Growing up, my sister and I had divergent approaches to collecting souvenirs. We had to strategize for a reason; we couldn’t get everything we wanted, after all, give our family’s modest background. She always preferred knick-knacks. It was, I think, a combination of 1) her wanting to commemorate multiple aspects of the trip in question and 2) her inability to choose between all the various things she liked. Me, I waited. I’d hold back until I saw the one item that captured my imagination – and that was that. I recall this contrast in styles most vividly after a trip to Sea World. My sister brought home a little crystal, a bookmark, a ring, maybe more. Meanwhile, I had just this Shamu balancing metal ball contraption. To be honest, I think we were both a bit envious of the other’s approach. But that’s how we were built.
I have never thought of myself as an ambitious person. Perhaps this is because I primarily associate ambition with personality, and I’m as far from a type-A as humanly possible. I don’t network, I don’t ‘angle.’ I don’t take proper advantage of the opportunities I do have because it feels awkward or unnatural or, let’s face it, difficult. I’ve never been able to fake it in any circumstance, and perhaps I’ve come to use that as an excuse to not try much anymore. Yet I’ve come to recognize that this unwillingness to play the game does not necessarily make me unambitious. For whatever practical reasons I can cite in pursuing an advanced degree and moving to different countries for jobs, the fact remains that I have gotten an advanced degree and moved to different countries for jobs. Even I can admit that resembles something like ambition if only on the surface.
Perhaps it’s a matter of restlessness. A friend, once confronted with the ever-present and ever-annoying question of purpose in life, responded simply with “I don’t want to be bored.” I quite like that. I have days of boredom of course, weeks even, though hopefully not months. I like to think that I strive to not be bored in life – by traveling, by exploring, hiking, reading, watching movies, and so forth. Even if I am well aware that my job is not, and will likely never be, my passion, I believe what I do matters in some small way, and at a minimum, pushes and challenges me to a requisite amount. Certainly there is some necessary delusion involved – there are days of surfing the internet and stressing over email invitations, for starters – but I hope delusion is ultimately outweighed by purpose and meaning both in the short and the long-term.
I wonder if I am conditioned to movement because of the way I grew up (the literal moving from one home to another), the amount of time I have spent in academic environments (with regular measures of progress), the conscious and paradoxical need to fight my tendency to be comfortable and stagnant. I am fortunate enough to be in a relatively supportive job environment, and thus I see the road ahead as one of progress. I was hired to assist on a project. I am currently seeking to develop my own. Eventually, I will want to manage a larger one. All this is far easier said than done, of course, and there will be unexpected obstacles along the way, just as there have been already. But this seems to me like the only path forward. Standing still is in effect moving backwards.
The regimented approach with which I consider my career extends beyond it as well. Gradation comes natural to me, reinforcing regularity, expectation, sense. With my writing, for instance, I have been careful to ensure that the hobby has never been completely stopped. It is how I hone my craft, indulge my creative ambition. Yet lacking the structure present in promotions and graduations, I wonder whether the short-term payoff I derive from having regular tangible outputs – as on these pages – deters a level of progress I would like applied elsewhere, towards larger milestones, projects, and so forth, such as they exist. In fact, I have had such projects what feels like nonstop since I entered graduate school: qualifying papers, the dissertation, the manuscript. There has always been something bigger to work on, something nestled but looming and unavoidable.
Well there was, at least.
Yet now with the final of those projects all but completed, with nothing that necessarily infringes on the divide between work and life, I still find myself a little ambitious, a little restless, desiring progress and purpose in a new creative outlet. I find myself contemplating another large endeavor, whether it be a screenplay (a second one), a novel, a memoir… or whenever guilt kicks in, something more professionally relevant – a journal article or something of the sort. And already I know the question I am asking is not whether I will start but rather concerns the precise nature of the output, form and substance, of the item that I will undertake. Maybe this kind of thing is simply how I have become accustomed to dealing with the monotony of life, or how I ascribe meaning to my life. I guess in a way, I still need the one big thing to capture my imagination, my attention, my time and effort. I guess that is how I am built.
(Photo by Serge Melki, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)