Yes, I agree.
I don’t think I was thinking of ambition in a narrow, “try hard” sort of way, but rather the motivation to find a way out of current circumstances. For you, for example, it was the realization that making better connections would open up more opportunities, and your ambition encouraged you to build those relationships.
I think you’re dead on right though, that many kids are in environments where opportunities are extraordinarily rare, and some much of what surrounds kids makes it so unlikely that they’ll end up somewhere positive. Grit and effort and growth mindset will get you little if you don’t have possibilities to act on.
And while certainly effort and grit play a role, I totally agree with you that they should never be default panacea we give to people. In coaching, for example, I’ve always believed that if you best answer to a team’s weak performance is to tell the kids to “work harder,” you’re a pretty crappy coach.
Likewise, as much as I like grit and growth mindset, I fear that educators can use “grit” as a cop out for weak instruction. Give a kid a boring, meaningless exercise, then when they rebel and struggle to stay focused, tell them that they need to build grit.