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Thursday, September 25, 2008

On Ambition II: Still Hating Yourself and Loving It

A man's worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.
-- Marcus Aurelius

If you would attain to what you are not yet, you must always be displeased by what you are. For where you are pleased with yourself there you have remained. Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing.
-- St. Augustine

Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us. Its appetite grows keener by indulgence and all we can gratify it with at present serves but the more to inflame its insatiable desires.
-- Benjamin Franklin

Desire is the root of evil.
-- Gautama Siddharta

After focusing on real life for a while, I suppose it's time to return to the question of ambition that I've been avoiding because it feels like I need to write a thesis. Which I don't have time to write. But here are some casual thoughts on the replies below.

I'm not angry at my parents, and it doesn't feel right to me that others should condemn them for the way I was raised. As Adam said, I understand their motivation. Maybe it has a lot to do with the fact that my mother grew up in fairly horrific circumstances. One of ten children, she survived the Cultural Revolution by eating scraps and vermin before swimming to Hong Kong at the age of 22 to escape. I don't think anyone who hasn't experienced that kind of poverty and hardship can possibly understand what it takes to survive. I can philosophically ponder the necessity of ambition on the internet like a wanker; to my mother, ruthless tenacity and the relentless drive to succeed were needed just to keep from dying and climb out of the gutter.

Actually, I find I often connect with children-of-immigrants because they have a similar relationship with their parents. When people survive a war, or famine, or the Holocaust, or some kind of displacement, and manage to pick themselves up and move across the world to find a better life, they frequently seem to come out of it with a similar appreciation of ambition and hard work. Or maybe it was in their temperament to begin with, and that's why they immigrated. Chicken/egg.

Abuse is a very loaded word. I do not consider myself abused, but I don't know where I draw the line on what "abuse" is. Certainly, sexual abuse is abuse. Beating. Malicious intent. Neglect. Beyond that, it's hard for me to say exactly what is absolutely right and wrong. Who sets the standard? I'm sure I could point to any parent on the planet and find something in their technique to call abuse; all parents make mistakes. When does a mistake become abuse? When does it even become a mistake?

My mother considers the laissez-faire parenting practices of many Western families to be child abuse. I'm not kidding; she's expressed this opinion many times. A classmate of mine was very intelligent but didn't study or perform well academically; my mother privately criticized her parents for not having the courage and strength to push their child to achieve. To her, failing to engender ambition in one's children is akin to failing to teach them moral values or the basic skills needed to survive in the world. My mother has the same reaction to the "Be proud of yourself! Just do your best! Be whatever you want to be!" style of parenting as (I assume) you have watching incompetent parents struggle with their undisciplined, useless brats on Nanny 911 or Maury. She just draws the line in a different place. "Why wouldn't every good parent want their child to succeed, to be the best?"

It's easy to read my last entry on ambition and assume I had a deeply unhappy childhood, but I really didn't. There were moments of disappointment, awkwardness, unhappiness - sure, even terror - but I also remember distinctly not wanting to grow up because I loved the life I led. I was taught to love learning, and I was never denied the fulfillment of that desire. I loved achieving, and I loved being the smart kid. I was given a lot of trust and social self-determination. I never wanted materially, and was treated to ridiculous experiences way beyond our socio-economic status, like family trips overseas and a hoity-toity private school that I loved attending -- for god's sake, I went to Space Camp. When I recall my childhood, it averages out to a pretty good one overall.

Similarly, I can see that some people might assume that I'm so driven to succeed that I don't enjoy my life because it's a means to an end. No -- if that were the case, I'd be writing this blog entry between treating patients. I love what I do now, and I can't think of anything I've done in the last five years that was purely a means to an end and not personally fulfilling on its own (aside from a few jobs I've taken to pay rent). I've always believed the journey should be just as wonderful as the destination (which is why I really don't care if someone "spoils" a good movie for me).

So, why this discussion? As the title of these posts makes clear, I have one heck of a love/hate relationship with ambition, and I think ambition is one of the most ambivalently viewed human traits -- in any culture. We strive for contentment, but when someone claims to be content in a state we consider unworthy, we deride them for not being ambitious. Some consider ambition a dirty word and try to rid themselves of all desire (an endeavor which becomes an ambition in itself?). Others see this approach as a kind of oppression invented or re-purposed by those who wish to keep society static. Some believe that without ambition we are nothing. Others believe that ambition makes us slaves.

Do we want ambition, or don't we? How much do we want to achieve in life, and at what cost? Can ambition be turned off like a switch in order to achieve contentment, or does the abandonment of ambition cause a slow sink into resentment and self-loathing? Is there an acceptable middle ground?

I don't advocate paying too high a cost, but if you really believe that my experience was so terrible ... well, to paraphrase Bill Hicks a little: name ten people whose achievements you place in the highest regard, and I guarantee you that most of them will have a drive resulting from some hole in their self-esteem, probably created in their upbringing by their parents. Einstein may not have been gagged and put in a sack (that we know of), but Leopold Mozart placed *far* more pressure on young Wolfgang than my mother ever placed on me (jms, you didn't really think I was going to let that slide, did you?). Are we willing to give up the idea of operating at full potential and the possible results for the sake of a happy childhood or adult contentment? Is it a bad thing that I look at what I've done, and always think to myself, "It's not enough"? Isn't that what keeps one adding, walking, advancing?

The truth is, as much as ambition cripples my self-worth, I fucking love the rush of achieving. I love the motivation it gives me. I love the fact that I can make myself do amazing things by thinking myself into a hole and clawing my way out of it creatively. I love the competition, real or invented. I love the sense of primal satisfaction I feel a moment before I tell myself I'm not good enough, the job's not yet finished, and I ride off to slay another dragon.

But I don't know if it's right to love it.

[Incidentally: on this day, exactly twenty years ago, my mother was admitted to a psych ward for the first time. Ugh, no, don't weep for me or her, I just thought it was interesting.]
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