Are you ambitious?
If you are like most people your knee jerk reaction to that question is "yes, of course"
We fetishize ambition in America. We believe that the entire foundation of the America Dream is based on ambition. You can be anything you want to be if you just work for it. Its the phrase anything you want to be - if you are ambitious.
So most people say yes they are.
In Corporate America it's even more prevalent. You don't want to be the employee caught out with no ambition. Striving to be better, to get that promotion, to rise in the ranks is what we all should aspire to do - even though a small percentage of people are actually in leadership or management positions compared to the whole of a company.
That matters not, they want you to be ambitious.
I overheard a woman tell a colleague the other day that she isn't very ambitious (and just fine with it) and it is such a rare thing to hear admitted I did a double take!
But what if there was a better way - for us all.
Agnes Collard, in her book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming talks about the difference between aspiration and ambition.
This quote is from the New Yorker article on The Art of Decision Making
"Some of the people taking the music-appreciation class are ambitious; they enrolled not because they aspire to love classical music but because the class is an easy A. From the first day, they know what they value: their grades. (“Turning ambition into aspiration is one of the job descriptions of any teacher,” Callard notes.) The ambitious students find it easy to explain why they’re taking the class. But the aspirants must grow comfortable with a certain quantity of awkward pretense. If someone were to ask you why you enrolled, you would be overreaching if you said that you were moved by the profound beauty of classical music. The truth, which is harder to communicate, is that you have some vague sense of its value, which you hope that some future version of yourself might properly grasp."
To have an aspiration then is to be moving towards a better version of yourself, the self you hope to be. You see some value in the learning of things, the participation of some exercise even if you know it won't result in an A or a promotion or a raise.
Let's take work.
Statistically, it's impossible for all people to have the ambition to climb the corporate ladder - there aren't enough spots - we can't all be leaders! So we claim ambition and apply ourselves in ways that help us get to a coveted spot if we can. While we are doing that we are leaving our aspirations behind. Our aspirations to be a better colleague, to learn for learnings sakes, to just do good work and then go home and take care of our families. Pursuing the first one can leave us wanting, feeling like a failure if our ambition didn't get us what we thought we could achieve with it. The second one can leave us fulfilled - we aspired to be something greater than we work and the reward was in the work itself.
That's a hard pivot to make in cultures where ambition is rewarded. I myself have a hard time making it. But I turn this idea of aspiration over in my mind frequently and ask myself "who do you aspire to be" instead of "what do you want to achieve"
I have a nurture goal of being a working artist. Nurture goals are ones you never achieve but are always working at. I won't hit the goal of working artist one day and then be able to close the door on that. I have to work on art every day if I want to be a working artist.
So, I have this nurture goal.
For many people being a working artist would mean that you are making money at the art. This uses the very capitalistic definition of working
Mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment.
But I use working to in the DO WORK sense
A thing or things done or made
To be a working artist is to do or make something every day. With that definition in mind, my nurture goal is within my grasp and is something that provides value to my life. Providing value to my life is The Metric I use when evaluating anything in my life.
But every so often I get distracted. I let the idea of getting better and making money at it take over. I start to think that I should let this thing consume me fully so I can then make money at it so I can then rise to the top of the field and on and on. Social media allows you to believe that celebrity is within your grasp and all you need to do is make art and post it online.
I heard the idea of if you want to be a working artist - working as in make money - you are going to need to join a scene. Being a successful working artist in the monetary sense is more about who you know and who can promote your work versus the work you can create.
I can see that. I see lots of illustrators online and then I know people who illustrate. I see no appreciable difference in the work they are doing except that one artist is part of a scene of working artists who can boost each other up and the other is not. Both may befine themselves as working artists but only one is willing to put the same amount of effort into the scene they are in as they are into the art. That helps to convert from working for The Work artist to working for the money artist.
I don't begrudge anyone whichever one they want to be. But exploring this idea helps me remember that I want to be a working artist in the do work sense. It helps free my mind from the stress of the idea that I am not in the right scene, I don't know the right people, etc.
I can just focus on The Work.
Yesterday I made a lemon pannacotta and I experienced something I read about recently in a book. The concept of finishability.
In Revenge of Analog by David Sax, he talks about a resurgence of print and in particular magazines. This quote stuck out to me -
"A magazine has a defined beginning, middle and end and reaching that end is incredibly satisfying. Finishability."
Many things in life that once had finishability no longer do, and the dissatisfaction you experience from not ever being able to finish something shows up in areas you may not expect it.
Let's take work.
How many of us get a daily sense of finishability in our work? I dare to say not many of us. We are on very long-term projects, we are in a holding pattern waiting for resources, or our jobs are designed to be changing every day so you never really know when you are done. That changing everyday thing... we call that being flexible but it often denotes a lack of something else. We couch it as flexible or agile and call it good. But it leaves us wanting. It leaves us feeling like we never finish anything.
Thinking on that reminds me of a job I had in my late 20's/early '30s. It was the Internet Boom! Once a week I brought a baked from scratch treat into the office. They were gobbled up by colleagues through mouthfuls of "thank you" and "this is really good". My manager once asked me why I did it and I replied that it was something I could do that gave me immediate feedback, something I knew I had done and done well. This was at the start of the work world changing with the advent of ubiquitous internet. Looking back now I see it was a sign of things to come.
Reenter the pannacotta. On the night we got engaged we had lemon pannacotta at Fore Street in Portland, Maine. I have been talking about it ever since. Somehow it dawned on me (during Analog March) that if I wanted lemon pannacotta so bad I could make it myself. So I did. I found a recipe, bought the ingredients, prepared them and then served it after dinner to a husband who was delighted we were having dessert. And then it was done. I finished it. I will make it again, but for yesterday I was able to finish it and it felt satisfying. Finishability.
Every once in a while, and I am sure you experience this too, you read a book you find so amazing that you have to share it. Today I am sharing one of those books: Emotional Agility by Susan David
This is a non-fiction book found in the personal growth section of your local bookstore. I don't discriminate amazing books to fiction, non-fiction or any time of genre - so you will find me all over the place on this topic.
So why. Why is this book so amazing?
I found the book amazing based on this one little phrase that has stuck with me since I read this in August of 2017 and that phrase is
Who is in charge - the thinker or the thought?
The book is 288 pages so there is clearly more to what she is writing than that. But if you read it and you only get one thing out of it I hope its that idea. The concept that your thoughts are not real. They are just thoughts and you could just as easily have a different thought, which is proof they aren't real. So if they aren't real - then they aren't in charge. You are in charge.
There are thoughts running through your head every day all day
"I don't belong here" - not real
"I am a failure" - not real
"I am amazing" - also not real (it goes both ways)
So if those thoughts aren't real, especially the negative ones, what does that mean for us (for me as I read this book).
It meant I could re-write the narrative of my life that was running through my head. If the thoughts weren't real then I had the power to choose a different thought. If neither were going to be real I might as well choose the one that serves me best.
I choose "I belong here" over "I don't belong here" because choosing the thought that I belong grounds me in this world and enables me to do the work I want to do.
I choose "My work is good" over "My work is not good enough" because choosing that through keeps me going in the work I want to do.
It also means you can re-write the negative narratives in your brain as well. You can choose different thoughts and in choosing those different thoughts you can have a different outcome. Believing in your work, your art, your creativity will keep you going. And in the creation of work, whatever that may be, keeping going is the only metric of success.
Just keep going. It's in the work where you find the answers.
With art or any work we choose to undertake, most of what you have to do is show up.
So if you find yourself with a narrative you aren't happy with I encourage you to try this book. In addition to the mantra I mentioned above you will find some other gems!
If you are interested in more on the book here is the official book summary and some places you can learn more.
Summary: The way we navigate our inner world – our everyday thoughts, emotions, and self-stories – is the single most important determinant of our life success. It drives our actions, careers, relationships, happiness, health; everything. For example: Do we let our self-doubts, failings, shame, fear, or anger hold us back? Can we be determined, persevering toward key life goals, but just as importantly, have the insight and courage to recognize when these goals are not serving us, and adapt?
You can hear her on NPR here: http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/03/17/susan-david-emotional-agility
And a quick video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcUkmzQTBhE
Here is the book website: http://www.susandavid.com/new-index/