Once upon a time, in my starry-eyed youth, I believed I was going to be a great composer, premiering my works in ornate halls around the world. I was also going to be a great novelist, whose widely-circulated stories would explore the depths of the human spirit. Maybe by my early thirties, my artistic notoriety would propel me into a prolific life of politics, and by my forties, I would be reluctantly accepting both of my Nobel Prizes, and shortly thereafter the presidential nomination. After my second term, I would retire into a life of film scoring. The Academy Awards would stand quite nicely beside the wall of Pulitzers.
If this vision seems rather obnoxious and insufferable, that’s because it is. It’s also ambitious. The two are often correlated.
I’m a composer, but I’m not a great composer. I’ve started many novels and finished none of them. I’m currently training to be a teacher, and I think I’ll be a pretty good one. Some have said I lost ambition. That might be true, but it might not be a bad thing.
In teachers college, we often discuss education as a tool for economic advancement. It’s one of the ways we justify our industry to policymakers: we need well-funded schools so that our children can learn marketable skills, get good jobs, enhance the economy, and compete with China, Russia, Japan, or whichever international power we’ve crowned as our rivals. Please give us money.
It is true: we have the ambitious to thank for our world. But I’m starting to believe ambition to be a cultural disease. We tell children: “Work Harder! Achieve more! Be greater! More money! More power! More influence!” as if our children will one day find true happiness atop a pile of gold while watching the stock market grow like an orchard around them. (Ironically, we also tell them they’re perfect just the way they are, which I’m sure sets them up for a lifetime of self-loathing when “just the way they are” doesn’t get them all the money and influence they’re supposed to have.)
I am reminded of the Silicon Valley Dream: entrepreneurs, tech advocates, programmers, ambitious young workers eager to innovate, to “disrupt” the world in which we live, and to make bank off selling their small business to Google and retire at thirty-five.
And then what? To what end is disruption? Having your own charity?
This year, I’ve had to struggle with the idea of failure as a possible, if not likely reality. It’s a period in life I imagine many of us ambitious, dreamy youths go through, and the experience is akin to a depressive identity crisis. But it occurred to me that maybe I’m playing the wrong game. Maybe most of us are playing the wrong game.
Maybe the struggle should be between peace and turmoil. Not failure and success.
If I were homeless, sleeping under a tree in a park, and yet woke up every morning feeling spiritually content albeit spending my days hungry and weak, just to go to sleep night after night finding peace in the cycles of joys and sorrows, life and death, and finding comfort in the triviality of my role in the vast, complexity of the universe, how in any way could you say that I’ve failed as a human being? What if I were an egocentric business magnate, panicking over the prospect of losing his empire, unable to reckon with mortality, hated by one half the world and envied by the other?
Maybe the quality of being ambitious is a curse, more than a positive trait. The ambitious tend to live lives of discontent, a constant desire to achieve more than what one already has, a tendency to alienate those around them in their quest to ascend the ranks. I know, because I’ve been ambitious.
Success and failure are determined by society at large. In order to be ambitious, you have to accept their game. And like most games, perhaps winning it is empty.
I am reminded of a popular sentiment I see often on the internet: “Surround yourself with positive people / greatness / people who lift you up,” and so on and so forth. Sure, it’s best we not involve ourselves with those who get some sick pleasure cruelly putting us down, but perhaps surrounding ourselves with positivity feeds the beast of emotional insecurity. Like with ambition, wherein we seek satisfaction through the relative status of others, excessively valuing positivity forces us to rely on the praise of others for self-esteem.
This is most apparent with body-image issues, and while I admire those who attempt to reject the sinister, manipulative psychological warfare the beauty industry wages on women in particular, redefining beauty as being more inclusive still places supreme value on beauty. The sentiment, “Big is beautiful,” for instance, is admirable in that it seeks to rectify the damage done by fat-shaming, but what if big isn’t beautiful? Or worse yet, what if beauty is superficial and fleeting?
What if being told you’re beautiful is merely a cheap and temporary remedy for some deeply unshakable spiritual malaise? Like a tylenol for a virus.
Instead of, “Oh honey, you’re gorgeous!” we should say, “You’re not gorgeous, but who gives a shit? You’re still a human being, and I like being around you.”
Instead of, “Don’t worry dear, you’re super talented,” we should say, “Do you enjoy what you do? Because it doesn’t matter how talented you are or aren’t if you do.”
Instead of, “You’re a genius,” we should ask, “Are you pleasant?”
In our world of lavish praise, where great compliments are cheaper than the words that say them, what is the value of sincerity? Just a needle in the haystack of billions of “You’re Awesome!”s floating around in the stratosphere?
Every so often, particularly in times of depression accompanied by terrible self-esteem, someone, surely with good intentions, reaffirms: “You’re amazing!” or “You’re beautiful!” or “You’re so talented!” or something similarly mundane. I would encourage people not to do this, because this is what the recipient might think in response: “If this is what amazing feels like, then what do I have to look forward to?”
“If this is what it feels like to be beautiful, then what is beauty?”
“If this is what it feels like to be talented, then to what goal am I working?”
I recently had a conversation with a cousin of mine. I would consider him successful. He has a great job and a loving family. I confided in him about my unhappiness: “I feel that I am great. And yet, I know myself to not be great. How does one set aside one’s ego? How does one give up on one’s dreams and not go insane? How long does the torment of realizing you’re not better than everyone else last? How does one stomach the prospect of failure, or worse yet, mediocrity?”
He said to me, “When I worked at Walmart, I believed I deserved something more. I thought I was smarter than everyone around me. I thought I was more capable than those around me. I thought I had talent and ambition and a great future, and that Walmart was an unfortunate stepping stone. I didn’t understand why I was there. And yet there I was working, alongside everybody else, day in and day out. Eventually I realized I may end up working at Walmart for the rest of my life. I can either grow bitter and resent my misfortune, or I can accept it and work hard and cheerfully alongside my equals. At the very least, I could set an example for my son so that he may too one day work hard and value the people around him as his equals as well.”
Let us strive not for greatness, but for humility.