In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the root of betrayal, dishonesty, conspiracy — what makes these narratives tragic, in other words — is ambition.
In the first scene of King Lear, the elderly, semi-senile king decides it is time to divide his realm up among his three young daughters, declaring that he’ll offer the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him most. Lear’s biggest tragic flaw is his blindness to others’ flaws: it doesn’t occur to him that any of his children might be driven by greed or power — that they might have ambitions of their own. He can’t imagine that Goneril and Regan would deceive him with flattery for personal gain — that they might love power and money more than their own father. Lear banishes Cordelia, his stubborn but only loyal daughter, and the tragedy is set in motion.
In Julius Caesar, Cassius, one of the central conspirators planning to assassinate Caesar, convinces Brutus to betray Caesar by manipulating his perception of ambition. First, Cassius describes Caesar’s thirst for power as despotic, suggesting that it has Romans “groaning under this age’s yoke.” Immediately, though, Cassius invites Brutus to consider his own ambition for the first time, tempting him with the image of power: “I have heard,” Cassius says, “Where many of the best respect in Rome/ … speaking of Brutus.” Who wouldn’t be flattered by such a remark?
Moments after Caesar is slain, Brutus stands over his friend’s dead body and announces, “ambition’s debt is paid.” In other words, acting according to ambition always involves paying a price. In this case, Caesar’s death is a consequence of ambition — Brutus’ own, as well as a cost of it — Caesar’s.
I could bore you with more examples but I’ll be nice. Consider the above an epigraph for the following question that I’ve been noodling on recently: is it possible to focus on ambition and support your happiness at the same time?
I’ll start by unpacking my own relationship to the word AMBITION. Obviously the way we understand and define it is different today than in Shakespeare’s context. But I started with these dramatic examples for a reason: they show how blind we can become when ambition takes center stage, and how quickly.
I began thinking of myself as an ambitious person in high school. At that time, ambition meant achievement, though I wasn’t yet mature enough to know what it was I wanted to achieve (or why). I was, however, self-aware enough to know that I was obsessed with school (grades, yes, but if I’m trying to be less cynical, I was genuinely focused on academics). But yeah sure, I also wanted to study my ass off for the SATs and do too many extracurriculars like playing guitar and painting and writing for the school newspaper so that I seemed interesting on paper. As an anxious child, I’d begun the habit of compulsively cleaning my family’s home by the time I was only 10, and I guess my penchant for control stuck around. Color-coding my closet, making to-do-lists, studying — these were all activities that soothed me, like a child clutching a blankie or watching cartoons with a string-cheese in hand. I could input effort and see output rendered. I equated ambition and control.
In my teenage years, I learned quickly that the “ambition” I brought to my school work could be applied to my body. If I restricted my calorie intake, that was ambitious, right? To me, dieting felt like an exercise in virtue — doing the same amount as everyone around me, but with less fuel. Pleasure was inefficient. Hunger felt morally upstanding — a constant reminder of my self-control, composure, even pragmatism.
This mythology — my conflation of ambition, control, and self-denial — only got more extreme when I went to Harvard for college. For better or for worse, Harvard tends to be a petri dish for students just old enough to identify their ambitions, but not mature enough to ask “why?” It was at Harvard that I became obsessed with G-cal and developed a toxic, hyper-compartmentalized relationship to time, one that continues to plague me today. Just as J. Alfred Prufrock laments “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” I often fear that I literally measure out my life in G-cal “events” — most of which are personal lists and reminders rather than actual appointments or plans.
In my junior year in college, I developed a terrifying addiction to the amphetamine-based stimulant Adderall after realizing that it sharpened the edges of my self-discipline in ways that felt supernatural. I could go days without eating or talking to other people, but I could still write papers for graduate seminars (I wanted to be an academic at the time) and clean my room until my floor was clean enough to eat off of. Fortunately, I got off Adderall before my senior year started.
Also fortunately, I abandoned my fantasy of a career in academia quickly after graduating college. And yet, for the past 6+ years, I’ve still held tightly onto similar narratives about what it means to be an “ambitious” or “successful” person. Conditioning is powerful, no? (And it’s not just my own neuroses — our culture does not make this easy for anyone. I’ll say more on that in a second). It wasn’t until I was sitting in therapy just this year that I realized just how much I rely on self-judgment as a source of motivation. The word “should” has long existed at the center of my vocabulary, and anything I “want” to do quickly, almost automatically, becomes a chore. At times, I don’t know what it feels like to live inside of my body — to want to do something (and to do it!) because I am in the mood. To eat something because I am craving it. To experience time as anything but a vehicle for getting something done.
Thanks to the work I’ve done on myself (in therapy, through journaling, by reading or practicing yoga and meditation, among other forms of healing), I’ve learned to identify and nurture other desires, emotions and needs — beyond “ambition” — all of which I’ve ignored for most of my life.
For example, I want to feel a greater sense of freedom and expansion in my writing work — but I’ve become so well-practiced at repressing that desire in order to devote myself to infinite to-do-lists disguised as G-cal events. I love cooking and baking and eating adventurously — but often feel scared of indulging these desires, having rehearsed self-denial for long enough to judge them as unworthy or frivolous. I want to create time and space in my life for painting, an activity I adored during my childhood (and a bit in college) — but have been facing some resistance as I try to carve away time for something that I have no “future” in.
In this last case, please consider the irony. My self-defined concept of “ambition” is not an engine for taking action, but nothing more than a major wet blanket weighing on my creativity, curiosity, and motivation. With each revelation, I am beginning to thaw, to see more and more that self-hatred is not that heroic after all.
Currently, our culture encourages notions of ambition like the one I’ve been seeking to redefine in my own life. That is, ambition as an external, measurable achievement. An idea, a concept (I want to be a writer so I can be famous) — rather than an embodied feeling (I want to be a writer because I love writing). Ambition as number of Likes or followers, clicks and views.
Social media has “empowered” us (or perhaps imprisoned us, depending on your opinion — you can probably sense mine) to turn what once may have been fun, spontaneous hobbies into opportunities for “influencing,” entrepreneurship, elements of public identity. (This opinion piece in The New York Times, “In Praise of Mediocrity,” really resonated with my thoughts on this matter). It’s not enough just to care about something — you have to show you care about it, and get the validation to confirm that you care enough. What a great culture in which to find inspiration! Amirite?
Let me stop for a second to remind us all that the word “inspire” is etymologically derived from the Latin inspirare, to breathe into. You can literally think of creative inspiration as a respiratory action, one that is often involuntary just like breathing. We tend to think of ourselves in a state of being “inspired” or of others as “inspiring” — adjectives — rather than the action, “to inspire.” But with the proper sense of space and safety and freedom, we can inspire all of our experiences — people, poems, paintings, foods. We can allow ourselves to daydream. We can see a color we like and decide to draw with colored pencils for an hour. We may even find that with a little exploration, we unlock a well of motivation for hard work. We can take action — lots of action! — from a place of joy.
I don’t mean to suggest that everything we do in life should be born from desire or instinct, nor do I think that’s even possible. Obviously we live in a fast-paced capitalist society and sitting around strumming “Kumbaya” on your guitar isn’t going to get you a book deal. While I’m trying to move away from a crack-the-whip mentality about my own goals, sure, I know hard work is still necessary, and that sometimes hard work requires you to make a to-do-list or G-cal event.
But what I am trying to suggest that ambition and happiness can not only coexist, but hopefully can even encourage each other — if and only if your idea of ambition doesn’t threaten your sense of safety. The core feelings and desires that you may be inclined to ignore — where are they? Are you accounting for them? What about the needs of your inner 5-year-old? How does he/she/they feel about whatever goal it is that you’re after?
The idea of safety might seem a little out of left-field, but let me explain.
In a recent article I wrote for The New York Times, I examined the psychological underpinnings of procrastination and explained how, at its core, procrastinating is about managing our emotions, not our time. Quick synopsis: we procrastinate because of difficult feelings that come up for us around a given task — insecurity or dread, self-doubt, boredom, you get the gist. Evolutionarily, our brains are wired to perceive these feelings as dangerous — threats to our safety, in other words — so we avoid the cause of these feelings in order to “survive.” Yes, procrastination is a survival mechanism gone awry.
Similarly, if our personal definition of “ambition” requires us to deprive ourselves of adequate sleep, food, social interaction, or whatever the needs/feelings/etc. are, we will likely feel a sense of danger or unease at our core. This doesn’t mean that we won’t still be wildly successfully — plenty of entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, writers, etc. have been known to work very hard, and very successfully, at the expense of their well-being. But most of them have not been able to boast of happiness, which is up to each and every one of us to define for ourselves.
By “happiness,” at least for myself, I don’t mean to conjure images of glittery, buoyant blonde women doing yoga poses in front of waterfalls on Instagram. Frankly, I am often put off by much of the self-help-slash-wellness rhetoric around questions like “How to be happy” or “What does happiness mean, anyway?” Much of this content doesn’t address the difficulty of the journey toward feeling good — the anxiety of developing new habits and facing fear about change; doubt about whether new habits will even make a difference; whether it’s even possible not to judge self-destructive behaviors when they become so frustratingly repetitive.
What I do mean is something resembling contentment, groundedness, a sense of I-am-OK. Safety, really.
Finding the pathway to contentment isn’t easy. Acceptance of “what is” is at the core, and we all know that is easier said than done. But being able to take a breath in (inspire!) and feel our feet beneath us is a good starting place, and most of us can get there. From there, we can practice what it feels like to trust ourselves. Ask, What do I need in this moment to feel safe? Do this on your way to work, at the start of a big project, in the shower each morning as you consider the day ahead — wherever, really.
I know the notion of the “inner child” is abundant in the self-help world, but I prefer the image of my “inner children” — multiple! — as I definitely felt anxious and wasn’t able to “parent” myself at various stages of childhood. When I ask this question — What do I need in this moment to feel safe? — I consider my vulnerable inner 5-year-old, my rambunctious inner 8-year-old, my bratty inner 12-year old, and so on. I show them, and myself, that I can trust myself. I am accounting for their safety, our safety.
From this foundation of greater trust, we can experiment with taking action in a new way. We continue to strengthen the muscle of self-trust. We can be ambitious — we can achieve things, great things — without paying our happiness as the price.