Ambition

Last week, I wrote a little piece about my ongoing obsession with work and productivity, and my endless struggles to find balance. Funny enough, after posting it I came down with an awful sinus infection and cough that forced me into bed for a couple of days. This isn’t uncommon…There’s a pattern here. I’m in the habit of working myself down to nothing, refusing my body’s suggestions to rest, and carrying on until my body revolts and forces me to a full stop. Needless to say, it’s getting old. I’m tired. So, I’m outing myself in an attempt to confront it in a way I haven’t yet in my recovery. I’m trying to see the bigger picture, which is difficult when I’m caught in the churning of my obsessive thoughts. On the bright side, I had some more time to think about the topic as I rested in bed, experiencing the gifts of my stubbornness, so here I go again.

On Monday, I finally felt well enough to meet a good friend and fellow writer for coffee, and we talked about our shared challenge with this issue. Our conversation ended up landing on the topic of ambition. Most of the time, when I’m in an obsessive mind frame around work, I like to believe that I’m just a person with a great deal of ambition. This allows me to place my destructive tendency toward overworking in a positive light. But more than this, it feeds my ego. My friend, who is a good friend in the sense that he calls me on my bullshit, quickly called my bluff. In reality, it’s a rationalization for an unhealthy way of being. Like all rationalizations, there’s some truth to it, but ultimately this way of thinking neglects a big piece the picture.

As we talked, it became clear that my struggle with work has little to do with ambition. Plenty of us are ambitious, many are much more ambitious than I am, and while I know my struggle is not unique, I’m also willing to bet a great number of those very ambitious people don’t work themselves into sickness, or isolation, or unhappiness. I know many do. As I mentioned in my last post, this approach to our work has become a badge of honor in our culture, but there are also people who accomplish great things who also lead healthy lives full of plenty of things other than work.  

There is nothing inherently pathological about ambition. It’s just another component of the human experience. We all work for different things, but ultimately, everyone strives. Even the wholesale rejection of ambition takes a certain amount of striving (Trust me, I put a lot of work into this as a teenager). Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with striving to accomplish things in the same way there’s nothing inherently wrong with the desire to have emotional security, or money in our bank accounts, or relationships that make us feel good, or good self-esteem. In my experience, the trouble seems to arise from the beliefs resting below the ambition. I lose my balance in the belief that if I work harder, and sacrifice everything else, I’ll get where I want to go, and if I get where I want to go, I’ll be happy.

Unfortunately, my personal research has shown me that neither is true. Where I end up after all of my hard work is rarely where I wanted, and in the case that I do end up where I wanted, I almost never feel a new sense of completeness or happiness. I’ve arrived at this realization several times over the years I’ve been in recovery, and it’s endlessly frustrating. And here I am again, wondering how to do things differently.

The extent of my wisdom rests in what I’ve discovered doesn’t work. I’m obviously a beginner when it comes to this particular struggle. What I can do is share the approach my friend suggested, and report back about whether or not it bears fruit. And I’d also love to hear your experience…God knows I need all the help I can get.  

So, here’s the idea that emerged from the conversation: approach the work as if it were a gift to the world.

To clarify right off the bat, this idea is not intended to stoke the ego. It’s not rooted in the idea that my talents are so wonderful they are a gift to the world. Instead, it’s about approaching my work as an act of service. Instead of, “what am I going to get?” the question becomes, “how much am I willing to give?” It stuck me right away when he said this because it changes the dynamic completely. After giving it some thought, what this perspective has really shown me is that my ambition with regard to work has always existed in the realm of transaction… “If I do X, and sacrifice Y, I’ll get Z, and then I’ll be ok”. As I mentioned, this equation has never worked. But more importantly, it leaves me alone with the work, frustrated, dissatisfied, exhausted. The work begins to exist in the tiny box of self, and loses its relationship to the broader context.

I’ll admit, I’ve never approached my work as an act of service, and I’m not under the illusion that directing my ambition in this way will be an easy thing to do. There’s still a whole bunch of ego, fear, grandiose desires, expectations, and other stuff I’m probably not even aware of that I’ll have to deal with before I’m able to really approach my work as an act of service. I do, however, think it’s worth striving toward, and I do have some experience with the benefits of service in other areas of my life to motivate me.

The one place I’ve been ambitious in my service has been in my work with other addicts and alcoholics. It’s the one thing in my life I can say I’ve done with a pure heart, and the reason I’ve been able to keep my heart pure is because others have continued to do the same in their work with me. I’ve never been asked, nor have I asked for anything in return for that work…and I’ve gotten everything. The fact that I am sitting here writing these half-baked thoughts is the return I’ve gotten from that work. So, if this principle holds true in my work with other addicts, why wouldn’t it function the same way in other areas of my life? In my writing. At my day job. In my marriage. With my family.

If it is true, and I believe it is, what my experience shows me is that I don’t have to worry about where I’m going. I don’t have to work myself sick to get there. If I make the work less about me, I’ll show up where I’m going the way I’ve shown up here. And if my experience with service has taught me anything, I suspect I’ll show up with a full heart.

I’ll let you know when I get there….