This is obvious to 99% of people reading this. People like ambition. They like being goal-oriented. They admire and want to be like other people who exhibit signs of possessing limitless ambition. But for the 1% who know what I’m talking about (and hopefully for the amusement or anthropological curiosity of the rest of you), I find myself, more decades than I’d like to admit into my life on this planet, realizing that it’s ok — good, even — to have goals and try to achieve them. As I write this, my 16-year-old self in his Breakfast Club secondhand trench coat stands smirking at me through a half-lidded, world-weary gaze, thinking that me-now is just like one of those racing dogs, pathetically chasing the metal rabbit forever.
I’m not stupid. The 16-year-old-me wasn’t coming out of nowhere with this. The movie Heathers provides a reasonable outline of where I was at back then (minus the serial-killing part). Life was short. People seemed to spend most of it running around like idiots, chasing things that didn’t matter. Not being where they were. The whole thing seemed a dark, ridiculous comedy.
Everyone’s allowed (within the limits of the law) to chase after whatever they want to in life, but I wasn’t (and I’m still not) crazy about people who just want to “win” all the time: to conquer a hotter sexual partner than ever before, to amass more money than any of their friends or colleagues. And I think the things we’re not crazy about probably have something useful to teach us about what we value.
Maybe you’re a marathon runner, a successful novelist, a serial entrepreneur. Someone who has been setting and achieving goals since you were 12. Maybe you have fought hard to overcome the smirking little gargoyles in your head (and the ones judging from the outside) to take big risks in life — above all else, the risk of wanting something, of admitting that it matters to you, of trying things that might fail.
I think I understand you better now. If you are jogging past in a thermally advanced jogging outfit and I am sitting at a cafe table, I will no longer scribble mean things about you in my notebook. I’ll try not to, anyway.
Yes, ambition and I are awkwardly dating. What I understand now more than ever before is the need for momentum in life. Even Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre, while staring off into the existential void, wrote and revised dozens of very involved plays and books. They traveled the world. They went on television. Probably they thought to themselves now and then: “Hey, my career is going pretty great! Except for that lousy, no-good publicist! I’ve got to fire him.”
Screenshot: A recent Facebook chat where I more or less troll a good friend who is advocating taking action in life rather than sitting on your butt.
This gets complicated. I’m still skeptical of happy, jogging people bouncing gleefully into the future. Conversations about “being positive” make my skin crawl, as do lectures about how action is better than thought. And as HBO’s Silicon Valley points out so brilliantly, not every new tech business is automatically “making the world a better place.”
But I’m not above admitting the possibility, either, that for many people who chase after “shallow” things, ambition and goal-setting serve a rich inner life that is totally invisible to me. A close friend, for example, has been texting me at least once a week for a year now about his latest record time in running a mile. The more I talk to him about it, the more I understand that the running is changing who he is in fundamental ways that are hard to describe, but that are anything but shallow. And although everyone automatically hates billionaires, a few of them (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg) have pledged to spend ridiculous sums on global problems no government has ever had the stomach (or the money) to tackle. Me, I'm beginning to realize that there are a few, specific things I want from life, and that achieving them would feel good. And that there's nothing so terribly wrong with that, after all.
At the same time, I guess we also have to admit that ambition and goal-setting are what brought us the Third Reich.
So while I can’t agree with those who think that ambition is unequivocally good, I’m coming to terms with the fact that you can’t really get away from it. Either you’re striving toward something or you’re running away from something. And it’s hard to argue that running away (unless it’s from tigers) is ever a good thing.
Talk to Jason Gots @jgots on Twitter.