Posts Tagged ‘ambition’

Okay, no, not really. What I really want to do is talk about ambition and different definitions of success.

I talk a lot about priorities, and ultimately our priorities hinge on our own personal definitions of success. In order to set priorities that work for you, you have to know what you want. Sometimes this directive becomes more complicated than it sounds.

We have ideas imbedded by our culture as to what constitutes success, and there are different degrees of success as well. Money, power, recognition, advancement, and a stable career are all possibilities we recognize and mark as successful. In the personal realm, success is often associated with being a spouse, a parent, and a homeowner.

Of course, we can hit our own personal mark of success without ever having a lot of money, or a lot of power in the business world, or the same steady job for twenty-five years. Success is subjective. Our definitions of it change over time. And yet, we are often influenced by the cultural ethos of what success means.

Dr. Horrible has his own unique definition of success...

Ambition gets all twisted up in these definitions as well. When we are going for what we want, pursuing our own success, then we are being ambitious, but we often limit our thinking about ambition to apply only to career-related goals.

For me, success has never been so much about money as it has been about being able to spend my time on things I find valuable and fulfilling. This is why I have, in the past, chosen time to do what I choose over more money. Some of the things I find valuable and fulfilling involve the outside world: teaching, for example, and helping people. Some creative endeavors might or might not reach the outside world. And some things I find of real inherent value even though they are just for me.

We as a culture also tend to buy into the idea that success will cause happiness. Sometimes this works out; when we figure out what will actually make us happy and prioritize accordingly, happiness and success can come hand in hand. But sometimes we assume success will bring us happiness without figuring out what would make us happy in the first place, only to suffer a rude awakening and realize we’re caught in a cycle of always wanting more: if only I had a bigger house, if only I made senior VP, if only I made #1 on the NYT bestseller list. Finding happiness within achievement without getting trapped in what we haven’t yet achieved can be an uneasy balance.

There are no right answers here; we have to make individual decisions about what’s important and how to define success for ourselves. We have to discover what it is that brings us happiness and personal satisfaction. And if the answer doesn’t meet the cultural norm, then we have to decide what we care about more: following the marked, tried-and-true road map to find success in other people’s eyes or venturing off the beaten path and making our own way. Either choice comes with its own difficulties.

What does success mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be ambitious?



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When I was a teenager, I enjoyed dreaming big. I wanted to be a novelist, I wanted to work on animated features at Disney, I wanted to write games at Sierra (this was back when they were still doing cool stuff like Quest for Glory, Castle of Dr. Brain, and the King’s Quest series). I wanted to be a singer and actress and perform in musicals, I wanted to write musicals, I wanted to direct musicals. I knew that many of these aspirations were unrealistic and difficult, but I wanted them all anyway.

However, a family member who shall remain nameless said something to me one day, perhaps just an offhand remark, that became fully lodged in my young impressionable brain. “Amy,” the person said, “you have delusions of grandeur.” They might as well have said, “Why try, because the only possible outcome is failure.” Even today, half my lifetime later, whenever I think of trying something daring or risky or simply ambitious, those words go through my mind. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I say to my husband, “because so-and-so said.” And then he has to go through the work of convincing me to do whatever it is anyway.

Photo by Tony Fischer


I was reminded of this when I read Christie Yant’s recent essay, Lessons from the Slushpile: Good vs. Great. She discusses what distinguishes the great stories (and incidentally, the ones that are bought) from the rest, and one of the distinctions she’s made is that truly great stories have something to say. They say something that matters, that makes us as readers think or question or feel. They are ambitious, meant to illuminate as well as entertain.In my limited experience, these kinds of ambitious stories are rare, but it was by finding them that I first learned to appreciate, and later to love, short stories as a form.So why are these stories thin on the ground? Perhaps for one or more of these reasons (and there might well be others):

1. It’s difficult to come up with something to say in the first place.
2. Even if you’ve got something to say, it’s difficult to express it in a clear and original fashion.
3. Writing such a story means that on some level, you’ve got to have delusions of grandeur.

I think I had it right as a teenager. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to strive, to push ourselves beyond our perceived capabilities, to dive into projects of vast scope. They give us permission to take risks, do things that make us uncomfortable, and ignore those who don’t believe we can do it. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to become great.

So right now, I’m going to finish up this essay, and then I’m going to sit down and work on a short story that scares the pants off me. It makes me uncomfortable, it kind of makes me want to cry, I’m not quite sure I know where it’s going, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to follow it there. All I can do is believe in its potential, as I believe in my own.

Delusions of grandeur are the necessary caterpillars if we want our words to fly.

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