Friday, 8 June 2007


I've never been ambitious, never been one of those thrusting, go-getting, ladder-climbing individuals who can't rest until they're at the top of every heap and not just one of the toiling masses.

Or rather I've never been ambitious in the job sense of wanting an important, influential position with a fat salary and lots of people under my wing.

I'm sure my parents were always disappointed by my missing ambition gene and wanted to boast that their wonderful son was now Editor of the Daily Trumpet or Chief Executive of Toptome Bookshops. They probably thought I was wasting my potential or shying away from challenges.

But no, the only ambitions I've ever had were the more prosaic ones of just wanting to have a good time, stretch my mind a little, fall in love and earn enough to be comfortable. The prestigious corridors of power never seemed that glamorous to me, more like precarious thrones that other people were always plotting to usurp.

I've always been quite happy as one of the toiling masses, doing low-level jobs that others turn up their noses at. For one thing, I rather like dealing with the general public. I like the constant novelty of personal quirks and eccentricities and general loopiness. I'm fascinated by the strange things that go on in people's heads and how seldom they do what you expect them to do.

I've no wish to hide away in an office all day, shuffling papers, drafting targets and mission statements, monitoring sick leave and dreaming of a bigger BMW.

I remember a bookshop manager I once worked under, who was burning with ambition and desperate to be recognised as the steely-eyed executive he knew himself to be. He was permanently hyper-active, whizzing around like a dervish and introducing a new procedure every half-hour.

He chain-smoked incessantly and always looked as though a pack of wolves was snapping at his heels. This compulsive frenzy alienated the entire staff and we were forever trying to engineer his departure by fair means or foul. How his wife lived with him I can't imagine.

I'm glad I never turned into someone like that. Ambition? A volatile substance I'd rather not handle in case it explodes in my face. I'll leave it for those better equipped to play around with it.

Image courtesy of Time Magazine


  1. Once again I find myself nodding concurrence. I tend to think there's something slightly undignified about (career) ambition, though that may be sour grapes simply because I know I don't have it. Ambitious people tend to be shits, far more interested in what people can do for them than in people for themselves.

  2. Yes maybe sour grapes but maybe also just common humanity and not wanting to trample on other people?

  3. Sometimes though it's possible to seem ambitious by default. When I started out I was full of it, had so many assumptions about the sort of person I was going to be and the things I would accomplish. Along the way I realised I was trying to be something I wasn't.

    What I actually want is autonomy, not power. Give me a job where I'm my own boss and I do well, ask me to to do exactly the same job, but for a direct boss, and I very quickly lose interest.
    I found to get to the stage where I could get a bit of liberty, I had to move up. (Not that far though as it turned out!) When I tried to give my staff the same freedom, some loved it, but others just needed a boss to direct them and to sound off (or sound off about).
    I don't want to buy anything (except a home of my own) but I love to explore any job on my own terms.

  4. I started out with very little ambition, thinking that my wroking class background was a serious impediment. People from my neighborhood did not go to university and they certainly didn't go to grad school. I'm glad I moved away and committed to an education. I'm ambitious enough to go through the hoops to be a professor, but I certainly am no workaholic. I want a full life is all. It's not about money or status, it's about me getting to think about and talk about books. Whether I succeed in academia remains to be seen. I'm a lazy, average writer yet I am good in the classroom.
    You've got the right take on it, Nick. Your ambition is to be happy. That's what life should be.

  5. bellulah - autonomy not power, that's just it. What I like about my present job is that it may be low-status hierarchy-wise but I have a lot of autonomy in how I do it, how I respond to our 'clients' and how I organise my work. A job where I was just following instructions would be deadly.

    medbh - yes wanting a full life is exactly the point, rather than a life that looks successful but leaves you feeling empty and frustrated. If being a professor is going to fulfill you, then go for it. Jenny opted for academia at a relatively late age and she's thriving on it.

  6. I remember when I used to be like that before I finally realised there are better things to do with your life.

  7. You're telling me. Things that allow you to grow and spread out rather than things that force your soul into smaller and smaller boxes until you can't find it anymore.

  8. The definition of success--To laugh much; to win respect of intelligent persons and the affections of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one's self; to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm, and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived--this is to have succeeded." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
    I thought I'd throw that at you Nick, as you seem to be living it. Success has become defined by the material, unfortunately, when the happiest people I've ever known have very little and even share that.
    Ambition should be about being and not doing. The meaningless doings drive us mad.

  9. Very flattering of you, www, but I've got plenty of faults which other people have to put up with! But I hope on balance I give something to other people rather than exploiting or belittling them.