One of the most haunting quotes of all time for me is one Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) sings in “Paranoid Android”: Ambition makes you look pretty ugly. Haunting and scary. I don’t want to be ugly. I want to be pretty all the time. I also want to be ambitious. Actually, I can’t help but be ambitious. I have a drive and I hate feeling like I’m in a lull. A good friend used to tell me all the time that I have a motor. It’s true: I have a motor. I suspect that if you call yourself a writer, part of that is because you have a motor, too.
Today I spent an hour doing an exercise in Julia Cameron’s THE RIGHT TO WRITE, where she recommends that you put on music that makes you feel adventurous (for me this was the Soundtrack to Amelie and a bunch of Elmore James, who makes me wiggle in a good way–I’m wiggling as I write this…). Then you take ten minutes dreaming on the page about six areas of your life: Spirituality, Friendships, Living Space, Traveling/Adventure, Work Life, and Creative Projects. All of this writing helped me come up to today’s thought:
There are two kinds of ambition: selfish ambition and selfless ambition.
Ambition is good. It can’t be helped for some of us. Some of us just have motors (and we remain ever envious of those who are content with simple lives). I recognize my motor and I embrace it. It’s what’s going to get me through this novel. But I must make a choice as I go to work, as I let the motor propel my writing: I must choose selfless, over selfish ambition.
Selfish ambition means I want to be number one and I get pissed off when others pass me in the race to success. I shun the friends who are rewarded for their hard work. I am angry because I deserved whatever reward they received–I am entitled to whatever they got. I am bitter and I am depressed because everyone is passing me by. I am stuck in despair over other people’s achievements.
Selfless ambition means I want my success to inspire people to strive for their own successes. This means I live in constant congratulatory mode. When my friends make achievements, I congratulate them. I celebrate their success. We are all on a team to make the world better. We want our friends to produce the kind of work that delights and satisfies, that inspires readers/listeners/audience members to appreciate their lives, to stay curious. We want our friends to put good writing out there and for that good writing to be recognized and appreciated. We want our friends to be rewarded for their hard work.
Selfish ambition means I write only to satisfy myself. I write for paychecks. I write for recognition. I write for revenge–everyone who overlooked my work will feel like the jackass they are when they see how fabulous my work has been all along. I write to make people suffer while I work my way up the ladder. I write with a hunger that will never be satisfied, though I convince myself that if I just have a book published, if I just get a tenure track job, then I will be satisfied. I crush everyone along the way to these goals.
Selfless ambition means that I write in order to enlighten the world to whatever topics, people, and phenomenons that I discover during my writing process. Ultimately, our creative projects are good for us and they are good for everyone else. When people overlook my work, I work harder and do not despair.
I choose selfless ambition over selfish ambition because, I believe, it’s an answer to Thom Yorke’s observation in this here quote:
Recommended Reading: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, Penguin: 1998