Playing to Win

Research and insights on children, competition, and popular culture

Measuring Ambition in Today’s Youth

The importance of demonstrating, and proving one's ambition for youth today

Last weekend I attended the Miss Massachusetts Pageant, after participating as a Judge the weekend before at the Miss New Jersey Pageant. The winner of the Massachusetts pageant, Amanda Narciso, had been first runner-up for the past two years and made two previous attempts at the crown. Trying five times to reach your dream certainly proves you have resiliency—an important skill for kids today as I have discussed here at Psychology Today before—but competitive activities like pageants prove something else: that you are a young person with ambition.

Some may be surprised that today’s youth need to “prove” they are ambitious, but it’s easy to say you have high aspirations and quite another to show you are taking concrete steps to pursue big dreams. In researching Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture I spoke with several admissions officers at Ivy League schools who explained why extracurricular activities (like pageants, sports, student government, the arts, etc.) are so important.

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Ivies are looking for smart students with a great deal of ambition. But it is hard to measure ambition. Participation in activities—and awards and leadership earned through participation—are a proxy for that ambition. The specific activities are less important; what matters is that you play a sport or seriously participate in an activity such as debate or drama. Additionally, students should also engage in more than one activity, perhaps playing an instrument or be part of a Model United Nations team, volunteering or competing in dance competitions or pageants. This shows curiosity, a diversity of interests and willingness to explore and learn new things.

What elite and competitive colleges and universities are looking for are ambitious individuals who are not afraid to take risks. When freshmen get to campus they will be exposed to new activities and academic disciplines. Admissions officers want to create a campus full of ambitious kids who are willing to try swimming or journalism or glee club or anthropology for the first time. So to be admitted you can’t do just one thing; you need to show you are flexible and versatile. Of course, you are still expected to excel, in academics first and foremost, but you must be willing to try other things as well.

According to sociologist Mitchell Stevens, in his study of college admissions at an elite, private liberal arts college, “Families fashion an entire way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children.” Efforts to create this quantifiable virtue in children have led to the creation of a second shift for kids, which in turn has created what I call competitive kid capital, described in another Psychology Today post.

Competitive activities offer the opportunity to prove you can measure ambition: you get a number as a rank, you earn a rating, you have a win-loss record... The list goes on, and the effort to measure ambition in our kids begins earlier than ever in organized settings, as Stevens suggests. Each year millions of students pursue these sorts of activities; of those about 13,000 young women participate in the Miss America program, and thousands of others participate in different pageants. Pageants are but one way to quantify your ambition, and they may offer a way to stand out from the crowd.

Pageants, like those affiliated with the Miss America Organization, offer many opportunities to do so, as I affirmed when judging four Miss Massachusetts preliminaries and the Miss New Jersey Pageant this year. Pageant contenders must detail how much money they raised for the Children’s Miracle Network, they should provide a description of how many volunteer hours they have completed, how many social media followers they have, how many years they have been training in their talent discipline, etc. Quantifying ambition occurs not just in college and graduate school admissions and the job process, but also in the activities that themselves offer a way to measure ambition.

While it’s now summertime and children should take the opportunity to recharge, it’s not a bad idea to find ways to strategize about getting involved in new activities that can help measure and quantify ambition and achievement during the coming school year. Just think of how much quantifying Amanda Narciso and other Miss America hopefuls will be doing between now and the national pageant on September 15th!

 

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture, competition, childhood and parenting.

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