Are We Sapping Our Kids' Ambition? by Marybeth Hicks

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hicks_marybeth“What are you doing? I love that song,” I say to my daughter as she reaches over to change the radio station in my van. “That’s Darius Rucker. He was born to sing country music.”

Best known for his lead vocals in the pop group Hootie and the Blowfish, Mr. Rucker’s first country solo album debuted at No. 1 on the country charts. Obviously, I’m not the only one who thinks he’s meant to sing country.

“I just think this song promotes mediocrity,” Betsy says. “It bugs me.”

Be that as it may, she knows every word of Mr. Rucker’s “Alright.” When I insist on listening to it, she sings along. We consider the message as we harmonize.

“I don’t need no five-star reservations
I got spaghetti and a cheap bottle of wine
I don’t need no concert in the city
I got a stereo and the ‘Best of Patsy Cline’ ”

Double negatives aside, old Darius croons about living large in small ways.

“How is that promoting mediocrity? He’s just celebrating simplicity and being happy with what you’ve got.”

Betsy presses her point. “Country music specifically, and our culture generally, seem to promote the idea of mediocrity as the new standard for personal happiness. I’ve been reading articles about it. It’s all thanks to the bad economy.”

According to my rising college freshman, the overriding media message is: Get used to the idea that you’re not likely to improve your circumstances.

Less is more. Be content.

So what’s wrong with that? I’ve often told my children “comparison is the killer of contentment” — meaning, it’s easy to become unhappy with your lot in life if you constantly compare yourself to others who have more. Let’s all count our blessings and live gratefully.

Betsy is all for gratitude, but she thinks there’s a deeper problem that’s actually eroding ambition among young Americans like her. In her mind, it’s a problem that’s best illustrated in country lyrics.

“Just listen to all the songs about how great it is to be dirt poor, drive a rusty car and live in a shack with the one you love. Why is that more noble than being financially secure, driving a nice car and living in a new house with the one you love?”

OK, she’s being facetious, probably just to entertain me, but she has a point.

Young people striking out for the first time ought to feel that anything is possible. They ought to be convinced that opportunities await them, if only they work hard and are willing to invest their time, talent and treasure to achieve their goals.

Culturally and politically, we have for months now been sending a dangerous signal to the next generation, and it may sap their ambition on the grounds of fiscal reality. Let’s face it, what squelches ambition more than generational public debt?

Yet this year’s crop of college freshmen begins its journey toward adulthood to the drumbeat of gloom and doom. Near-daily headlines convince them they are unlikely to live as well as the parents who will foot the bill to send them on their way.

Sadly, as a culture we’re teaching young adults a tune called “Why Bother?”

Maybe reality will dictate that our children will of necessity learn to be content with a plate of pasta and a country song.

Then again, unless we encourage their personal ambition for something more – unless we keep alive the American spirit for personal achievement – they won’t ever have the chance to write their own lyrics. Instead, they’ll be singing ours.

Copyright 2009 Marybeth Hicks

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1 Comment

  1. Great article, Marybeth! As I was reading, it struck me that what’s problematic about the cultural definition of success is that significant financial component–something we now have to take responsibility for indulging. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to provide for your family, real success isn’t financial stability, a nice car, a new house. Unfortunately, many people– especially young people–don’t have an alternate definition. They really are struggling when they don’t immediately get those things. Or at least they’re making choices that make material goods their primary focus because it’s what makes them feel safe or valued.

    That ambition will spur new developments, new inventions, etc. But part of the American Dream has always been the dream, the struggle. We also have to teach our kids the value inherent in the struggle– the personal growth that comes from working hard to achieve goals you’ve set. The definition of success has to have balance, or we’ll continue to see disillusioned and anchorless kids.

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