Walking around the cemetery the other day, I told my friend, “You know what I like about you? You’re not ambitious.” The moment these words left my mouth, I worried that I might have offended her, though the compliment came from a deep place in my heart. Luckily, she understood and was amused. Being unambitious is often equated with being lackadaisical and even lifeless, but I argue that ambition alone is not essential for a meaningful life. In fact, ambition for ambition’s sake seems like a great way to make yourself miserable, and quick. Why is it so important these days to be ambitious? My friends, family, and the media I consume (it would be dishonest for me to not include media as a top influencer in my life) all promote ambition: identify your dreams, label them, conquer them. Slay them and crush them. Business goals, productivity goals, diets and workout goals, relationship goals. That last one even has its own hashtag.
Ambitions provide obvious conversation material. What is more satisfying to discuss than the things you’ve done and the things you’d like to do? But what if you don’t really want to do anything in particular? Or you want to do things but you’re not really sure what they are and if you don’t do them that will be fine, too?
I am, of course, thinking of myself, and that last sentence sounds sort of gloomy upon rereading, when in fact I write it with a lot of pride. I am one of those weirdos who somehow has never developed a taste for “making a name for myself”. Am I talentless or interest-less? Absolutely not: I can’t figure out what to do with all of my talents and interests. Langston Hughes worries that dreams must be tended to carefully, or they might dry up, fester, sag or even explode. Some people have dreams that bubble up within and then trickle along, pushing away grains of obstacle to carve a life path. Others build a life around building a highway to their distant dream. I am happy splashing around in a shallow pool of my dreams, knowing that we might not travel very far. I like to write. I like to teach. I enjoy playing music and learning languages. I want to continue to build the relationship I have with my partner, and to spend time with my family and friends. But I don’t want to “crush” my dreams, or “slay” them. I don’t have to write a book. I don’t have to be named “teacher of the year.” Maybe my partner and I will have children, maybe we won’t: I can see myself being happy with either outcome. Without having articulated any specific ambition, I am very happy with what I achieve.