Our Creative Lives: Ambition


I’m losing my ambition.

This is probably something that a person shouldn’t admit, especially out loud on a blog post. In our culture, we place a high value on ambition, even celebrate it. Ambition is equated with forward motion, something fresh-scrubbed and enthusiastic. “Lack of ambition,” on the other hand, conjures up the image of a bleary-eyed, vapid stoner wasting his/her days away, playing X-Box in some dim living room. The unambitious are typically presumed to be slackers. Losers even. But is that really true?

Cindy.Allen.LangleyThere is no shortage of ambitious folks out there doing their thing in the world. One look at Facebook illustrates the point. On any given day, there are dozens of new Kickstarter campaigns, people getting awards and announcing promotions, CDs launching, and, of course, the steady barrage of gig announcements. Even if you’re a relatively creative and hardworking mule, one scroll through the feed can make you feel like a bit of a deadbeat. (It helps to remember that Facebook is, for the most part, a carefully-crafted landscape.)

What is ambition anyway? In my mind, it is the drive towards some kind of achievement that once realized equates to a measure of success. And what is success, especially relative to the creative life? The short answer is: Who the hell knows? When it comes to the outward markers of success, I suppose I’ve met very few. I haven’t won any awards or received notable recognition. There are gig opportunities that still stubbornly elude me. I’ve put it out there in big ways many times, but have definitely failed more than I’ve triumphed. I live and create in relative obscurity, even in my own town. But to some extent, many of these markers involve elements that are beyond my control. Where I am most successful is with personal goals that I’ve set for myself. I can practice with due diligence and do my best to keep my voice in shape. I can bang out a thousand or more words a day if I need to. I can continue to write and sing from the heart even when it sometimes scares the shit out of me to do so. This is not to say that I’ve not been ambitious for more outward accomplishments. I certainly have.  But as the years roll on, I’ve started to change how I think about success.Emmett_Guitar

The shift started with a rather startling experience that I had a few years ago. Out of the blue, I got an email from a high school counselor in Texas, who reached out to tell me that a blog post I’d written had brought comfort and hope to a distraught student of hers. The student, a young lesbian woman, had been outed against her will by a chaperone on a school field trip. Subsequent to that, her family shamed her and forced her to break up with her girlfriend. The counselor, who is from the same hometown as I am, shared my blog with her student. Through some odd twist of fate and the grace of the Internet, something I’d written made a difference to someone, a stranger, in a sad and lonely space. I was truly dumbfounded by this experience but forever changed. Certainly, this did not “advance” my career in any way –prior to right now, the only person I’ve shared this story with was my sister– but it had a profound impact on me. Sometimes the greatest successes are quiet and unexpected.

The problem with ambition is that it turns the focus outward. And unchecked, it can blur the purity of our expression and even dull the quality of our lives. It perpetually thrusts us out of the present moment and into some future point. An eye for opportunity is certainly not a bad thing, but when it’s burdened with an underlying search for validity, it exhausts the spirit. Ambition is the mechanical hare that spins around the track, and we chase it down like dogs. Ambition, by its very nature, implies that we need to be somewhere other than where we are.

I want something deeper than that.

Wally & ZoMy 22-year old son just returned home after several months of traveling around the U.S. He’s staying with me while he regroups and figures out his next move. My 17-year old, who moved in with his father last summer, has been coming around to hang with me more frequently these past months. Any time I have a chance to be with my sons I take it, even if it means putting other important things on the back burner for a bit. I’ve learned, again and again, how unpredictable and fleeting this all can be. I’ll grab every moment of sweetness I can. I’ve also spent a lot of time this summer with good friends and visiting family members. Being with all of these people is soul sustenance. Work matters. Career matters. My creative life matters. But these relationships matter more.

I am losing my ambition. I’ve grown weary of the relentless hustle, struggle and push to be someplace/someone else. All any of us need to reach our highest creative potential is the present moment and the people we love. For me, ambition is a constraint. In finally letting go of it, I’m finding something spacious, extraordinary and ultimately more lasting.


“I remember when we was both out on the boulevard

Talkin’ revolution and singin’ the blues.

Nowadays it’s letters to the editor and cheatin’ on our taxes

Is the best we can do.”

– Steve Earle