Wissot: Blind ambition can be fatal
Ambition is a wonderful quality. You have a goal, you work hard to achieve that goal, you overcome obstacles along the way, you persevere, you stay the course, and in the end you wind up solidly successful.
But not all expressions of ambition lead to happy endings. Blind ambition, unreflective ambition, ambition that has lost its meaning and purpose, can leave you in a heap of trouble. I should know. It almost killed me.
I became ambitious in my early 20s. All through high school, I put the “me” in mediocre. But I caught fire in my freshman year of college. I fell in love with poetry, plays, novels, creative writing, the whole nine yards.
I graduated from college in three years, earned two master’s degrees, taught high school English for five years, and then obtained a Ph.D. All before the age of 30. I felt like I was on life’s fast track to success.
I continued that rise into my 30s, teaching for three universities, before deciding that I wanted more freedom and independence from institutional constraints. I opened a small consulting company in 1981. I’m still running it 38 years later.
Sounds wonderful, you might think. Where’s the rub? What’s not to be happy about?
It was built on a very shaky foundation. I wasn’t motivated to be a high achiever. I was fleeing from an obsessive fear of failure. Early in adolescence, as I struggled to overcome ADD-induced learning problems, my father called me a loser and said I’d never amount to much. I believed him.
I wasn’t chasing my dreams during those years of apparent accomplishment. I was trying to prevent the inevitability of my father’s dire assessment of me.
Medication helped for a while. Thank goodness for Wellbutrin and Zoloft. They stopped my bouts of crippling, anxiety-driven depression from turning into utter despair.
I entered therapy which gave me a place to go to when my demons became unbearable.
I was in a therapy session when a turning point occurred. My therapist, a wonderfully compassionate woman but also a hard nosed teller of necessary truths, asked me why I was so blue that day. I told her I was having suicidal thoughts.
She made no immediate comment. Finally, she asked me if there was anything I wanted to accomplish before I killed myself. I told her I hoped I died before the insurance policy that I had taken out for my daughters lapsed.
She said nothing. She didn’t react to the fact that a 66-year-old man had just told her that he hoped he wasn’t wasting his insurance premium payments by not dying before the policy lapsed.
After what seemed like an eternity she broke the silence by asking me if I could recall the things that once made me happy before I became dangerously depressed. The word happy caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought about what made me happy for ages.
I groped for a response to her question until I recalled how it once felt to simply sit, relax and not worry for the briefest of moments. Then a cascade of remembrances came rushing to mind: zucchini and eggplants growing in my garden, black and white photos of family and friends, drinking a cup of coffee at daybreak, snowshoeing on Meadow Mountain, riding my bike to Coors Field, listening to the dulcet tone of Chet Baker’s trumpet, the taste of grilled calamari, reading Hemingway, Yeats and Tennessee Williams, running up mountains, through cities, on beaches with my wife Alyn, texting my daughters anytime and all the time. All experiences from a past I had repressed until just then.
At that point I broke down in tears and sobbed uncontrollably. I felt incredible sorrow over the price I had paid in allowing misdirected ambition to take over my life.
As my tears dried and the pain subsided, my therapist asked me if I wanted to become re-acquainted with what once brought me happiness. I hesitated to answer for a moment and that’s when she told me that I didn’t have to desperately chase after success anymore. I was free to pursue a different set of ambitions because I was “loser proof.” Nothing I might fail at for the remainder of my life could undo or reverse the accomplishments of the past thirty years.
The hopeless boy that my father wrote off had died a long time ago. The 66-year-old man who replaced him was in no danger of becoming a failure.
I discovered a great deal about myself at that critical moment. Much of it had to do with what I no longer needed to fear and what I could give myself permission to enjoy.
The most startling discovery, however, was that I found something I wasn’t looking for: I actually began to feel happy for the first time in a long time.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.