This is a post about ambition and I blame the Olympics

I sat down to write a post about creativity, but what emerged was a meditation on ambition. This is my parents’ fault. And the Olympics’. (Stupid international celebration of human excellence, grumble grumble.)

When I was little I wished my parents had pushed me to excel at a sport–horseback riding? high jump? J.V. sumo wrestling??–so that I could be GREAT and in the Olympics. Raising an eight-year-old curling champion, however, was not on their agenda. Instead, they supported the ebb and flow of my various interests, and tried to raise me to be a decent and well-rounded human being.

I am a well-rounded human being, dangit!!
What does ambition look like?

Parents ruin everything.

Even as an eight-year-old, I felt weird telling my parents that I wanted to be GREAT. We’re not supposed to talk about ambition. There’s something shameful in acknowledging it. In the Age of Consumption, when the phrase “American dream” has been magically and retroactively written into the Bill of Rights, there are still things it’s not okay to want.

“Ambition” carries connotations of hubris, Faustus, and that cardinal sin which inevitably (in hindsight) comes before a fall. It feels awkward and vaguely socially unacceptable to describe myself as ambitious, but I am, as a writer and as a human being. My aspirations are not small, yet I feel uncomfortable broaching the topic.

We emphasize “just getting along,” both in the sense of coexisting in a passive peace, and in the sense of “just getting by” without rocking the boat. As a woman and a mother, I feel the force of this discomfort keenly. In the broad cultural dialogue on motherhood, “ambition” isn’t part of the lexicon.

What does ambition look like, anyway?
Does it look like this? (It feels like this…..)

But I am ambitious. I want to make a living as a novelist. This is a ridiculously ambitious goal, but it doesn’t stop there. I don’t want to hit the NYT Bestseller List so much as I want to make a difference. I want to write stories that crack people open, that make them laugh-cry, that offer up the moments of transcendence that the best stories have given me. Books saved my life. I want to pay it forward.

Some ambitions, of course, are ingrained in the status quo. There are certain things we’re encouraged to desire. Most of them are tangible, ideal forms casting shadows in a cave full of Real Housewives of New Jersey. We’re supposed to want money, attractive partners, expensive vacations–things we can Tweet and Facebook, things that show in selfies.

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What if it looks like this?!

I cannot take a selfie that conveys my ambition, an ambition which may sell books someday but will not be measurable by any instruments we have.

The creative impulse is inextricable from ambition. The act of creation is both divine and heretical, a presumption that mere mortals could craft anything transcendent. When we write, we play God, creating the world in our own image. It is a glorious blasphemy.

Ambition isn’t something people talk about in the carpool at my kids’ school. It’s not a topic that comes up at parties. It’s easy to think no one else experiences it and the conflicting emotions that accompany it. I’m putting this out there in the hope that it will resonate with you, and that we can move beyond the pedestrian discussion of wants to the harder and deeper question of aspirations.

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16 thoughts on “This is a post about ambition and I blame the Olympics

  1. Great read, Brenna – I took the liberty of linking to this from my blog post today about the emotional terrain of submitting work for publication –

    1. I loved your post, Peggy! Thanks so much for reading and responding to mine, and linking to it. I love how often many of us are on the same page, or at least in the same chapter, and how our writing kind of sets up a conversation. I learn so much from engaging with all of you!

  2. Oh Brenna! As usual, you are an amazing vessel – holding and elegantly articulating what so many of us feel. xo! Glad you’re back to the electronic world and I get to read you more often.

  3. Favorite line – “It is a glorious blasphemy.” I AM AMBITIOUS! I’m claiming it! But, like you, not really into this for the “wants” – I already have everything that I want. But to make a difference in someone’s life? To have someone read my words and feel less afraid, not so alone, confident in their own ability to birth and parent from a place of authenticity – this idea thrills me! And I aspire to make that happen.

    Now, could you please write a post about handling impatience? Because that, my friend, is the real issue for me. I aspire to make a difference, but I want it to happen NOW. Can you relate? :O)

    1. Ha ha, Barb! I am sooooo impatient! I probably should write about that, since writing is how I handle life in general. Great idea! I’ll get on that……maybe I can teach myself something. I like how you put it–I do have what I want. I just haven’t achieved all that I think I can. Which is a good thing. I don’t want to peter out at the ripe old age of 38! As always, thanks for reading and for your very thoughtful response.

  4. Hi! So glad to have found your blog! I also think there’s a gender expectation issue here – women aren’t supposed to be ambitious, and if they are, sometimes they are labeled aggressive. Yet ambition and aggressiveness are often respected in men. I struggle with this word, too, as I, too, want to be great, want to make a living as a writer, and yes, even want to make the best seller lists. I love how you say you want to make a difference. I want that, too, and that has to be the key. I dream of greatness, but I also dream of my words mattering to people and changing them. I love your line “Books saved my life. I want to pay it forward.” So beautiful – and true of my life, too.

    1. Thanks so much, Karissa! I’m glad to have found your blog, too! I completely agree–there’s definitely a gender expectation. I think as women, and especially mothers, we’re supposed to be giving, which also feels like the opposite of ambitious in many ways. And then when moms are ambitious, it’s often on behalf of their children and not themselves, and we call them things like “helicopter parent” and “soccer mom” or “pageant mom,” and those ambitions aren’t well thought-of, either. I applaud your writerly ambitions and wish you all the best!

  5. I love that distinction between wants and aspirations, Brenna. Ambition is such a challenging word since it does tend to tie itself to power and money, even though that’s not all that ambition is. I need a word for “pursuing your values to the fullest extent you can.” 🙂

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