Ethics of Ambition, 2010
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, women (Sunday October 31, 2010 at 8:41 am)

For the past seven years, I’ve  spoken in a class at the University of Colorado called the “Ethics of Ambition”, taught by Dr. Paul Strom. In the past I’ve written about my talks about ambition and ethics.

Below are various definitions of ambition.

Wikipedia’s came up first on Google:
Ambition is the desire for personal achievement. It provides the motivation and determination necessary to help give direction to life. Ambitious people seek to be the best at what they choose to do for attainment, power, or superiority.

and gives us:
an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.
Ethical questions arise when we must decide what we are willing to do to accomplish those goals.
Time magazine discusses the science of ambition in their story,  Ambition: Why Some People Are Most Likely to Succeed . Scientists at Washington University used brain imaging to investigate persistence, the ability to focus on a task until complete, which may be critical for ambition. They found that students scoring  highest in persistence had the greatest activity in the brain’s limbic region. “The correlation was .8 [or 80%],” says professor of psychiatry Robert Cloninger, one of the investigators. “That’s as good as you can get.”
The authors conclude that  “Ambition is an expensive impulse, one that requires an enormous investment of emotional capital,” which in principal concurs with my estimate that for climbing, extreme ambition demands limitless egotism and selfishness.
In careers and politics, the ambitious pay the price of striving with their health, their family life, and their social life.  Mountaineers and alpine climbers (on snow and ice) risk a higher price: many who fail ultimately pay with their life.
Alison Hargreaves died on K2. She was described as “an outspoken mother who unlike her male colleagues was often criticized for leaving her children at home while she risked her life on big mountains.”
One student asked me: “Why, after my climbing partner died, did I continue climbing?”
I replied that I love to climb, and that climbing provides the greatest source of joy in my life. Now that I’m older, I can no longer be the best, or climb hard new routes, but I can still challenge myself. I continue to train, to work at improving my climbing, in the hopes of climbing routes that I personally have not climbed yet. My ambition has become more personal  -  I strive to achieve goals within my limits. I may not achieve “power, honor, fame, or wealth” with my climbs, but I attain happiness.
I left the students with some questions to ponder.
Should women with young children take less risks and be more careful than men with small children, especially when deciding whether  to go on Himalayan expeditions?
How far, and how long, should parents push their children to compete in sports?
On K2, Diemberger and his partner abandoned several climbers, at a high camp, to die in the storm.  When do we decide to leave behind our sick or injured climbing partners to die, and save ourselves?

An article in Time magazine discuses a gene for persistence, or ambition, and scientists claim to have found a “daredevil” gene, that encourages people to take risks.  If risk-taking is genetic, should that change our attitude towards people who take risks?

19 comments for Ethics of Ambition, 2010 »

  1. I especially appreciated your point about the shaping of ambition to personal happiness. I find I’ve had to tone down my ambition is some areas to deepen my love of life in others.

    Comment by Gail Storey — November 1, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  2. Thanks for coming to our class! In my opinion, it is ethical for parents to start their kids in sports at an early age. This is also true of instruments; I play violin and often wish my parents had started me when I was younger. As you said, it is very hard to become excellent if you don’t start when you’re young. Thanks again!

    Comment by Duncan Chadly — November 1, 2010 @ 11:25 pm

  3. Truly thank you for coming to our class. To answer one of your questions, I think that leaving a person behind who is bound to die is the best option for yourself and it is nonsensical to die alongside a person when you can survive. My sincerest gratitude goes out to you for speaking with us.

    Comment by Brain Trauma — November 1, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

  4. Society generally takes the stance that anything that is genetic which could kill us is a disease that we need to fix. Yet, each genetic “disorder” is treated differently. Society is kind and sympathetic to those with Huntington’s, but is critical of those predisposed to depression or violent behaviors. I believe this new finding will not change most peoples attitudes towards risk takers because it seems to us as though they decide to engage in risky business. Whether or not it should change depends entirely on how much risk taking is actually influenced by genetics.

    Comment by Marina H. — November 2, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  5. Also, thank you very much for coming and speaking to the class. It was a really amazing experience!

    Comment by Marina H. — November 2, 2010 @ 10:17 am

  6. Thank you so much for coming to our class to speak with us! It was a truly interesting discussion. To answer your second question, I believe that it is ethical for parents to start their children early in a sport because, as mentioned during class, it is very difficult to get really great at something unless you are started early in life. But, I do not believe that parents should push their children in a sport if the child gets to the point where they hate being a part of that sport and have no internal drive to succeed in that area. Again thank you for coming!

    Comment by Tayler Deamon — November 2, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  7. Thank you so much for coming to speak to our class. I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts. One thing that stuck with me was when you discussed your reason for climbing. I agree that there is a difference between climbing for personal enjoyment and climbing as a career. Climbing as a career eliminates a certain sort of personal connection and fulfillment. No matter how much you love something, when you begin to rely on it to pay the bills it becomes work. There is a difference between doing something on your own will and time to doing something because you have to.
    There is this quote I love I would like to share. It is from the movie “7 Years in Tibet” which is based on the autobiographical novel by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer. In the movie, he is asked by HH the Dalai Lama why he climbs. He responds, “The absolute simplicity. That’s what I love. When you’re climbing your mind is clear and free from all confusions. You have focus. And suddenly the light becomes sharper, the sounds are richer and you’re filled with the deep, powerful presence of life.”

    Comment by Samantha Humann — November 2, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

  8. It was an honor to have you in the class, Mrs. Hechtel. Your views on what constitutes ambition and what individuals should strive for was eye-opening. As a woman of such amazing athletic prowess, I liked how you selflessly managed to keep the wishes of your family members in mind, especially when your son’s wishes to continue skiing were in a context very similar to your own with regards to climbing. I’d disagree on the idea that there’s an athletic necessity to teach children sports at a young age, however. Of course it may be required to teach future athletes from a young age to awaken excellence, but in no way do I think it’s necessary to awaken enjoyment. Not all athletics need to be competitive–sometimes it might even be better to stay out of a competitive circuit. I’ve found that especially with skiing, performing the activity on your own schedule with your own rules is extremely enjoyable and satisfying. That’s my only qualm. The rest of your presentation was fantastic. You strike me as an amazing athlete, a skilled orator, and an inspiring role model.

    Comment by Jason Kinnard — November 2, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  9. Thank you very much for coming to speak with our class. To answer one of your questions, I think that parents should push their children into sports (or a different kind of extracurricular activity). However, I believe that the parents should understand that their children may not enjoy the activity and give the children the option to not continue participating if they do not feel motivated to stick with it. Thanks again for taking the time to come to our class!

    Comment by Cassie Burger — November 2, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

  10. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. It was enlightening and eye-opening, and I was very grateful to have the chance to listen to your stories.

    In response to your second question, I do believe it is ethical for parents to push their children to do extracurriculars at a young age. While passion for the sport or activity itself might not last a lifetime, the lessons learned about dedication and hard work do.

    As far as responsibility for children vs. risk taking goes, clearly it’s a tough call. I don’t have an answer for that, but I do think the parents’ emotions need to be taken into account. The last thing a parent would want to do is harbor resentment for a child they unconsciously feel is holding them back.

    Comment by Alex Dutro-Maeda — November 2, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

  11. Great questions Sibylle. I think blind ambition can be selfish but if you can make decisions collaboratively with those on your team, be they family or co-workers or fellow climbers, then maybe ambition can be with the support of those around you, who are well aware of the dangers and potential consequences.

    Comment by Mandy — November 3, 2010 @ 8:51 am

  12. Thank you very much for coming to our class to speak. I enjoyed the presentation and have thought about your questions for a while. Here are my responses:

    1) I don’t believe that women with small children should be more cautious than men with small children just because they are women. It is difficult on any child to lose either parent. Both parents should be cautious, but there is not need to give up climbing because one has a child.

    2) Parents should put their kids into various activities at a young age so that they are at least exposed to various sports and have a chance to find something they love and can become good at. However, if it turns out that the child would rather be in band or something of the sort, a parent shouldn’t force them to continue with a sport that they don’t love doing. The essence of having both an option to competitively play a sport and freedom of choice is key.

    3) If there is absolutely no way that a partner will make it off the mountain and our staying longer will put our own lives in jeopardy, then it is time to go. It will be difficult to leave a man behind to die, but it is essential to save as many lives as possible.

    Comment by Katie Odens — November 3, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  13. I really enjoyed having you in class. Thank you!

    Parents, Children, and Athletics:

    I think parents should encourage their young children to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. When I was young, I played t-ball, city league basketball, rode horses competitively, and snowboarded in the winters. By participating in these activities, I feel I learned valuable life skills such as leadership, teamwork, responsibility, and how to deal with disappointment. I also learned that hard work is often rewarded.

    Staying active was another benefit of extracurricular activities. I had to learn to prioritize my time in order to keep up with all my hobbies. Being so active, I stayed thin and healthy. This healthy lifestyle has followed me into my college years. Some days I feel that I just NEED to get outside and release some stress, use my body.

    Encouraging kids to participate in sports becomes unethical when it threatens a child’s physical or mental health. Sure all children will get an occasional scrape but anything life threatening should be avoided. Children should enjoy what they are doing. You only get one childhood after all. Parents need to remain open to letting their children explore different hobbies until they find one that they enjoy. A child who is passionate about their hobby is much more likely to put in the hard work necessary to become successful.

    Comment by Rachel DeHaan — November 3, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  14. Thank you for honoring us with your presence! It was our pleasure to have you attend our class.

    To answer your question regarding parents pushing their children to compete in sports, I feel that a physical background and athletic training at a young age helps all stages of life. It allows for participation in team sports at a young age, which builds character and health. Not only does it help with social interactions, it given children the option of pursuing greater athletic dreams - opening doors in the duty of a parent and in that context children should definitely be pushed to participate in sports at a young age.

    Comment by Eugene Wan — November 3, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

  15. Evening Sibylle,

    I was very excited to talk with you during and after class last week and feel a tinge of regret that you left the magical Indian creek to visit us.

    I would be very interested in reading the Time article on inherited risk-taking tendencies. I’m sure my family would also be baffled by the article’s findings considering they have all chosen very secure and low-risk lifestyles and yet they are connected to me, the black sheep of the family, by blood! As an avid outdoors woman who loves rock/tree/ice climbing, snowboard racing, SCUBA diving, and trail running I have absolutely no place in my let’s-stay-in-a-hotel-instead family.

    Regardless, the article is interesting because by labeling risk as being a genetically inherited quality, choice is taken out of the equation. Now you have a group of people, previously admired for their bravery, being classified as fated to make risky decisions. By taking individual choice away you now take the value of the action away as well, what’s special about the person is not their will power and but their DNA. It also takes away personal responsibility for the others that do not identify as “risk-takers”, so that if someone makes cowardly decisions they can say, “I guess I just didn’t inherit the risk-taking gene”.
    So, if risk-taking is an inherited gene, I would say it is okay for us to change our attitudes (from awe or disapproval to sympathetic understanding) towards those who inherit the trait.

    Thanks again for your time.

    Comment by Sofia Cortopassi — November 4, 2010 @ 12:32 am

  16. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences with our class! I enjoyed hearing what you have learned about ethics and ambition through your mountaineering and alpine climbing experiences.

    In response to the question about mothers and fathers climbing mountains, I think that both should cut back their risk taking equally once they are parents. Saying that only mothers should be more careful promotes sexism in our society. That would only be moving our society backwards, especially considering the great strides you and your fellow female climbers made in squashing the mentality of ‘women can’t do what men can do.’ Once anyone is a parent, they should show their love and respect for their child by not putting their own life in danger quite as often. This self-restraint would be more meaningful to a child than following a perilous passion.

    Comment by Merritt — November 4, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

  17. Thanks for taking time to speak with our class! In response to the second question, I would say that I think parents should never push their child to do a sport (or anything for that matter). I think there is a difference between encouraging them to do something and pushing them to do something they might not want to do. Parents should always let their kids know that the option is there. When I was very young my parents asked me if I wanted to participate in any sports. Naturally, I wanted to try them all. Many uniforms and years later, I found tennis. I’ve never enjoyed a sport as much as I love playing tennis. I started playing at age ten and my only regret is that I wish I would have found it sooner. My parents never have to force me to do it; it’s something I want to get better at on my own. Intrinsic motivation is everything. If the child doesn’t want to play a certain sport or do a certain activity, they shouldn’t have to. Parents should also communicate that it’s okay not to like something.

    Comment by Samantha Engel — November 4, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

  18. Thanks for taking the time to come and speak to our class!

    Here are my thought on ambition and some of the questions that you brought up:

    Honestly, I fee that women who do have young children should take into account they commitment to their children and do less dangerous climbs. However, I don’t think that this should just apply to women. I would say that a man who is the father of young children should also be just as cautious in the climbs that he takes.

    I feel that it is important for parents to push their children to a degree. I think that athletics and other activities can have strong character building abilities. I also feel that it is important for children to try out many different things so they can find out what they like. Oftentimes, this might not occur unless a parent encourages or “pushes” them to do so That said, I feel that parents that try to live vicariously through their children are wrong to do so.

    After taking time to read the Time article and process it, I think that it does make sense that there could be a “daredevil” gene. There are people who are definitely more willing to take risks than others. Maybe not life threatening risks, but just risks in their daily lives. These people may be influenced by some genetic traits or it could just be their upbringing. This area of research is definitely something that I would be interested in learning more about. Great article!

    Thanks again for coming and sharing your great stories!

    Comment by Tyler Dodge — November 5, 2010 @ 12:06 am

  19. Sorry for this taking so long. The past few weeks have been so crazy that this slipped my mind for the longest time. Regardless, thank you very much for taking the time to come and talk to our class about your take on the ethics of risk taking. Being someone who is not inclined in the least to anything athletic, I found it an eye opening experience to a different outlook that I had never considered before

    In response to the first question, as to whether or not women with children should be more careful and take less risks,I personally feel that this would be more of an inborne, unconscious decision than one that required consideration. In my opinion, the parent of a child wants to be there for there for their children, and will subconsciously make the decision to take less risks and play it safe in order to ensure the liklihood of that happening. I guess my answer is, yes, they should take less risks, but I don’t see this as something that requires an ethical debate to determine.

    As to how far children should be pushed by their parents in sports, I feel that parents have the right to challenge their children with differnt athletic activities, and the length that they participate in them, through elementary or middle school. After that, in high school and beyond, is when the air of cut throat competition pervades the atmosphere, and if the child has decided by then that they do not like the sport enough to compete in it, then there is no sense in forcing them through the agony of the competitive do-or-die atmosphere.

    A climber should abandon an effort to save a fellow climber when they personally deem there being no hope of both of them surviving. There is no way to determine on a univeralizing scale what that moment should be, as each person is different. Some people may refuse to abandon a comrade, in spite of their better judgment, while others may not even try, already feeling it to be a hopeless endeavor. It really depends on the person, and how they perceive the situation.

    If risk taking is genetic, then I believe it should change our attitudes towards risk takers. If this is indeed the case, then we cannot condemn them for choosing to be reckless and foolhardy, and simply sick in the head. Instead, we view it as we do a temperment, which has been proven to be genetic. Some people may naturally be angrier than other people, and in some cases this may be so extreme that counciling is needed. The same could go for a risk taker. If someone with this risk taker gene wants to ascend K2 as their first climb, then intervention would be necessary. However, as is usually the case, the inclination is not this severe. To come back to the subject, yes,we should view them differntly. Not as some bizarre cult, but as human beings who have genetically inborne tendencies.

    Comment by Kyle Fauss — November 17, 2010 @ 11:04 am

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