On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews author Julie Fry
Simon Shepherd: Kiwis are a humble lot who don't like to draw attention to their goals or their successes. Yet that lack
of open ambition may be one reason we as a country are slipping down the economic rankings. That's one of the
conclusions economist Julie Fry reaches in her new book "Ambition and Why It Matters". I asked her to sum up New
Zealanders attitude to ambition.S
Julie Fry: It’s interesting. It’s really conflicted. We hear a lot of talk about how New Zealanders don’t work very hard and how
they’re scared of risk and failure, and yet we see New Zealanders achieving amazing things, both at home and on the
world stage in sport and business and everywhere else. The thing is that we’re really uncomfortable sharing ambition and
being open about our ambition.
Simon Shepherd: Right. So we don’t like to say, ‘Look at me.’
Yeah. Really don’t like to say, ‘Look at me.’
So that’s a real tension in the survey that you did between people saying, ‘Yeah, I like to be ambitious, but I don’t
want to talk about it. Other people will think I shouldn’t talk about it.’
Yeah. Humility is very, very big. It comes from this idea that, you know, we’re all equal; we are all, kind of, not
better than anybody else.
So we think that being humble is good.
And that we live in an egalitarian paradise.
Sorta, kinda. But what about this thing called the tall poppy syndrome? We go on about that. Does that exist?
It’s interesting. Some people in the survey and some people we spoke to in our video interviews said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.
It’s a thing.’ And others said, ‘No, we think it’s— You know, as we’ve had social media out there, it’s made it more
possible for people to be open about what they’re ambitious about without being judged.’ So—
Has it been also more possible in social media to take people down, in a way, as well?
Yeah, it goes both ways. But we’re seeing this real movement. There’s not one view of tall poppy. Some people are
saying, ‘I’m experiencing this.’ Some people are saying, ‘No, it’s not been a thing for me.’
Does it depend on what kind of ambition you have? If you are more ambitious to make it better for people and improve
people’s lives rather than having money, is that more acceptable?
Yeah, that’s absolutely something that came through in our survey. Someone who’s ambitious for status or fame or money
isn’t particularly admired by New Zealanders. Someone who’s ambitious to be the best version of themselves or to create
value for others — that’s much more admirable, socially.
Where does the ambition come from? And why does it matter?
I’ll deal with that in two parts. First, where it comes from — we all have it. The research says that it’s a fundamental
human drive that’s in all of us, so it’s not something for only special, high-achieving people. Ambition is this desire
to do or achieve something typically requiring hard work. So that can be, you know, looking after our families, it can
be success in business, it can be success in sport, the arts, it can be caring for our communities, for the environment.
It can be anywhere.
Why does having ambition matter? Do we have to worry about it?
Yes, it does. If we are thinking about what makes us happy as people and what makes us successful economically, it’s
this desire to reach for something beyond the status quo. You know, it’s the desire to stretch. It’s the desire to have
just manageable difficulties in our lives — things that keep us challenged and invigorated, but not overwhelmed or
So, having ambition — does that mean that we’re going to be eternally unhappy because we’re always striving for
No, it’s the human condition. You know, the human condition is the journey is what makes us happy, the going after
something, and then when you get there, you go after something else. That’s how it works.
So the size of your ambition, is that determined about what kind of background you come from? More affluent people from
more affluent backgrounds have bigger goals.
More conventional material ambitions, if you come from that kind of background. One of the things that we found when we
looked at studies of factors influencing ambition is that young people particularly from backgrounds that were poor or
where they didn’t have a lot of role models outside of their own family, they set smaller goals for themselves, because,
you know, you can’t be what you can’t see. You know, your sense of what’s possible isn’t particularly large.
So they’re being constrained by the environment that they’ve grown up in.
Yeah, absolutely. And resourcing matters too. You know, if your parents can’t afford, studies in the UK show if parents
can’t afford to do things for you, they find that the children just lower their expectations and study less at univer—
you know, go into jobs that require fewer qualifications, all that kind of stuff. They really dial their sense of
So is this a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the disparity in society? I mean, if you’ve got people growing
up in those circumstances — they have constrained goals and other people have bigger goals, and that forces them apart.
Yeah, it’s not destiny, but it is important. I mean, if I was waving a magic wand, I think there’s two things I’d want
in terms of policy. I’d like to see, you know— We’re seeing this in the last few years anyway — dealing with child
poverty and those, sort of, resource constraint issues across families and in communities that struggle. But also
thinking about, you know, what it is that enables people to convert those resources into a good life, to be ambitious,
and that’s around developing skills like developing a growth mindset or, you know, how to become more resilient. And
there are strategies for doing that in ways that a person can… that your original position is not your destiny.
So there’s a way of giving more opportunity to those who haven’t had it in the past.
What about the way that ambition is actually linked to our economic performance? I mean, we’ve been slipping down the
OECD rankings over the last 30, 40 years. Is that because we’re not ambitious enough?
I think that the issue there is— I mean, certainly how big you dream is a big influence on how far you go right? But
there’s no sign, if you look at other OECD data, and New Zealand has worked really hard compared to in other countries.
The issues that we do have, and we talk about these in the book, are around our management practices and how competitive
our environment is. New Zealand’s a small country, so if you want to get bigger, you have to go offshore when you’re
still pretty small. So that’s a factor. And within our sort of management practices within firms, because humility’s
such a big thing, because being equal’s such a big thing, it’s very hard to give and receive feedback in a way that’s
constructive and that deals with performance issues.
Right. So as a Kiwi manager, I don’t like to actually give constructive feedback to people, because that’s—
It’s uncomfortable, and I’m putting myself on top of the heap, am I?I
Yeah, that’s right.
We don’t do that. So this is something you talk about called the glorification of humility. So are these our role
models? I mean, the role models that we have, are they all these humble people who show a lot of humility? And that’s
what we pursue, and that’s what’s holding us back?
I think we definitely glorify it. If you look at Richie McCaw and why we admire him, it’s because he just got on with
things and didn’t make a fuss, right? There’s a lot of examples like that in our culture. I don’t think that’s holding
us back so much as the fact that because we worry about what people will think of us if we share our ambitions. We miss
out on support. Right? So, I mean, I wouldn’t be sitting here, talking to you; I wouldn’t be very, very excited about
this book being on the cover of The Listener this week, if I hadn’t spoken to a woman named Jenny Sutton who I bumped
into in a conference and said to her, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ Turned out she’s a venture investor, and she supported
this project. So, you know, I didn’t know this woman at all, had a conversation about what I was trying to do, and from
that conversation, we ended up..
So you shared your goal with somebody else. And was that uncomfortable to do that?
It was uncomfortable, because I didn’t know her, I didn’t know what she’d think of my work, I didn’t know— But this is
the thing. We tend to share only with people that we know and that we’re comfortable with and that we feel safe. If I’d
stuck to that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Right, so what should we, as a nation, then, be doing to change the way we talk about ambition? And what will it give
I think we can start at the individual level. That example I’ve just given you, I mean, literally has changed the path
of this work. And that’s true for all of us. We spoke to a lot of people in our interviews who came back to us and said,
‘Oh, you know, I told you I wasn’t ambitious, but, actually, I’ve thought about it, and now I’ve gone down this path.’
Or people who said, ‘I’ve had support from somebody or someone helped me out when I got stuck.’ You know, those things
are important for moving forward.
And so that’s the reason you’ve written this book. You want to spark that conversation and get a change in our attitude
Absolutely. Yeah, and hopefully we’ll change, you know, how we are to each other and, you know, two thumbs up a bit
Thanks very much for your time.
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