A few weeks ago I completed the first semester of my master’s in journalism – for reasons that I now fail to recall I thought that undertaking some post-grad specialisation in an industry that boasts all the vigour of a man slowly dying on a sidewalk after being soundly beaten by a gang with baseball bats is a riveting idea for smart people. A few days after semester ended I returned to London and have since been leading the glorious lifestyle of an international model: waiting on phone calls, getting drunk, and trying to abstain from too many Ryvitas. I begin to contemplate the concept of ambition relentlessly when life slows down in this manner and that’s because I feel deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of doing nothing.
Given three hours in which I fail to write, learn, draw, or work, I become critically existentially depressed; it feels as though the air is being pressed out of my lungs and I need to compensate for that absence with the creation of something – anything – fuck it, even a blog post. I’ve started to conceive of myself as a shark person in this way, I have to keep moving or I’ll surely drown (actually, this is a misconception: some sharks need to keep swimming in order to breathe but others have a pumping mechanism of the pharynx that allows them to sit happily at the sea bed; I learned this when I was bored).
Ambition is unquestionably a wonderful, admirable quality in a human but lately I’ve come to perceive an excessive amount of it as a defect, an immutable burdensome void that keeps people flailing and depressed even when they are, by every dictionary definition, leading successful lives.
Towards the end of my last relationship, my partner and I had this awful conversation during which he asked me to realistically consider what would give me long-term happiness – if it was a writing career that was great and if it was getting married and having children, that was fine too, I just had to learn to acknowledge what happiness really meant to me. I did think about it and I could only respond that, if I was being entirely rational, I doubt that any noteworthy sense of happiness or contentment was achievable for me because I am forever in search for the next good thing. And then we broke up a week later. Because ambition is wonderful but it is also essentially selfish and leaves other people in the proverbial dust; excessive ambition is less ‘stop and smell the roses’ and more ‘burn the roses for fuel’.
I now think it’s interesting to observe other people in my life burdened by their own ambition, people who can’t sleep or sit still, who tuck their lives away from others because intimacy is an intrusion on an objective, who strike out or take disciplinary action against their bodies when they feel as though they’re not working hard enough. I fear my ambition to the extent that I am concerned it represents an immovable unhappiness with myself at the fundamental, untouched core and I’m quite sure that others who lead this existence pause to think the same.
My beating anarchist heart also likes to inspect the idea that this dense, overbearing ambition is a sickly manifestation of capitalist ideals that we’ve come to understand as productive and normal when, in fact, we should probably be able to sit around on a sofa scarfing biscuits for a day and not be driven into a philosophical abyss. Us shark people have a strong tendency to believe that life functions by a system of effort and earning when perhaps some raw hedonism and biscuit-scarfing untouched by an exhaustion economy should not be entirely out of the question.
I also believe this to be an issue inevitably exacerbated by social media, by the assaulting inundation of successes that harass us at any given opportunity. Because if a brand collaboration happens and it isn’t on Instagram, did it ever really collaborate at all? Surely the burden of drive is not a new phenomenon but perhaps the painful, unremitting access to other people’s achievements is and it is unsurprising that it should infect us with rather unrealistic notions of personal productivity and what on Earth we should be doing with our time. I am relatively unfazed by the depiction of wildly slim, paradoxically muscular bodies on Instagram but if somebody I consider competition is garnering recognition for their work where I am floundering, you can sure as shit bet I’m going to cry (I’m joking, I cry about the body stuff too – why am I even on the Internet?).
Sometimes I meet people who are thoroughly, staggeringly devoid of ambition and for the longest time, this astounded me and honestly led me to respect them less – ultimately because I am unable to fathom their brand of contentment. However, I’ve learned to reassess this instinctual reeling in recent years, particularly after meeting people who, you know, may not have a tertiary education, may not care so much about making it big in [insert here: hilariously hierarchical creative field], do not care so much for recognition or invest much belief in the farfetched notion of changing the world but they’re fucking happy. I’ve learned to love people like this. I feel as though I can breathe around them. They strip you of your narcissism, they remove you from the exhibition or the competition that your anxious, dutiful mind has been attending to since the dawn of its own self-awareness. They care about relationships and fun and working only as a source of income to maintain the relationships and fun, they want to have kids some day – but only to continue this whole relationships and fun business; it seems an excellent way to live.
Ambition is marvellous but I’ve found, with a certain sense of irony, that a surplus of this relentless motion actually attenuates productivity and eventually stings you with a strong sense of self-loathing. I’m not saying I want to slow – I will never, ever slow – however, I am attempting to take more pleasure merely in the creation of things, creation for creation’s sake, rather than creation for the sake of planting your flag in the ground and shouting, “LOOK AT THIS THING I HAVE NOW DONE”. Intellectual curiosity is rewarding in this manner, too and reading is a quiet relief from the existential din. I am trying to consider life less as a resume to the best of my ability and to sit at the ocean floor for a while, sustained by the quiet, happy momentum of my own little pharynx.