This morning I led an assembly on the theme of Ambition for one of our local junior schools:
Preparation and materials
I have a question for all of you sat here before me: what do you want to be when you grow up? Wait for responses or have a few members of the school primed to answer.
The question is one that you will all have been asked at some point by grandparents, aunts and uncles and probably your mum and dad. You may have even thought about the question yourself.
There may be many and various answers to the question and the answer may not remain the same throughout your life. For example, I wanted to be a farmer, then a lawyer, and next a teacher (insert your own here if you like). I have ended up as a youth worker, something I considered, but did not really pay that much attention to. And yet, here I am, in a job that I think suits me and one that I enjoy.
It might be that you want to be a footballer for a particular team (Southampton/Manchester United/local team), a pop star, a neuro-surgeon, astronaut, actor, lawyer, weather forecaster. Or maybe you want to do a seemingly unexciting but essential job like postal delivery, or train to be a nurse, or dare I say it, even a teacher. You may find that your thoughts and ideas change with age, with experience and when you have a clearer understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are.
‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’
This was written by Paul nearly 2,000 years ago, but I believe that it really does have something to say to us today. Let’s break it down shall we and look at how we can apply this teaching to life in the twenty-first century and see if we can find something to use in our lives today.
Let’s think about the phrase ‘selfish ambition’ in the quote from Paul. This is in no way saying that ambition is wrong – it is right to be ambitious, to have goals, aims and dreams that you want to achieve. If those ambitions come out of having been selfish, however – that is, you have put yourself before everyone else, you have trodden on others to get what you want – then that’s not right. Let’s say, for example, that you really want the main part in the school play and you know your friend wants to go for it, too. You have a sneaking suspicion that she might be better than you, so you tell her the wrong dates for the audition. She misses out and you get the part.
Paul also talks about conceit. This is an interesting point because I am not entirely sure we use this word very much nowadays, at least I don’t hear it. We do often hear its synonyms, though: egotistical, self-centred, self-serving. In the play scenario, this might mean that you try out before your friend because you believe that you may be better than her.
Next, Paul says ‘in humility regard others as better than yourselves’. This is not saying that you should always put others first; it’s saying that if you have your own skills and talents, but you know that someone is better at something than you are, then you should take a back seat and allow that person to shine. So, returning to the school play, you should be truthful about the audition dates and let the best person get the part. It is about humility; about being humble and accepting that others have talents that we may not and our time to shine will come, just not necessarily at that particular moment.
By seeing the brilliance of others, we serve their interests, setting aside our selfishness. It is a matter of seeing that ‘what I want’ might not necessarily be what’s best for the greater good, for other people or in the long term.
What can you do in four minutes? You can hard-boil an egg. You can listen to a song. You can queue at a till in the supermarket. You can take a shower. You can answer a question that you’ve been set for your maths homework.
Four minutes isn’t a long period of time, but it also isn’t a particularly short period of time either. It can seem too long if you’re doing something that takes a lot of effort. It can seem too short if you need to complete a certain task within that time. For instance, a distance runner trying to break a record has to keep up his or her speed even when the body wants to give up, knowing that the seconds are relentlessly ticking away. Roger Bannister is an athlete who understood exactly what four minutes felt like.
For male athletes in the middle of the twentieth century, running a mile – four laps of an athletics track – in under four minutes became an obsession.
During the Second World War, two Swedish athletes – Gunder Hägg and Arne Andersson – took advantage of their country’s neutrality to chip away at the world record. They brought it down from 4 minutes 6.4 seconds to 4 minutes 1.4 seconds, but they couldn’t break the magic 4-minute barrier.
For nine years that record remained unbroken. It was as if there was a psychological barrier. Some even believed it wasn’t physically possible. Different athletes attempted to break it. At least one claimed to have done so in a training session, but no one could manage it in a public race until Roger Bannister, with his friends Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, lined up at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on the windy evening of 6 May 1954.
Brasher led for the first two laps, reaching the halfway stage in 1 minute 58 seconds. Chataway then took over, with Bannister on his shoulder until, with half a lap to go, he sprinted into the lead, head rolling and arms waving in his signature running style, pounding down the finishing straight and through the tape before collapsing exhausted into the arms of his supporters.
The winning time was given as 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The barrier had been broken!
For Roger Bannister, the four-minute mile was right for him. He was already the British record holder for both the mile and 1,500 metres. He knew he had the ability, he just needed to step up his training and find the right conditions for his attempt. Crucially, he also needed to put together the right team to help him achieve his ambition. In Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, he had that team. They led him through the early stages of the race, keeping the pace up, protecting him from the gusty wind. So it was that he became a world record breaker.
Personal bests happen when we take the same steps Roger Bannister took. First, we choose what we want to improve. It’s a good idea for it to be something in which we think we have some potential. It’s the right area of your life. It doesn’t have to be a school subject. It can be a relationship, a hobby, your personality, your knowledge, a skill. Next, you need to put some effort into what you want to achieve. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? Yet, any ambition is surely worth it. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. Finally, it’s often good to involve others, for their support, advice and company. They’ll also be there to congratulate you when you achieve your new personal best!
Sir Roger Bannister was asked if he considered running the four-minute mile to be his proudest achievement. His reply was, ‘No’. He valued his contribution as a neurologist to research on the human nervous system far more. It’s like that with personal bests, too. We achieve one, but there are always others we can aim for. Ambitions never end.
Time for Reflection
So, maybe today, try not putting yourself first. This might be as simple as holding the door open for someone else or taking the time to listen to a friend who always listens to you or helping out at home rather than leaving everything for your mum and dad to do.
Let’s also think about how we can try to see our place in the grand scheme of things, taking everyone and their talents and needs into account rather than putting ourselves first.