How Ambition Can Block Success


…So let’s talk about writing and ambition. For years, I believed the two were almost synonymous. If I weren’t gunning for recognition, I feared I might not write at all.

David Whyte writes, “Ambition is a word that strangely, lacks any real ambition, ambition is frozen desire, the current of a vocational life immobilized and over-concretized to set, unforgiving goals.”

In July of 2014, something happened that began to thaw my frozen desire. Later, I understood that this event had everything to do with ambition.

I was an hour into a car trip from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to Cape Cod. It’s a three hour trip at the best of times, but  the traffic that day was abysmal. I was hungry, but too stubborn to stop. To ease boredom, I’d already pigged out on cheap trail mix studded with fake M & M’s. NPR is my usual long-trip fare, but the New Hampshire station is only great if you’re from NH and heavily into local politics. On a previous trip, for some reason they’d aired the Boston University graduation ceremony, and I’d subjected myself to the Whole…Damn. Thing.

But I was fed up with feeling like I might be in for 18 hours in the car. Expecting nothing, I succumbed to the radio. The Diane Rehm show was in progress. I’d never heard it before—it isn’t aired in Philadelphia—but at least nobody was offering a 15-minute invocation. After a while, I realized she was interviewing someone who’d published a novel.

The writer was Akhil Sharma. I hadn’t heard of him, but I could tell he was the kind of writer who’d be invited to speak at an MFA program—that is, Literary. As opposed to merely Popular. Of course, when I was in grad school, most of us wanted to be Elite, aka Literary AND Popular In Our Own Lifetimes, but most of us wouldn’t have admitted that.

“Whereas with my first book I wanted to write a book that was good,” he said, “I wanted a book that can offer comfort, you know, that can talk about the very difficult things in life but can offer comfort.”

Hearing this, I sat upright. “You can DO that? You can write literary fiction with the goal of comforting people?”

I had gone through my MFA program and beyond with one assumption unchallenged—the goal of writing, “real” writing—was to create the most beautiful artifact known to humanity. My thinking was muddled, because if you’d asked me whether being admired had done more for me in life than receiving and sharing comfort, I would have said No. But I still would have argued against writing as comfort.

Since 2014, the wisdom of Sharma’s statement has grown on me. My previous view of ambition saw desperate writers clinging to the rungs of a very tall ladder—The few in the dizzying heights didn’t bother me. But the more people I saw below me, the happier I was. The ones above me who really galled were women born after I’d graduated from high school, who’d become household names. I first read Zadie Smith because I was so pissed off at her.

I enjoy being competitive in small doses, but it’s not sustainable as a way of life. Eventually, ambition almost made me ditch writing. I wasn’t getting higher on the ladder, and it wasn’t fun. I didn’t pay enough attention when people genuinely loved my work–it was never “enough.”

“Comfort,” as I understand it, is about people helping one another find healing and joy in hard times. When I was a child, books offered me hope. It didn’t occur to me that I might want to write. Much later, when writing clicked for me, I guess I forgot who I used to be. Now, remembering that wise child, I want to write all the more–for her!

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