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New research suggests Kiwis are secretly far more ambitious than we let on

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Economists Julie Fry and Hayden Glass say that New Zealanders are more ambitious than we let on – but are too scared to talk about it.

Recently, trying to contact a contributor to an online project about New Zealanders’ views on ambition, economist and author Julie Fry struggled to find her.

Fry wanted to talk to the woman because two years had passed since participants had given permission for their interviews to be put up on a new website and Fry wanted to double-check the permission was still valid.

In the initial interview, the woman had said she was unambitious, not interested in career progression, it was all too much stress and, anyway, she had a young child. “She just batted the whole idea away,” Fry tells the Listener from her home in New York.

But, when Fry tracked her down again, it transpired the woman had been promoted at work, was running a small team and finding her work satisfying.

It turned out that the 10-minute interview on ambition and the conversation afterwards had got the woman thinking.

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After that interview, the participant had chewed over the idea of ambition and realised that, although she was not the kind of person who stalked opportunities, she had a mental image of what opportunities looked like.

To her, it was like the old TV series The Generation Game, in which the highest-scoring competitors would watch a conveyor belt of products pass briefly in front of them. Asked to recall the prizes that had been on the conveyor belt, contestants could take home those that they could remember.

“She told me that the conversation we had had about ambition made her move from thinking, ‘This is not for me, I’m not interested’, to, ‘Well, I don’t have to be brash and grabby, but maybe it’s okay for me to reach out and pick something’, and that’s what she did,” Fry says.

It may be a single example, but to Fry it represents the usefulness of each of us thinking and talking about ambition. Fry and fellow economist and author Hayden Glass have been doing just that for more than two years, resulting in the publication this month of Ambition: What New Zealanders Think and Why It Matters.

Study co-author Julie Fry. Photo/Supplied

The pair have previously written about immigration and say that with a million people coming in from overseas and a million people leaving, they wondered about New Zealand identity and the characteristics that make up the New Zealand psyche.

There is some truth, they say, to the stereotypical commentary that New Zealanders lack ambition. There is certainly no shortage of people saying it, especially about businesses.

Speaking about ambition at the Scots College Foundation dinner in Wellington last year, Phil Veal, the global chairman of the Kiwi expats organisation, Kea, outlined a familiar theme. New Zealanders’ ancestors, he said, “whether they arrived with Kupe or sailed from Southampton to this end of the Earth, were not women or men who took small risks. They went all in. They went long.

“But here’s the thing. Somewhere along the way, we slipped into a more comfortable mindset. We’re in ‘preserve’ mode, not ‘create’.

“I want us to change that. I want a New Zealand where we’re in ‘create’ mode. I want a New Zealand where we’re not afraid to concentrate, to bet big, to marshal our considerable resources on one or two opportunities and go all in.”

Kupe first sighting Aotearoa. Photo/Alamy

A horrible word

The very word “ambition” is contentious, indicating something more competitive than a plan and more ruthless than a dream.

“It is painful to admit that I was motivated by ambition at times,” US President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a congressional committee last month, implying that ambition was a shameful instinct that he should have fought harder to repulse.

“The word ‘ambition’ is deliberately provocative,” Glass says. When he and Fry were testing a survey they devised, people said ambition was “the wrong word” and “a horrible word”. People said they should not use it because it was freighted with relative performance and using other people to get where you wanted to go.

Regardless of its definition, the notion that New Zealanders are not ambitious enough in almost everything except sport is common, but is it correct? Fry and Glass assumed so.

“When we looked at all the commentary going around, our starting point was that New Zealanders were not ambitious enough,” Fry says.

The pair found that, compared with their work on immigration, there was very little research.

They started out with what Glass describes as “a whole lot of reckons” rather than hard data or research. There was no rich evidence base to draw from, Fry says, and what there was all pulled in one direction, “which was that we weren’t cutting it when it came to ambition”.

Study co-author Hayden Glass. Photo/Supplied

The pair began recording videophone interviews on the subject of ambition with people they came across and were surprised when, contrary to their expectations, almost everyone was ambitious.

Finding that interesting, they then developed a national survey, using input from international research on the science behind it.

“Once we had data from the survey, we discovered that it was not true at all that New Zealanders are not ambitious,” Fry says.

“We discovered that New Zealanders are ambitious about all kinds of things, whether it’s being the All Blacks’ captain, looking after their kids, cleaning up the environment, running a business or being successful in music and the arts.” In fact, the online survey of nearly 1300 people revealed that three-quarters of respondents defined themselves as ambitious, two-thirds said they strived to do better than others and 80% said they admired ambitious people.

What we are not good at, the survey revealed, was talking about our ambitions. About a third of respondents felt it was better not to talk about ambitions before they had been achieved, and 20% thought it was better not to directly share even when they had achieved a goal. “[Ambition] is demonstrated in doing, not speaking about doing,” one respondent said.

Because people could choose whether to take the survey, it is possible it attracted people who were more ambitious than average.

But it’s clear that there are least some social groupings in which it is okay to talk about ambition. Fry and Glass report, for instance, that ambition and achievement tend to run in families: “Of the 1175 people who have been All Blacks, there have been 44 sets of brothers, including three Barretts, and two each of Bachops, Meads, Clarkes, Whettons, Brookes, Smiths and Saveas. In 2016, [rugby writer] Tony Smith argued it would take only six sets of siblings to form a credible All Blacks side.”

Phil Veal. Photo/Supplied

Stress-test your ambitions

It’s the finding that New Zealanders are fine with ambition, but reluctant to speak of it, that intrigues Fry and Glass.

“It seems that what is holding us back is not a lack of ambition, but a lack of comfort with ambition,” Fry says.

“We worry that others will judge us negatively if we’re open about how ambitious we are. Ironically, the data shows that as long as we’re not dicks about it, that is unlikely. But New Zealanders think it is really important to be humble and are worried about being judged.

“We realise that although some of us do need to be more ambitious, for most of us the issue is about greater comfort with the ambition we already have, being able to share that with others, and being able to be open to it and not hiding it.”

The rewards of being more open, Fry says, are there for the taking.

She had a personal example of it when, early in the study, she jotted down some thoughts about what the project might look like. Veal was an early adviser to Fry and Glass and on a flight, he happened to sit next to Rowan Simpson, a member of the founding team of Trade Me. Veal shared Fry’s notes with Simpson.

“When I found out, I was mortified to have had my chicken scratchings shared in public,” Fry says, “but what came out of that was a meeting with Rowan, who said, ‘If you’re not embarrassed by what you’re sharing, you’re sharing it too late.’

“So we are each secretly polishing these things off in isolation, and certainly this project has become much bigger and better because it was shared with people early and they shaped it early and gave us feedback early. If we keep all our dreams and ambitions to ourselves, we miss out on the chance to stress-test them with other people. We miss out on the chance to try and to have others say, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’, or ‘I can offer you help.’ Doing stuff in isolation, with that colonial No 8 wire mentality that you have to do it all yourself, is not always helpful. We are isolated, we are at the bottom of the Earth and although I understand where that go-it-alone mentality comes from, it does not always serve us optimally.”

Glass says that the survey allowed room for comments. “There is no shortage in those comments of people saying, ‘Yes, I’m ambitious, but I’m only telling you this because it’s an anonymous survey’!”

Similarly, Glass says there is no shortage of people downplaying their status, even when there is strong objective evidence of their own performance.

“There is something very powerful about humility. As to why that is, the hypothesis of the book is that it’s part of New Zealandness, and the reason why that may be, who knows? At some point we seem to have decided it’s good to behave this way, which raises the question of how you learn this, and at what point?”

Some people, Glass says, are different. Those people are okay with the social discomfort caused by being bold, but others are much less so.

He is interested in how we learn these characteristics. Is it part of being born in New Zealand and going to school here, or is it something you can pick up if you come from overseas later in life? “Do you take this with you when you go to another country? How does it work?”

Rowan Simpson. Photo/Supplied

Secretly ambitious

It seems likely that early colonial settlers deliberately eschewed the British social hierarchy, consciously valuing and promoting egalitarianism instead. Generations later, many New Zealanders like and appreciate a national characteristic of humility and roll their eyes at the comparative cockiness of some Australians or the brashness of some Americans.

It is known from other research that New Zealanders do not like social distance. The trick, Fry says, is finding the right balance between being open about ambition but in a self-effacing way.

The aim is not to be more like Americans, she says. “We should be more open about who we really are. We are secretly very ambitious about all kinds of things and we’re keeping quiet about that. If you think about anything that’s a core part of who you are, that you have to pretend doesn’t exist, it’s depressing and not conducive to well-being.

“Eighty per cent of people in our survey said they thought they were more ambitious than the average New Zealander. So, we’re  not being true to ourselves and holding ourselves back for reasons that are not valid.

“Jodyanne Kirkwood did a study at the University of Otago a few years ago and there were entrepreneurs deliberately limiting their business success because they did not want to be judged by other people – not because they did not want to take the business further, but because they were concerned by what other people thought.

“We saw another study by Simon Spacey from the University of Waikato, which showed that when students’ grades were not published, their grades were higher. In other words, they would reduce their grades in order not to be a target of ‘try-hard’ or other pejorative things. So, it’s not suggesting that we change what we care about or who we are, it’s more suggesting that we realise that who we are is different from the stories that are being told about us.

“If everyone who is coming out in public is saying, ‘New Zealanders aren’t very ambitious’, ‘New Zealanders don’t work very hard’, ‘New Zealanders are scared of failure and risk’, and you are not those things, you keep quiet because you think, ‘Maybe it’s just me who’s not like that’, but what we are finding is that it is not just you.”

Glass and Fry have started a website, ambition.nz, to promote discussion among New Zealanders about what ambition means to them.

“I don’t have any grand dreams of massive societal change, which is ironic in itself,” says Glass, “but sometimes the conversation itself is useful.”

He is perplexed by the survey’s findings that people say they would welcome hearing other people’s plans and dreams, yet they say, “God, I wouldn’t share my own!” If we were as supportive as we say we are, more people would be confident in sharing.

New Zealand does not have as many role models of successful, ambitious people as, say, China or the US, Glass says.

“When people have different role models, they make different dreams, so it’s fair to say that having more conversations about ambition and having more ambitious people around you is going to make you more ambitious because you’ll be drawn along by the environment. The ideal is to have high-achieving, humble people.”

Ambition: What New Zealanders Think and Why It Matters, by Julie Fry and Hayden Glass (distributed by Bateman, $28).

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.