Sunday, September 29, 2013

How We Define Ambition

My mom once asked me why I rated myself so low on "achievement-striving" in a personality test. I replied "Because I'm not ambitious." My mom thought I was very ambitious and couldn't understand why I didn't see myself that way.  Since the beginning of college, I always considered myself to be unambitious:

- I never took 5 classes instead of the standard 4, like most of my classmates did.
- I had only one major, when most of my classmates had double majors and minors.
- I didn't have AP credits like everyone else did.
- I would never do more schoolwork than was required.
- I consider a B to be a perfectly good grade, and an A is something to celebrate, but most people I know consider A's to be standard.
- I think breaking 600 on the SATs is something to throw a party over, but my college friends think 600 is average.
- I never want to be really busy or be involved in a lot of things. What I consider busy is what my Colby classmates consider doing nothing.
- I never want to have a leadership role when I'm in a club.
- I would not take a job that required a lot of overtime or a long commute.
- I'm one of very few of my peers who is not willing to relocate in order to take a job, or even live away from home for just a summer because of an internship.
- I want to be a in a pressure-free, warm and fuzzy atmosphere. If someone tells me that I need to be thick-skinned to work at their company, I don't consider the job.
- If I had the ability to keep moving up and be the CEO of my company, I don't think I would. At some point I would stop moving up because it would interfere with my personal life.

Hmm. The way we define ambition is a little strange. The dictionary definition of "ambition" is: an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, and the willingness to strive for its attainment. The key phrase here is "some type of achievement." That could be anything, but all the examples I listed relate to school and jobs. All those things I just listed say NOTHING about my ambition - they say something about my priorities.

Don't get me started on priority lists...I don't think it's right to teach kids how to make priority lists in school if you're going to tell them what order to put things in. To this day, I cringe at the phrase, "priority list," because for me, making a priority list for school has always meant putting the things that matter LEAST to me at the top and moving everything that's really at the top of my list down. But priority lists and goal-setting steps are techniques that I've stolen from the educational system to serve my own non-educational purpose :-)

-In high school, theatre was my priority.  I never missed play rehearsal for anything and I spent a lot of time practicing on my own. I used to write pages and pages of character development stuff in my journals. I always knew my character's entire life history, no matter how small the part was. 
-I would practice singing in the shower. If I needed to learn the lyrics to a song or my lines in a play, I'd put the script in a plastic bag and stick it to the shower walls. I would actively work on songs just for practice even when I wasn't going to sing them in a show.
- When I started dance class in high school, I was determined to catch up and be just as good as my classmates who had done dance since they were two. Over the summer, I practiced all of the moves across the floor each night and did all our stretches. I drew a protractor on the wall with masking tape to keep track of how high I was kicking my legs. 
-I used to have a hard time doing cold readings at auditions because I have trouble reading stuff out loud if I haven't practiced. So I decided to practice random cold readings over the summer. When I was reading a book, I would read one paragraph out loud for practice. It payed off that fall when I got a good part in the play.
- I got the lead role in a play freshman year of college, and I was essentially practicing all the time. I had 300 lines, and every single night I sat by the door (where I wouldn't disturb anyone) and read the entire script from start to finish, reading my own lines out loud. After a while I'd cover my lines and see how much I knew, and I'd focus more on the scenes that I didn't know. I made use of all the free time I had - anytime I was walking alone, I was practicing my lines out loud. If I ate dinner alone, I was rehearsing the play in my head. I practiced so much that I could almost recite the entire play from memory. The day that we were supposed to be off-book, I got almost every single line right, and I was basically the only person who had prepared that well.
I invented my character's entire life story, and I had filled in all the gaps of the play. Like, if a week had passed between two scenes, I thought about what had gone on during that week. I had a strong sense of everything that had happened from the start of the play to the end, including things that weren't actually in the script. Since my character was a college student, I could practice being her whenever I wanted. I would dress like her and act like her - even when I spoke to other people as myself in the dining halls, I would try to sound like my character would and do all of her mannerisms.
- Whenever I got a new journal, I would always flip through it and estimate the halfway point, and the one-quarter and three-quarter points. That way when I started writing, I would always know where I was. I would make it my goal to finish my journal  and be on the next one by the end of school vacation. This didn't mean much since my journals were all different lengths and I hadn't actually counted the pages, but I liked that feeling of it being a goal, and I liked to estimate the average number of journals I wrote per year and try to bring up that average.
-I have always daydreamed during school, but in high school I began actively daydreaming. I would decide to make use of my time and work out the plot of my latest story during the school day.
- I always had very long lists of summer goals in high school - the priority was always practicing singing, dancing, and acting, my next priority was stuff I wanted to write in my journals, then other personal goals like decorating my bedroom, a list of books I wanted to read and movies I wanted to watch, and things like going to the beach. I usually reached almost all of them.
- At some point in college I began typing my study guides instead of writing them by hand, even though typing took longer for me. Why? Because I never took typing class, and my slow pace was making it really annoying to write stories for fiction-writing class. If I wanted to be a serious writer, I needed to be able to type, so I used my other schoolwork as an opportunity to practice even though it took longer.
- I started working on my first novel as soon as I decided that I wanted to write one. It wasn't something that lingered like, "I should really get around to that someday." I finished within a year and a half, and most of the time I was writing it while I was a full-time student. At some point I printed out what I had of my novel and put it in a binder. When I was bogged down with schoolwork and feeling bad, I would take my printed copy to the dining hall and edit. Of course, I wasn't done writing the story yet, and most of those minor edits became irrelevant when I went back and cut entire pages, but doing this kept my mind focused on the story so that when I did have time to write over school vacations, I would be ready to go.
- I spent all of college feeling like I couldn't talk about the things that mattered to me, and I had so much stuff I wanted to say. Less than a month out of college, I started this blog to talk about everything that I had been wanting to say. And when I felt like I still hadn't said all I had to say, I wrote The Unencrypted Truth, which has been a goal for a long time.
- When it comes to the things I've just mentioned, I'm always looking to achieve more and get better. When people would compliment me on how many journals I had written, I'd be thinking that I wanted to write faster. I always felt like I could practice even more for shows. When I finished my novel, I was already thinking about my next one being better, and about writing it at a faster pace. When I see how many blog posts I've written, I'm proud of it, but I'm hoping that I continue to increase my pace. It's not to say that I'm unsatisfied, because I do feel very satisfied and fulfilled by everything I'm doing. I just don't feel complacent. I love to go out and celebrate after I've done something I'm proud of and ride on the glory, but when that's over, I'm always thinking, "Now what?" I'm always looking for the next exciting project.

So...I guess I'm a little confused about why I call myself unambitious. I guess it's hard to feel ambitious when I don't care much about what everyone else tells me to be ambitious about. It's hard to feel ambitious when I come from a school where people wanted to be good at everything they did, and I only have a few things I really want to excel at.

My parents have always been very supportive of me and have valued what I was doing. They have always loved to read my stories and have been to all of my shows even when I was four hours away at college. But there's this weird thing about ambition...
- My mom always thought it was weird that I would mark the halfway points in my journals and set goals to finish them. She thought journals were just for writing when you have something to write about, that finishing shouldn't be a goal.
-I became really defensive about all my theatre goals in high school, since everyone told me that school was more important. When I set a goal of practicing singing, dancing, and acting each for 30 minutes a day, for a total of 90 minutes a day (I never managed to follow through with this one), my mom said that I was going to burn out and make myself sick, and why didn't I just practice when I was in the mood to practice? Hmm, let me think...what would happen if I only studied when I felt like studying? I was spending 6 hours at school, at least 3-4 hours a night doing homework, but I shouldn't spend 90 minutes on what I really cared about because I might make myself sick? Yes, I was pushing to do something that would be really hard for me to do, but that was only because I felt like my goals were in direct competition with school.
- When I set writing goals for my novel that I couldn't reach (I hadn't figured out what would be reasonable based on my normal writing pace), my mom advised me to decide how much time to spend writing each day rather than a word count. I know she was trying to be helpful, and I could probably do this once I have a better idea of my normal pace, but if I did this with a school paper, it might not get done. I don't understand why I should treat my more important writing differently.
-When I told my mom that I was unhappy in college because I couldn't get into any plays and dance wasn't consuming enough of my time, she said why didn't I go walking or go swimming or do social ballroom dance or a number of other things that were just for fun and didn't involve an end goal. I told her that I wasn't satisfied just doing stuff like that and that it's not the same as being in a show and working hard towards a final performance and constantly daydreaming about how awesome it's going to be. My mom couldn't understand this and said that I should be able to feel satisfied just doing other stuff.

Everyone complains that our millennial generation is so lazy and unambitious, like we all just want to sit around eating free pizza all day. But then you have people like me who are always working towards goals, who would never be satisfied to just sit and eat pizza all day even if that were an option. Did you ever stop and think that some of us just don't want to do what YOU tell us to do? I got all these achievement awards in high school for being ambitious, for going above and beyond, for being the kind of person who wants to work towards goals and get better, but then when I'm unhappy in a situation where I can't pursue those goals, I get criticized for the very quality that got me into Colby College in the first place!!! It's like, I'm only supposed to be ambitious when it's convenient for you and the goals that you want me to achieve, but the rest of the time I should be happy just going for a walk?

I will never value what you tell me to value. I will never put my priorities in someone else's order. But I will always be ambitious.

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