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On Ambition


Before I went to high school, everyone in our year sat an aptitude test. We were eleven years old, and the assessment took place over three hours one morning early in summer.

The goal was to identify each student’s potential and stream girls into year groups based on their IQ. The theory being that matching teaching to students’ abilities would deliver better educational outcomes.

It wasn’t only a pronouncement about our aptitude for learning that was consolidated in our minds, that summer. There was also a levelling of expectations about what was possible for each one of us—not just from our teachers, but in ourselves. Our ambitions were set at the age of eleven.

Career guidance conversations about going to university to study medicine and engineering rarely happened with girls who were not in the top stream. During the five years I was in high school, I saw only a handful of girls moved from one stream to another. Mostly down, hardly ever up.

In subjects like art and music, students’ potential was also identified early, so resources could be devoted to helping those most likely to succeed. We learned very early on to keep our ambition in check—to keep pace as much with our perceived limitations as our proven ability.

These lessons learned at a young age are hard to unlearn. The stories we tell ourselves can make us fearful of being ambitious for the future. Like some of our teachers, armed with the knowledge we have in front of us, we fail to see what might be possible.

Our mistake then, and still now, is our inability to be ambitious for each day. To match our effort with what we aspire to be and change now—not with some projection of our future-self or a future we cannot yet know. We shape the future we want to see in the present. One day at a time.

Image by Victoria Heath

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