group. I am consistently delighted and prodded by their intelligent questions and comments.

Mrs. Burton, can’t ambition be both good and bad? It can get you assassinated, it can make you an assassin, and it can save your country from dictatorship. When it doesn’t work out, you can also feel like killing yourself. (We had just viewed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar)

Mrs. Burton, what if ambition starts out great and you really have pure motives, but in the middle, you’re, like, completely overtaken by greed and fear of being no one, and you lose your way? (Speaking of Richard Rich in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons)

Mrs. Burton, what if ambition is just a neutral character trait, and the way it turns out is entirely determined by the individual who’s got it?

Mrs. Burton, are dreams the same as ambition?

We are ALWAYS telling these kids to dream big. I wonder if we’re as bold in how we represent the challenges of ambition…

I sit here watching them think, stare into space, copy and paste, reconsider what they’ve written, search for synonyms, squirm, and tap on.

Will what we’ve experienced together over the course of the semester help them navigate ambition in any way?

I’m genuinely worried.

When one is a hungry actor in Toronto or New York or L.A., will ambition help them remember to budget money for food?

When Ally or Tim or Marta is looking for love, will kind and trustworthy mean as much as attractive or wealthy or urbane?

Who will they rely on, trust, confide in, lie to, seek to please, use, learn from, step on, help, and/or believe as they traverse rough terrain to climb the ladder to their version of success?

What will success ask of them? What will they give it?

These are good questions for big people, too.

I remember when my children were very young and definitely needed a mom or dad nearby and attentive. That had been our conscious choice — one or the other of us at home full-time, especially while our littles were little.

I secured an amazing job I loved that meant contact online with outstanding people in pretty much all the world’s time zones. It was intended to be very part-time — 10 hours/week. I could work from my kitchen, right in the middle of mac-and-cheese making, diaper-changing, and toy wrangling.

I came to realize that with the increasing attractiveness of the work and our company’s growing scope of influence, I was literally sitting at a computer, my backed turned away from the most precious people in my life, on and off all day long and often into the wee hours of the morning.

It bothered me, but the opportunity to take on a director position, build an entire service line, and travel to some of the exotic locations where my colleagues lived loomed larger than the worry.

As it happened, the grander scheme didn’t work out and I left the company not too long after. Although it felt like I’d lost a limb for a while, the pain eased and I settled back into my usual, chosen role as at-home mom.

What didn’t change was my children’s trust that they were my priority. The two who needed me most then stopped needing me somewhere around then. Well, they still needed their hierarchy of needs met, but they each found other ways to find companionship and love. Those particular relationships have never been as warm and secure as they once were.

Lesson-to-self? My ambition, as steadfast and righteous as it was, had costs.

All ambition does and we need to beware. It’s the nature of human existence that we prioritize consciously or unconsciously, and something gets less — less time, less focus, less love, less connection, less care.

This is ambition’s sterner stuff, to snag a phrase from Marc Antony. It’s the downside, the price we pay for the goods we want (and may not want), the glitch, the pitfall, or the catch we didn’t see coming.

It happens across industries, disciplines and, yes, ambitions.

Forbes contributor, Russ Alan Prince, for example, provides a list of the adverse consequences of achieving celebrity status. It includes loss of privacy, being subjected to hyper-criticism, fear and anxiety about success ending at any time, slander by the media, being taken advantage of by friends and family or employees, and so on — not what rising stars dream of, I’m sure.

Entrepreneurship, too, is rife with stories of heavy collateral losses on the way to becoming established. Just ask any entrepreneur…or entrepreneur’s (former?) marriage partner. In an Entrepreneur online article, Stephen Key winds up his cons list (lean times, becoming world-weary, always being on call, stress, wondering what you’ve missed out on, and more work hours than anyone you know) with

Your personal relationships will suffer. For the aforementioned reasons, you have less of yourself to give.

Although it pains my idealist’s heart, the following quote accurately lays out hard possibilities:

The Cost Of Ambition

Late nights, early mornings.

Lots of associates, very few friends.

You will be misunderstood. Constantly.

You will be single unless you’re lucky enough to find someone who understands your lifestyle.

People will want you to do well but never better than them. And for that reason you will do a lot of things alone.

Here’s what some of my favourite mid-teens have to say:

Ambition can and has destroyed people everywhere. Have you ever known anyone that is self-absorbed or selfish? In my opinion, that is what ambition can do to you.

I think that ambition is often mixed up with aspiration, the difference being that one takes men lower in the end, and the other takes them higher.

Aspiration is like ambition in the sense that it is a cause and a motivator to become or accomplish your goals. The difference is that with aspiration you aspire to improve yourself, rather than empower yourself.

With ambition, you can change the world — you can change it for better or for worse; it depends on your motives.

I take both sides, and declare that ambition can be both good and bad because it can be used in its whole, pure, and good form. It can also be used in its broken, bent and bad form.

Though it is probably quite universally acknowledged that ambition is often dangerous, it’s my belief that as long as standards and beliefs are enforced by the individual on themselves, the risk is minimal.

There’s not much more to say than that.

The students are moving on to the quick answer portion of the final — grammar, logical fallacies, lenses for looking at literature, literary devices.

The consciousness I feel in this moment as one of generations of adults who have built and destroyed (and rebuild and destroy) the world these young people are inheriting is sharp, uncomfortable, keen, and hopeful.

The last word goes to Marcus Aurelius:

“A (person’s) worth is no greater than his (or her) ambitions.” — Marcus Aurelius

I think it’s fair to say we are what we want…or what we are willing to give and give up to get what we want.

Simply, be aware.

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