Where exactly is the line between ambition and masochism, and at what point in my life did I cross over it without noticing? On dark days, like when I miss out on a job or can’t afford a ticket to something or am reminded by my body that yet another egg has gone unfertilized, I often ask this question. It started sometime around age 33, probably because once you reach that “I outlived Jesus” moment it is only natural to take a hard look at what you have accomplished so far.
Ambition – n. 1: the desire to achieve a particular end; 2: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.
The only positions of rank I have ever striven for or achieved are that of first lieutenant of the marching band and captain of the high school math team, and I long ago concluded that any level of fame beyond minor name recognition (just enough to get the occasional dinner reservation) would make me miserable. But still, I have always been an ambitious person. Even without Winston Churchill or an Uncle Ben in my life (the guy on the rice box doesn’t count), it was clear to me that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Or, in other words, that when your parents give you genetic gifts, you use them.
What I haven’t been able to figure out is the degree to which the obligation to use talent should dictate life decisions. One of my favorite baseball players, Nomar Garciaparra, actually loved soccer most, but played baseball because he was so good at it and his dad wanted him to. Was that right? It certainly brought a lot of joy to the world – I enjoyed the hell out of his shirtless Sports Illustrated cover photo – but it makes me a little sad to think he didn’t love the game.
In my junior year of college, the campus was abuzz with news of a freshman girl from India who had been recruited by the school in large part because she was six-foot-eight and good at basketball. (How could she not be, at that height?) Upon arrival, she told the college she would not be playing basketball so she could focus on getting the most out of her Harvard education. I found myself in line for milk behind her one day, and as I watched her unfold from the milk dispenser to her full six feet and eight inches, I couldn’t help but think two things: first, that she was the best argument for drinking milk ever made, and second, that she had some impressive nerve to defy the tacit expectations of Harvard (and of nature) to do what she wanted instead. But was she right?
This friction between obligation and desire is universal – just ask Hillary – and will probably never go away. Do I do what I am good at? Do I do what I love? Or do I try to become the first female President because I, unlike most, actually could? My constant fear is that I will choose the wrong side; or worse – that I already have.
My ambition comes from knowing that I am capable of achieving great things, and also from taking pride in that fact. On top of feeling an obligation to use the brain I have been given, I also want to prove to myself, the world, whomever, that I am not wasting my talents or resting on them. Combine this with a few centuries worth of ingrained New England Puritanism, which screams that nothing is of value unless it is difficult, and the result is an ever-climbing standard for “success” that soon resembles a penchant for misery.
Masochism – n. 1: pleasure in being abused or dominated; 2: a taste for suffering.
Despite major guilt, I have somehow managed to let desire do most of the steering in life. In college, I changed my major from Applied Math to English not because I couldn’t make it as a cryptographer, but because there were so many books I wanted to read and discuss. Still, I feel like I gave up somehow. After getting into a few good law schools, I again decided not to go down that road because, while studying law sounded fun, the idea of being a lawyer after (and of accumulating more debt) did not appeal to me. Even though I am now blissfully happy as a writer, there is also an overwhelming sense that I have to make up for what I have given up. But what level of literary success is the equivalent of a career as an NSA code breaker, or a White House speech writer, or a public school teacher (like my parents)? This is how ambition becomes self-flagellation.
To satisfy my ambition and assuage my guilt, I have to achieve something hard. I mean, really hard. How else can I explain my ridiculous life choice? I could have been a lawyer, or a doctor, or a scientist, and instead I have chosen not only to write in the one medium (film) that least values writers, but also in the one genre (comedy) that gets the least respect, and as a member of the gender (female) that is only grudgingly welcome in the boys’ clubhouse. Whose stupid idea was this?
Ambition is great, we should all be striving for something, but the trick, I suppose, is to appreciate the struggle without falling in love with it. When the dream is so ideal as to become nearly impossible, maybe we should worry that we’re in it more for the pride of survival than for the goal. Or not; I have written plenty about how fairy tales are evil because they teach girls to wait for a perfect man (who doesn’t exist), but here I am in my mid-thirties still looking. I like to think of myself as an idealist, but as the Democratic Party has demonstrated time and again, “idealist” is just another way of saying “glutton for punishment”.
On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey has become a multi-million-dollar property, and a woman my age just snagged a ring from George Clooney. Maybe masochism is the way to go after all.