Ambition is the last refuge of failure – Oscar Wilde
“You need to start being honest about your ambition.” I read that advice a while ago in blog called Tribal Writer. The speaker was Justine Musk, a writer, and she was the person giving the advice to Sabine, a young dance instructor. The post was entitled How to Embrace Your Naked Ambition and Make Your Subconscious Your Bitch. And it made me think. While I was thinking I started writing. This is what I wrote.
I think I’ve always viewed ambition in a negative way: ambitious people weren’t nice people. I’ve never considered myself an ambitious individual. I’ve always wanted to excel at whatever I was doing but somehow the desire for excellence and the need to get ahead by fair means or foul don’t gel in my head. I’m not alone:
[A]mbition continues to suffer a longstanding, old-world, negative reputation. It brings up images of the wealthy risk taker and the mover and shaker, the political wheeler and dealer, and the one who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if it means sacrificing friends, family and colleagues. Today, for many, ambition is synonymous with mistrust, closely aligned with such international corporate leaders such as those as Enron, who mismanaged their ambition and destroyed their credibility with the general public and shareholders alike. – Ellie Rubin, Ambition: 7 Rules for Getting There, p.xiii
In the post Sabine finally fesses up: “I want my own television show … I just think it sounds so stupid because everybody wants their own TV show.” Justine doesn’t. I certainly don’t. I actually expect that most people don’t. But I can understand why she might say something like that because I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to be a writer. A few days after reading about Sabine I watched Frost/Nixon which features the TV presenter David Frost who, over the years, has fronted several TV shows and has always been one to revel in the limelight. I’ve nothing against him but when I watched the actor portraying him, if I was never certain before I was certainly certain afterwards: the last job in the world I would want to do is have my own television show. This is what The Telegraph had to say about the film:
Sheen brilliantly captures Frost's scary ambition and the eerie impression of vacancy that underlies it. He presents us with a man who only really comes alive when he is in the limelight, and who will fight to the death to stay there. – Charles Spencer, ‘Brief but Gripping Encounters’, The Telegraph, 23 August 2006
Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘have’ doesn’t it? David Renwick has several TV shows that have been running for years and I’ve watched most of them if only in passing but I couldn’t pick him from a police line-up. This is because he’s the writer on shows like One Foot in the Grave and Jonathan Creek. Now that might be different, if I could just mail in my bit and be done with it. I wouldn’t object to my name appearing in the credits but I’d be perfectly happy, as I have been all my life, to be a backroom boy. There have been times I’ve had to stand up in front of people – I taught for a while – but the happiest I’ve been in my career is when I could just sit at my desk, not answer phone calls and get on with it. Of course I’ve done jobs where the phone rang off the hook all day, too, but my solution there was always to go in early before the switchboard went live so I could at least have an hour or two of peace to get on with things before all the fans started running for cover.
I was certainly never interested in being top dog, the big kahuna, the one whose feet male rabbits and deer grind to a halt before (think about it), again, I’ve had jobs where I had to delegate or at least allocate work and I hated them. I’m not a very good boss. In some respects I’m a very good boss (I’m not very bossy for starters) but I don’t enjoy being a boss. The irony is that in group situations where someone needs to step up to the plate I inevitably end up wielding the bat because I’m good at solving problems and organising and I also can’t stand standing there watching others fumble around with something when I can see there’s a better way. And so I take charge even though I would far rather someone else did and simply assigned me tasks appropriate to my skill set.
I’ve had an odd working life. Every few years I’ve shifted jobs and ended up back at the bottom of the ladder, worked my way up until I was good at my job, liked and respected by my colleagues and pretty much thought to be indispensible when something usually happened and I left. So I’ve never really got anywhere but I enjoyed the variety of jobs far more than if I’d stuck with the one I got when I was seventeen which could have lasted for life, paid well and had a nice pension scheme. I simply lacked ambition.
And it wasn’t as if I left to follow my dream because I never did that either. I should have. I could kick myself from here to kingdom come for never following my dream but I was brought up to believe that duty came before everything else. And I do take some pride in the fact that I’ve always done what I have seen to be my duty. I suppose there might be instances where duty and ambition aren’t incompatible but I’ve always found doing my duty to be like driving with the handbrake on; you can get where you’re going but it takes a lot more effort and it damages you at the same time. But it has been ingrained in me and so, irrespective of the cost, I’ve done what I believed to be the right thing.
Ambition is the desire for personal achievement. It provides the motivation and determination necessary to achieve goals in life. Ambitious people seek to be the best at what they choose to do for attainment, power, or superiority. Ambition can also be defined as the object of this search. – Wikipedia
You see I read that and it feels like something I wouldn’t like. I don’t want to amass things or be the king of the hill. I simply want to do what I do to the best of my ability and be left alone: the work matters, I don’t. I’m not ignorant. I realise that I am the one who has done the work and it matters greatly to me that the work I produce is all my own work. I don’t have much time for artists who employ teams of helpers to do the grunt work recasting the artist as designer. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy to have others edit and proofread my work, but on the whole I’m still the one who fixes my mistakes. Anything else would feel like collaboration.
So, surely there’s something of the egotist about me? No, not if you define an egotist as someone who has an exaggerated sense of their own worth. I’m only interested in the work being authentic. If my name goes at the bottom of the page or on the front cover of the book then I’m taking responsibility for everything contained therein. This is more akin to duty than ambition. Yes, I might get some praise for what I have written and praise is nice (we like pats on the back – who doesn’t?) but I never want to be in a position where I can blame someone else for something I’ve supposedly written. As the saying goes: the buck stops here. (That’s what I was on about with the deer and rabbits earlier.)
Ambition has always struck me as a by-product of selfishness and I don’t like to be thought of as a selfish person. I agree that selflessness can also be taken to extremes but the kind of selfishness I’m thinking about is the kind that always puts its own interests before those of other people. Ambitious people use people – well, we all need to make use of others from time to time – but ambitious folk aren’t always too concerned about a fair recompense for their impositions on others. One of my wife’s pet phrases is: What goes around comes around. I need people to review my books and so I review books for other people. I don’t automatically review the books of the people who I have asked to review mine but then what goes around comes around and – hopefully – in the grand scheme of things it all balances out.
What drives you? A lot of people have given that matter careful thought over the years. Freud, famously, proposed sex as Man’s dominant driving force; Jung suggested the need to belong and Adler decided that mastery was top of his list. Love is something worth considering but for me what drives me is the need to matter, to have made a difference. How does one do that?
Morris Rosenberg, the late distinguished Sociologist from the University of Maryland, coined the phrase "mattering" as the universal, but overlooked, motive to feel noticed, appreciated, and depended upon. Rosenberg found that teenagers who felt they "mattered" to teachers, peers, and parents were less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour than those who did not feel they "mattered" to others. – Nancy K. Schlossberg, ‘Transitions Through Life’, Psychology Today, 12 November 2010
Philip Larkin wrote a poem that matters to me, Samuel Beckett wrote a play that matters to me, Keith Waterhouse wrote a novel that matters to me, François Truffaut directed a film that matters to me. There are others, dozens, hundreds of people who have done things that have enhanced my life; changed the direction of my life; made me the man I am today. I know their names, some of them, but if I didn’t know any of their names it wouldn’t matter; what matters is the work. Of course I’ve done things for people that have made a difference to them, that have mattered to them, but there’s only one of me and never enough opportunities to make a difference in person, but a few words on a scrap of paper can last for hundreds of years and have the potential to make a difference to a great many people.
Question: If you had the chance to have one of your works published anonymously and you were going to receive a decent sum in return would you go for it? It’s a good question. What matters, being read or “Getting known” as Krapp put it?
Attention mattering is a cognitive perception of mattering to others; we matter if others simply recognise us and acknowledge that we exist. We perceive that we matter when others pay attention to us, and if we do not receive their attention, we may feel ignored. To lack in the form of attention mattering may have some of the most detrimental effects on our self-esteem and self-concept. – Andrea Dixon Rayle, ‘Mattering to others: implications for the counselling relationship’, Journal of Counselling and Development, Volume 84, Number 4 / Fall 2006
As TS Eliot put it: "To be of importance to others is to be alive."
If ‘ambition’ is a dirty word, what about replacing it with ‘aspiration’? It certainly has a nicer ring to it: it suggests breathing as opposed to biting, but that’s the poet in me talking. I aspire to greatness. No I don’t. Maybe I aspire to do great things but not necessarily be great. It’s a challenge. People usually rise to challenges. Challenges are a way of testing ourselves and stretching ourselves. Often, as in a race, there are others involved but before you beat anyone in a race you first have to master yourself and that’s the one challenge each one of us has to face all our lives long; living up to ourselves and then coming up to our expectations of what we believe we are capable of being; being the best you that you thought you could be and then finding a little bit more you never knew you had.
The trick, of course, when it comes to challenges is that they need to be attainable – just. If the difficulties chosen are too easy, life is boring; if they are too hard, life is defeating. And with every little achievement we feel that bit better about ourselves and so move the goalposts. Yes, and no. There is a tendency to minimise our achievements especially if we reach them earlier than we expect. Or what about if we achieve success in an area of our lives that doesn’t matter to us? In every job I’ve done I’ve succeeded. I was industrious and dedicated and I’m not saying success was inevitable but I never felt that I had to work especially hard to achieve it and although there were inevitably other contributory factors involved, a part of me was always a little glad when I needed to move on or away because I was usually getting a bit bored by then. Success, doing your job well day in and day out, can be downright boring. We need to keep challenging ourselves and no challenge is worth its salt if there is little or no chance of failure. I have written five novels and logic dictates that if I ever write a sixth it should not take me any more effort and quite possibly less effort than the previous five and that would be true if ‘a novel’ was a reliable measure but it’s not.
Ambitious people are achievers: nothing ventured, nothing gained. You only get out of something what you put into it. Is success purely a matter of never giving up, never losing faith in yourself? What if you’re deluding yourself? You could waste a lifetime chasing something you are simply incapable of attaining.
I said that what drives me is to matter, so really I could say that my ambition is to matter to people. I do matter to people. It’s not an especially long list these days but I cannot deny that there are people in this world who I have affected in the past and continue to affect in a positive way. I hope I’m affecting you in a positive way just now even if this is the first thing you have read by me and the only thing you ever read by me. It matters to me that what I’m writing just now matters, that it has the potential to make a difference to someone’s life. It’s nice when I get feedback, like the guy who stuck my poem ‘The Art of Breathing’ on the cork board beside his desk, but that is not why I write. I want to feel good – no one in their right mind wants to feel bad – and so I do things that make me feel good. Typing this right now is making me feel good. Wondering what I might think of to write next is exciting; the possibility that I might find just the exact words, the right words in the right order, that someone out there might read and go, “Yes! That makes sense. Christ. That is so obvious. Why did I never thing of that myself?” It’s a challenge.
It is easy to get confused. A lot of people want to publish a book. Publishing a book is an achievable goal. So is climbing Everest. But before you climb Everest you need to be capable of climbing Everest. The actual climbing of Everest is academic once you have the ability to make the climb. If I had never sat my O-Level in English it wouldn’t change what I’d had to learn to pass the exam and I think sometimes we can get things mixed up in our heads. Most people don’t want to publish a book, they want to write one; publishing is just something you do once you’ve written a book. I think this is one of the reasons I’ve never pursued traditional publishing as aggressively as some of my peers – Jeanette Winterson is only a few months younger than me, Ben Okri a couple of months older – I lacked the necessary ambition to be an author.
All I do now is write. I am a writer. I have achieved my ambition. Yay, me. Only it was never really an ambition of mine to be a writer because I never imagined that it was achievable. Now life has made it possible. I guess it felt the need to make up for the hard time it gave me when I was young. Thank you, Life. Not quite sure if that’s us even, but thanks anyway.
We live in a world that loves to quantify things. And so many things are easily quantifiable. The digestive I had with my coffee a few minutes ago contained 84 calories made up of 5.1g of sugar, 4g of fat, 2.1g of saturates and 0.2g of salt and since it weights 14g I can only conclude that the remaining 2.6g is pure yumminess. Do I matter to you? It’s a rhetorical question but bear with me. How many of us have asked our kid how much they loved us expecting them to throw their arms out wide and go, “This much!”? With adults, if they’ve asked me how much I loved them, I’ve usually said something daft like, “Four point one,” and if they’ve griped I’ve added, “Out of three point two that’s not bad.” (See, I can do cute.) But how do I know how much my writing makes a difference? Most of the time we don’t. We just have to believe it does. We take what little feedback we do get and extrapolate.