Is Ambition Always a Good Thing?
This week’s blog post ended up being a bit of a personal therapy session. Sorry if it’s a little self-indulgent!
I’ve been thinking a lot about ambition lately, possibly due to all the sporting competitions I’ve been watching.
Climbing World Cups are back in full swing, grunting and power screaming tennis players have returned to Wimbledon, England have done uncharacteristically well in Euro 2020/2021, and the Olympics are on the horizon. Surely these sweaty sportspeople wouldn’t be putting themselves through years of hard training, the stress of competing, and the risk of it all going horribly wrong in front of millions of spectators if they weren’t ambitious.
But is ambition always a good thing? Is it essential for a happy and fulfilled life?
Younger JoJo would have been in the pro-ambition camp.
When I was about seventeen years old I decided I wanted to work in theatre. I had hopes of working at the Royal Opera House or the Royal Shakespeare Company and would have described myself as having ambitions for a successful career in theatre. My plans got gently challenged and kicked along the way. I dropped out of my first degree course and swapped to an HND. I struggled to get work after graduating from college. Every job application that I heard nothing back from or interview that failed to lead to employment certainly hurt but didn’t necessarily destroy my sense of ambition.
I never ended up reaching the lofty heights of the Royal Shakespeare Company (despite three job interviews!) but I carved out a decent enough career with regular touring and pantomime work. I made some good friends and felt content enough to satisfy my ambitious streak.
Unfortunately, achieving my ambitions also lead to a realisation that they may have been misplaced. I’m not ashamed to admit that I struggled with the lifestyle that comes with the kind of career I carved out for myself. Being away from home for weeks at a time was difficult. Having to put hobbies, relationships, and other ambitions (like getting a dog) on hold for the sake of my job lead to a lot of internal conflict. Fitting every other part of my life around a complicated and unpredictable schedule became frustrating. All this combined with long and anti-social hours, a stressful work environment, and some colleagues who elevated the discipline of arseholery to an Olympic level eventually led me to look for work elsewhere.
Was my ambition simply misplaced or also at fault? Did it blind me to the realities of what a career in theatre would ultimately be like? If I’d succeeded in landing a more stable job, somewhere like the Royal Shakespeare Company, would I still have felt unsatisfied with where my ambitions took me? Did my naïve teenage ambition cause me to waste years of my life pursuing a career that was never going to make me happy? Was my sense of ambition the problem or was it my failure to fulfill it?
Things didn’t work out how I planned and I’ll never know the answer to any of these questions.
I’ve blamed myself in so many ways for not being able to make this ambition become the reality I’d imagined. If I’d made a better impression at job interviews, chosen different shows to work on, put more effort into networking, or been willing to make greater sacrifices maybe things would have been different.
Despite objectively understanding that it was ridiculous to expect a seventeen-year-old to make a reasonable decision about what to do with the rest of her life, I’ve often found myself frustrated with my past self for putting me on a decade long path that ultimately led to a dead end. Since finishing my last contract I have barely set foot in a theatre, as a punter or a professional. I hardly touched my sewing machine, except for conducting mundane repairs, for about a year after my last job. My sense of ambition abandoned me and I tried to embrace being completely directionless.
It’s taken me a long time to forgive my past self for her chosen path and I often have to remind myself that the whole thing wasn’t a giant waste of time. I left theatre with plenty of useful skills as well as some rather niche ones. If you need someone to repair a pantomime fairy’s wand that’s been snapped in half or help someone change outfits at breakneck speed, I’m your girl! I got to travel the length and breadth of the UK, visiting Loch Ness, HMS Victory, and so many other fascinating places in between. I met some amazing people who I shared some wonderful experiences with. I visited the Morgan car factory with cast and crew of The King’s Speech and ate BBQs on as many British beaches as possible with my colleagues from A Murder is Announced.
After a bit of time and distance I found joy in sewing again. I eventually managed to look at fabric and my trusty sewing machine without getting flashbacks to broken costumes and the actors that complained so vehemently about them. I remembered why my seventeen-year-old self thought sewing was something worth devoting the rest of my life to.
But my sense of ambition is lagging behind in its recovery journey. Present JoJo is struggling to muster the ambitious attitude of Past JoJo, despite having plenty of things that to throw my ambitious self into. I’m doing an Open University degree, running a blog and online shop, climbing harder than ever, and considering new career options. Though I want to do all of these things well, I have very little in the way of ultimate ambitions for them and don’t feel as wedded to any of them as I did to a career in theatre.
The main difference I can identify between my past and present selves is not necessarily the lack of ambition but the ability to live happily without it. At the moment, I’m feeling content with winging it. Although I do occasionally find myself panicking about being a directionless sponger for the rest of my life. Thirty-one-year-old JoJo has been around a bit longer than seventeen-year-old-JoJo and I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things in those fourteen years.
Firstly, the world doesn’t give a toss about your ambitions or your plans. I used to believe that if I worked hard and did all the right things I would get to where I wanted to be. While I still believe it’s worth working hard to pursue your ambitions (assuming you have any) I also believe there is a vast amount of luck and unpredictability involved in the shaping of our lives. The pandemic has taught us this if nothing else. I’ve been able to forgive my younger self because I’ve realised she didn’t do anything wrong. She did her best with what was in her control. The rest of it was up to the universe/fate/Flying Spaghetti Monster. The chips fell where they may and younger me did her best to make sure they fell in my favour. I couldn’t have asked any more of her.
Additionally, I now accept that I didn’t really know what the “right thing” to do was in order to achieve my ambitions. There are circumstances in life when the right thing is fairly obvious but often we’re making a choice and hoping for the best. I chose my education and career based on the information available to me at the time. Maybe if I’d made other contacts or chosen different shows to work on then my journey would have been very different. Maybe not. There is no way of knowing if I’m doing the right thing now by studying Psychology and rambling into the internet shaped abyss. There is no way of knowing if I’m doing the right thing because life isn’t a series of binary choices between right and wrong. It’s a series of educated guesses and making the best of where those guesses lead.
Finally, by holding a long-term ambition, I assumed I knew what future JoJo would want in life. I thought her career would be the most important thing and she’d be satisfied with everything else playing second fiddle. If you’d told me when I left college that in a few years I’d be prioritising proximity to a climbing gym over access to theatres when choosing a home, I’d have called you a lunatic and asked what was so special about clawing your way up walls in your spare time. My present self now sees future JoJo ending up back in the north of England (after another a brief stint down south) with a job that doesn’t make her miserable and allows her to carry on climbing regularly. However, I certainly don’t feel confident enough to set this plan in stone and often struggle to predict what future JoJo will want next week, never mind about next year.
Maybe my current ambition should simply be to hold on to these lessons.
Find the balance between what is and isn’t in my control.
Do what’s right when I can and accept that there is no single right path.
And abandon the arrogant notion that I’ll know what I want in the next ten weeks never mind about the next ten years.
Like my love of sewing, my sense of ambition may well come back in its own time when I find the right activity to channel it into. Or it won’t. I’m finding joy in the things I’m currently doing despite not having any clear idea of how they’ll develop or where they might lead.
For now, I’m quite content to sit back and watch the footballers, tennis players, and Olympians of this world attempting to fulfill their ambitions. I hope they feel satisfied if they manage to achieve them. Alternatively, I hope they’re able to be kind to themselves if things don’t work out as they’d hoped.
I was trying to conjure up a profound way to bring this blog post to a close with a concise summary of my thoughts on ambition. Unfortunately, I kept coming up significantly short. So, I’m going to cheat and let Frida Kahlo do it for me: