doing the most

What Makes Ambition Come and Go?

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Source Imagery: New York Public Library

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

I have a strange theory of ambition that involves thinking of life as a pie chart and ambition as a decorative stone dragon. In the pie chart, each wedge represents a different section of life: family, romance, work, health, hobbies, religion, etc. Some of the wedges overlap, and it’s not that they’re ever truly separate, but from a distance they can seem distinct.

Then, ambition shows up in the various wedges like one of those stone dragon statues with multiple pieces that you can set up on your lawn, or in a fountain, to give the impression of a dragon swimming, like this:

Illustration: Edith Zimmerman

(I saw something like it in a catalogue when I was young, and evidently it made a bigger impression on me than it has on the rest of the world; I’m surprised that Google Images does not have more pictures of it.)

Anyway, this is the Ambition Dragon, and wherever it shows up on the pie chart of life, it infuses that wedge with color, intensity, and urgency. I’m not sure why I think of ambition as this lawn decoration, but I find it captures both the mysteriousness as well as the absurdity of ambition. Why do we want the things we want? Why do they rarely turn out like we think? Where does desire come from? It also seems apt that half of this dragon is “underwater” — or doesn’t exist at all. I guess that’s a nod to the fact that many of our own impulses (ambitions, desires) remain half-concealed to us, too.

The Ambition Dragon has shown up in several of my life wedges so far. In my 20s, “job ambition” felt urgent. I wanted recognition, to earn a spot at a particular table, to impress a certain segment of people. At one point when I was 27, I had a blog post go viral, and watching its traffic numbers rise on Chartbeat, I felt like I was high. I remember thinking that everything in the world could go wrong from then on out, but no one could take this one thing away from me. It seemed like the beginning of something, but also felt like an ending — an item I was subconsciously crossing off my list.

Maybe with each success, ambition turns its nose in a slightly different direction. I’m thinking now of a lawn dragon sniffing around in the grass, hunting out novelty.

Around when I turned 30, I burned out on work and abruptly quit my job running a women’s website. I was at the place where ambition 2.0 should have kicked in — time to think of long-term plans like buying a house, getting married, having a kid, next career steps. But instead, things crumbled. I remember assuming that soon enough, something cool would just appear, giving me a new direction to reach for and hustle toward (in short, the Ambition Dragon would pull through for me). Instead, I did mostly nothing for five years, beyond kindle a drinking problem. I’m not sure what happened, but it wasn’t until I got sober that I started wanting things again.

I don’t think it’s possible to generate ambition, but I do think it’s possible to create a situation where ambition is more likely to poke its head up. I’d thought it would just come for me if I waited around, but I learned that it shows up when you’ve been doing the busywork, creating a routine, taking care of the day-to-day stuff, making a good home for it. Sometimes ambition drives the work, and sometimes the work invites ambition.

In my mid-30s (now), the Ambition Dragon has made a comeback, both in my career and more noisily in the “relationship” and “family” wedges. It feels a little weird to use the same words I’ve associated with my job — success, achievement — in a personal-life context, but lately I have been. (Ambition: “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.”) It’s more confusing, though, to want things you can’t exactly “work” toward, or at least not as directly as you can at a desk.

In truth, the older I get, the less I understand what I want. Was I initially ambitious for money or security, recognition or pleasure? Connection? To feel like a valuable person? Are my current ambitions just another way of seeking those same things?

I know the dragon thing is sort of ridiculous. My ambitions aren’t really so mysterious or random, arriving and departing like a mythical creature. I care about things in a reasonable progression — school, career, family. But the way a similar sense of all-consuming urgency lights up each separate desire feels almost magical. Thinking of the dragon also helps me lighten up about stuff. I think of its face and little nostrils, looking goofy, its body sitting around in chunks, not fooling anyone, but still being the center of attention. And it’s like, Okay. Sure. What next.

What Makes Ambition Come and Go?