I’ve been thinking a while about the concept of ambition. Like most children from a privileged upbringing, I was told to dream big, to work hard, to achieve success…to be ambitious. These were and are good things. I was fortunately born with the type of intelligence that does well in standardized testing, and (after a stint in a program for gifted children) the kind that also fit in well with the educational style of the 1960s and 70s. I did well. I was rewarded for it. I achieved good grades in high school, got into the college I wanted to attend, and was paid to go to graduate school.
All along was the idea that wherever you are, you need to push to be in a better place. Where you are is good? The next place could be better, with more money, more power, more, more, more. Your relationship seems pretty great? Are you sure? It could be better – more sexy, more intimate, more, more, more. Your child is well-adjusted? Are you sure he has enough to do? Is her environment rich enough? Have you done everything you can to encourage the growth of those early neurons? Don’t you think you could be doing more?
I did well. I was successful. Decent job, good marriage, a demanding-but-otherwise-awesome son. I made myself crazy listening to the voices telling me that none of those things were enough. I pulled free of some of it – for instance, the Baby Weight Gaining competition that happens when you have a baby close in age to another woman’s. “Oh, your baby gained a pound in the week after birth? That’s great… my baby gained TEN.” Followed by more information than you want to hear about the richness of your competitor’s breast milk, along with a self-congratulatory breast pat. That one has “Get out while you can” stamped all over it, and I did. Fast.
Other things I didn’t let go of, so much as have them pulled away. My decent marriage ended with my husband’s death. Which of course, after a period of grief, starts the push cycle again. Are you seeing anyone? Have you been dating? Are there any “good prospects”?
Then I was laid off from my decent job.
A lot of things came to a screeching halt right there. The first thing I noticed, when the shock wore off, was a sense of relief. I took some time to simply breathe, and rest, and consider what had happened. A little while later I got a contract position… and there it was again: Will this turn into a full-time position? You really want that, right? Because that would be better. You should want more than contracting.
The breathing and resting paid off. I wasn’t in a full-time position, and realized that I didn’t actually want to be in that position full-time, because hello, corporate crazy. My time was my own. I could set that job down and walk away. Sure, they could let me go at any time – and I could also let them go at any time. It felt balanced in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I finished that contract and moved into another one – for less money. (Shouldn’t you be making more? You used to make a lot more than that.) Less money was more than balanced by working with people that I knew and loved.
I get it, truly. There’s a time in your life when you are trying to build and achieve. You’re making a family, or building a career, or studying deeply for a long time, or planning for retirement. But I’ve come to think that we should always question what it is we are after. Is it just more? The bigger house, the fancy job title, the luxury car, all the activities for your children… what are they for? It’s like we’ve misunderstood the “dream big” part of what our parents tried to teach us.
What do you actually dream of? Do you dream of that next big goal? Or do you dream of a time when it’s behind you, when you can stop pushing so hard to get to it? We can make that time happen. There should be a point where we can look at our lives and say, these things are good. To stop adding the word “but” to every single beautiful thing we say about our lives. Instead: I love my husband. I have an amazing child. I like my job. My house is comfortable. My life is good.
It is nearly un-American to say ambition isn’t always good. It’s the American way – strive, be ambitious, succeed. Never be satisfied, never be content with where you are, never rest. I am not entirely done with that – I do still have a mortgage to pay for – but my ambition these days is for inner peace. To not worry about whether I’m achieving enough, but to love what I’ve already achieved.