SALON 01: AMBITION
For the past few years, I’ve wrestled with the place of ambition in my own life. In 2020, I self-published a short book titled Work Ethics, which was mostly an attempt to collect my thoughts on the subject. After several years spent preaching and practicing (a relatively soft version of) the gospel of productivity culture, I’d had a Hero’s Journey-style ‘dark night of the soul’, which led me to rethink my stance on work entirely.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being ambitious in the conventional sense (although women have historically been made to feel otherwise). But in my world - and I’d hazard a guess that it’s the same in yours - there are very few people who feel aligned with their pre-pandemic goals, habits, or aspirations. In our Capitalist society, ‘ambition’ has so long been synonymous with the attainment of status, power, and wealth that we still struggle to understand the concept - or indeed, the trajectory of our lives - in any other terms. We’re collectively striving to redefine and recalibrate our ambition–and perhaps, to relinquish it altogether.
I’m still working towards finding a harmonious relationship with my own ambition, and there have been a slew of pieces in recent months from people who seem to feel similarly. I hope this list will offer some fresh perspective to anyone who is out there, still seeking.
Reading List & Prompts
Books:Tell Them I Said No
Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How To Use It
Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work,
and What We Can Do About It
How To Do Nothing: Resisting The
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and
The Fall of New York
Robert A. Caro
Alain de Botton
My Year of Rest and Relaxtion
The New Me
On The Shortness of Life
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good
adrienne maree brown
In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays
A Theory Of Human Motivation
A. H. Maslow
Work Ethics: 20 Ideas for 2020 and Beyond
Articles:The Work You Do, The Person You Are
Toni Morrison for The New Yorker
The Age of Anti-Ambition
Noreen Malone for The New York Times
Losing My Ambition
Amil Niazi for The Cut
A conversation with author and self-help
historian Kate Bowler
Clay Skipper for GQ
What Comes After Ambition?
Ann Friedman for ELLE USA
What We Gain From A Good-Enough Life
Lily Meyer for The Atlantic
The Perfectionism Trap
Josh Cohen for The Economist
Should Striving Ever Stop?
Cass R. Sunstein for The New Republic
Finding A Mission
The School of Life
Even If You Beat Me
Sally Rooney for The Dublin Review
How Ambitious Should You Be?
Ron Carucci for HBR
Has the Pandemic Killed Ambition?
Alexandra Jones for The Standard
“I have abandoned the notion of ambition to chase the absolute middle of the road: mediocrity. This, unsurprisingly, comes after the past two years — two years filled with intense pandemic parenting coupled with working full time. I want to “just be, man,” and won’t let concerns like success or climbing the corporate ladder stand in my way. The new dream is simply no goals, just vibes.”
So writes Amil Niazi in ‘Losing My Ambition’, for The Cut. How have the past few years reshaped your relationship with your own ambition?
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition.”
Alain de Botton makes this declaration in Status Anxiety. Would you describe your relationship to your ambition as anxious by nature? If yes, why? If not, what else serves as your driver?
“But beyond self-care and the ability to (really) listen, the practice of doing nothing has something broader to offer us: an antidote to the rhetoric of growth. In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and are as productive in the same way.”
Jenny Odell in How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy
To what extent is your ambition rooted in ideas of growth, productivity, and “the new”? How might your to-do list change if it was instead rooted in ideas of maintenance and/or care?
“The house is smoky, and I quit it.”
Marcus Aurelius (quoted in the foreword in ‘Tell Them I Said No’). There is a lot of stigma around ‘quitting’ in our culture. When did you last decide to ‘give up’ on a previously-held ambition, and why?
“For my first couple of seasons as a debater, the word I heard most often from my adjudicators was ‘passionate’; another word I heard was ‘forceful’. These weren’t insults: judges genuinely seemed to appreciate my passion and forcefulness. But I didn’t want to debate in order to express passion: I wanted to be aloof and cerebral…”
In Sally Rooney’s piece ‘Even If You Beat Me’, we see her grapple with her competitiveness. What makes us so often resent ambition, in ourselves and in others?
“Progress happens slowly, and it rarely, if ever, goes in a straight line. Pushing for a better society, therefore, requires not only patience and flexibility, but also a tolerance for mismatches and contradictions.”
In ‘What We Gain From a Good-Enough Life’, Lily Meyer proposes that we should consider abandoning our pursuit of ‘greatness’ in favour of more attainable goals. When should we decide to persevere through adversity, and when should we reassess the plans?
“Your real life is with us, your family.”
This is the advice given to a teenage Toni Morrison by her father when she is contemplating quitting a menial job. How strictly do you delineate between your work and your ‘real life’? How, when, and why did you create that boundary?
“If we let everyone decide for themselves how they were best fit to benefit humanity, with no restrictions at all, how could they possibly end up with a distribution of labor more inefficient than the one we already have? This is a powerful argument for human freedom. Most of us like to talk about freedom in the abstract, even claim that it's the most important thing for anyone to fight or die for, but we don't think a lot about what being free or practicing freedom might actually mean.”
David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs
How much does your ambition align with an intention to benefit humanity? What does “practicing freedom” mean to you?
“We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.”
Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks: Time And How To Use It
Imagine your remaining time on earth grants you the capacity to fulfill only one of your outstanding ambitions. Which one would you choose, and why?