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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Ambition, or Hating Yourself and Loving It

Pronunciation: \am-'bi-shən\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French, from Latin ambition-, ambitio, literally, act of soliciting for votes, from ambire
Date: 14th century
  1. a: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power
    b: desire to achieve a particular end
  2. the object of ambition <her ambition is to start her own business>
  3. a desire for activity or exertion <felt sick and had no ambition>

The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious: if it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it.

I've been thinking a lot about ambition lately -- about where it comes from, and whether it's a good or bad thing.

I grew up believing that ambition was paramount. Contentment was a dirty word, a state of mind which necessarily breeds stagnation, and which should be left to the inept and the elderly; we should never be content with ourselves and our lot in life, or we won't strive to better ourselves, I thought. Or think. I'm not sure. (That is the question.)

Ambition is a central concept to Chinese (even Asian) culture and outlook. Chinese parents foster ambition in their children in ways which seem brutal to those with a more Western outlook. I understand this, and hold no ill-will towards mine. My mother was ever watchful for and quick to quash laziness and complacency in her daughter. Through my elementary schooling, she rode me hard to achieve academically, and nothing was ever good enough. I remember breaking down in tears in class over test scores as high as 99%. My concerned or incredulous fellow students thought I was exaggerating when I explained how angry my mother would be, but I wasn't paranoid. I held back tears as I met my mother at the school gate, and when I showed her my exam, the first words out of her mouth would be "Only 99%?" I knew the rest of the evening would be spent listening to tirades about how careless I was and how much harder I needed to study. Even if I scored full marks, she'd never show any outward pride or affirmation, instead reminding me of past mistakes and counseling me not to become too confident lest I slip up the next time.

Here's the worst thing my parents ever did. I tell you this not to feel sorry for myself or shock you, but to illustrate how the will to achieve is forced upon kids by the culture in which I was raised. When I was three or four, I threw a tantrum because I didn't want to study. My parents tied me up, stuffed a tea towel into my mouth, and put me in a sack. I remember the smell and taste of the cloth between my teeth, and the tears running down my face and pooling under my cheek. The sack was made of some kind of polyester, which left me stifled and hot as I struggled and tried to scream. While I lay on the floor, they talked within earshot about how useless I was if I didn't work hard, and how they might as well dump me in Musgrave Park to be raised by Aborigines, who would make me drink metho.

This abhorrence, fear almost, of my laziness extended into my adulthood. When I was 24, for example, my mother and I had an enormous fight on the phone because she accused me of being lazy and having fun instead of working hard. At the time, I was working fifteen hours a day at three separate jobs.

I don't think this is particularly unusual for Chinese parents; it's far from the worst story I've heard (I was never kicked across a room, or threatened with amputation, or chained to a toilet). The point is that my parents, like many of their culture, deliberately and systematically undermined my self-esteem to engender ambition. I worked hard because I didn't want to be useless, and they worked hard to make me believe that uselessness was always a possibility. I wanted to make them proud, and they worked hard not to show they were proud so I would keep on working. They did this because, within their culture, doing so is an act of love. They believe that giving a child that unquenchable thirst for achievement is the best thing one can do as a parent, that the result might be the next Einstein or Mozart. It might be hard on your children in the short term, but in the end, they'll thank you, or if they don't, you'll at least know you did what needed to be done.

What makes people do great things? What drives individuals to earn more money than they could ever spend, or practice an instrument until they are the best in the world, or train until they win an Olympic medal, or ignore personal relationships for art, or kill themselves studying radium? It seems common sense to me that many of the most successful people in the world are driven by the same kind of neurosis, stamped upon them by parents or circumstances in the same way. We're never good enough, we have to try to be good enough, we keep trying, sacrificing everything. Some succeed, some don't, but success on that level isn't possible without that abnormal drive. If genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the greater part of genius is the ability to make the effort.

(Not that I'm a genius. Logic - cats - four legs.)

But this affects us in other ways too. We catastrophize. When your whole life is spent imagining the worst in order to avoid it and capitalizing on the intoxicatingly potent power of self-hatred, it can be hard to turn that off. Unfortunately, while such a schema might succeed when you're finding the motivation to improve a test score from 99% to 100% or impress people with your myriad accomplishments, it might mean that you assume the worst in personal relationships, that you're crippled by feelings of inadequacy. The very thing that makes you do the great things you were programmed to do necessitates terrible insecurities that sabotage happiness.

I'm trying to figure out where my priorities lie. What do I want out of life? Is it OK to be content after all? Should there be compromise, and where should the compromise intersect the opposing viewpoints? I'm struggling with that question. There's a large part of me that still holds contentment in contempt and believes in the schema. But another part sees the damage that it causes and wonders if it's worth it. I don't know what the answer is, or what will come of it. We'll see, I guess.

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