My lack of ambition

IMG_0325Ambition

noun

a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work : her ambition was to become a model | he achieved his ambition of making a fortune.

• desire and determination to achieve success : life offered few opportunities for young people with ambition.

ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from Latin ambitio(n-), from ambire ‘go around (canvassing for votes).’ 

What is ambition?  Last week, my friend said she was struck that my partner and I accept each other’s seeming lack of ambition.  What does she mean?  Should I be offended?  My friend comes from a very accomplished family and has siblings and friends who have high status jobs and high salaries, its true, but I assumed she was commenting more on our acceptance of each other and our humble material status (I’ll have to clarify with her for sure).

Her comment elicited some interesting thought on my part.  Ambition . . . I think my partner and I have different organizing structures than much of society.  In a way we are dedicated to a lifestyle and to values of simplicity.  To gentle vocation . . . He is a carpenter who likes to build things, fish, mountain bike, and hike.  He is devotedd to me, to his children, and to his parents.  I am committed to a mission, in a sense, to help individuals and communities be healthier in mind and body.   Money therefore, is not the main motivator for either member of this couple.

So no, we do not have big, high-paying jobs.  We aspire to earn more money, but we’d like to do so by doing what we do better.   In the meantime we are happy.  We enjoy our relationship and lifestyle immensely, and we love living near the Rocky Mountains.  We have good family relations, good friends, good food, and time for books and building fly rods and writing.  We spend as much time as we can outdoors, and we consider ourselves richly blessed.

If ambition in our society connotes success, than I want to ask what success entails.  I identify with passion, with the development of excellence, with innovation, and with developing work, art, or vocation with enthusiasm and integrity.  Ambition can easily become merged with destructive ends, or it can be clouded by insecurity or the undue influence of others.  Consider the instance of the woman who becomes a doctor because her parents want her to while she wants to be an English professor.

So I don’t really identify with the concept of ambition.  Do I have drive?  Yes, I feel an enduring and deep motivation to investigate what it means to be healthy in mind and body, to live from spirit and humble inquiry into what spirit means.  Do I work hard and persist?  I think I do:  I work hard to integrate yoga into healthcare, and I challenge myself to work with others, learn from others, about what they need to be healthy, what helps and hinders.  I explore models of health and mental healthcare.  I keep writing and stirring up conversation on the issue.

I do relate to ambition more in the original roots of the concept, “to go around [canvassing for votes].”  I travel about, looking for like minded people, listening to people struggling with illness and pain, investigating organizations that were set up to help but may or may not be.  I read history and Eastern philosophy and explore various healing arts to learn more about where we came from, about our imbalanced institutions and professions and what might be missing.  I work in different institutions to learn when I am too idealistic and to compare notes with others.

What a different meaning the word ambition had originally.  The current meaning is one I relate to in this sense that I have of drive, but I am wary of how distorted, or corrupt it can become.  My driving question is, How do I live this one life that I have?  What do my head and heart say?  How does my body want to engage?  What makes me a better person, more present?

I want to be present, internally motivated, a healing presence.  I love this life.  I want children to grow up being honored and feeling free to follow their passions and to align those passions with their ambition rather than living a distorted or destructive sense of the term.  I want to enjoy my connection to the earth and to my loved ones.  I want to create and share.

You see, my friend’s comment made me think of lifestyle and motivation, but it also lead me to the idea of archetypes.  My partner is an artisan, and I also see him as a “husband” in the old sense of the word:  a master of the home who can construct the hearth, build the fire, feed his family, cultivate a garden, fish the streams and care for the earth.  What does a man like him do with ambition and pressure to succeed in the material world defined by the current version of Western civilization?  From my perspective, he is a companion, in the archetypal and practical sense.   Me?  Perhaps I am a rebel, visionary, or storyteller:  I am a person seeking to bring deeper wisdom to our society and our healthcare system.

It seems to me that once you touch into these archetypal energies, once you think of a life unfolding, ambition can show itself to be misguided energy.  For me the intrinsic motivation is the gem of a life, something more like the idea of the “daemon,” or forces of nature, or the gods themselves guiding us strongly and surely and shaping our outer life.  A deep and driving force inside us, something ambition, fear, and conformity can stifle.

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Steve Jobs and me

I am reading Steve Jobs’s biography.   Why does this yoga teacher want to read about an arrogant nasty person whose work centered on technology?  Really it was encountering the applications of iPhones and iPads in the disability world and the recommendation of a woman I met at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

A person could write about 15 different aspects of Jobs’s career, but I’m particularly drawn toward two of his work traits.  He knew how to focus, and he usually knew what to focus on.  “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he said.  “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”   So he narrowed down the projects that Apple worked on and sought to perfect the products and services associated.   The other trait I admire in him is realizing what people need before they need it and creating it (and yes, it can obviously be argued that we don’t need iPhones).

The truth is that my current greatest career challenges are learning to focus and developing the confidence to press forward to create something I think many folks don’t know they need.   I have this problem of being distracted by some shiny existing job with a good salary when I am already on track in terms of creating my work.

Instead I need to hone in on my task, find others to work with, and follow Jobs’s example by going my own way, keeping my finger on the pulse of change, creating that which people do not yet know they need.

What did Jobs decide to turn away from as he moved toward his vision?  He turned away from developing some products, from working with other companies in sharing software, from employees who were not smart, creative, and tough.  Perhaps he decided not to focus on gentleness in his rush to produce.  He certainly didn’t waste time with people or things or designs he didn’t like.  What he did focus on was products he thought people would need, that would help them to be more creative, that would change the world.

What do I need to turn away from?  Fear, fancy mainstream jobs, the latest “lucrative career fields” posted on Yahoo.com.  I think that the need to belong and the fear of poverty are behind the process.  Like everyone, I want to feel needed, valued, productive, and like I can make a good living.  Such needs can supersede my creativity.  In addition, we are trained and conditioned from an early age to take our places in the system as it is rather than to question it and create new things.  Such conditioning has a strong hold on me and it slips in when I feel frustrated or isolated in what I’m doing.  Jobs’s cantankerous personality and his rebellions streak may have actually helped him stay on track, to be immune to the above mentioned needs and fears.  I do think his drive to create affected his behavior with others and was linked to his meanness.  Yet it seems his internal value system influenced his ability to inspire those who are creative, intelligent, and self-motivated.

And how do I stay focused?  I need to turn toward what excites and challenges me.  And toward tasks that align with my personal characteristics.  To calling attention to the failings in our health and mental healthcare system and proposing new models, to teaching yoga and writing.  I need to keep poking my nose out there.Image

I keep connecting with organizations and individuals involved in health care as a yoga teacher and writer.  My thought is to help individuals with health issues tune into their own inner wisdom, their own talents (re Jobs), their communities.  I take inspiration from the part of Jobs that was committed, took risks, connected with bright individuals in garages and corporations, dressed to suit himself, and kept his sights on the product.  Yes, many of his qualities were not as inspiring, but his focus and drive are.  And I do choose to take his advice to “think different.”

Good cop, bad cop

One of my coworkers at the disability agency was hired the same time I was, and we weathered a rocky start together.  Both of us were coming from a period of unemployment, and we were a little tentative, a little like toddlers getting our legs under us.  At the same time, there was little guidance on how to do our jobs, which was disconcerting at times, and inspiring of creativity at others.  It was nice to have each other on the crazy ride.

Katie is 70 years old, an energetic, dedicated person of faith, a storyteller who raised five kids and cared for an assortment of dogs, cats, birds, lizards, and ducks.  Who would tuck her kids into bed, then race off to work, only to be stopped repeatedly by the same cop.  From poor rural roots to city living and finally ranch life in Northern Colorado, she has embraced adventure of all types.  Earning college degrees later in life, she became a champion of elders,  and tells the young and old that we are more different from others as elders than at any other age, and that no one should make assumptions about or discriminate  against us, because we are individuals.

We are also, she says, more vulnerable to one setback leading to others in our older years, and she is living that reality.   Disabled husband and son back from the war, identity theft, pain from a spinal defect, she knows trouble, but it doesn’t dampen her.

On her desk Katie displays pictures of herself and her children at various ages, to remind people, she says, that she is all of those women, the young mother, the professional at work, the wise elder still advocating for others.  Katie is a Christian who lives her beliefs, seeking ways to serve and doing so with a clear heart, with simple generosity.  She makes each client who sees her welcome, offering them the large, leather executive chair and bringing them coffee or tea, sitting and engaging.  A long-time attendee of 12-step programs, she has also absorbed the teachings of this approach and is self-aware, responsible for her situation, and kind toward others.

Her life force burns strong though she is in physical pain.  She moves more, talks more, ventures into the community more than anyone else in the office.  She swirls about, curls dancing, dressed in flowing purple or black or red, versions of tennis shoes to ease the discomfort.  At staff meetings she regales us with stories of meetings with traffic cops through the years, or of a client’s dog she adopted and the client’s new dog who takes baths with her.  Sometimes afraid she’s offending the boss, she isn’t cowed.

Me, on the other hand, I keep a low profile.  In a way, I am Katie’s foil.  Introverted, more laid back and observant, I have an entirely different style of dress, movement, working with others.  And yet the two of us feel a sense of the role of fate in bringing us to this place at this time together.

I see my parents’ Christian devotion in her, and I understand her language in terms of faith and 12-step “psychology.” She has worked as a coach and a wellness educator, and we share an interest in promoting healthy lifestyles.  She represents professional dedication fueled by strong personal conviction and love, and I admire her. But at some point we seem to depart radically in perspective and language.  We cannot plan a project together without beginning to feel as though we speak different languages. If it is a written description of a class, or program, the lack of a common language is particularly apparent.

For example:  We’re talking about describing her senior services program for the website.  She writes something reflecting her philosophy and to communicate directly to her folks.   I come along and go after the grammar.  She finds it no longer reflects the message she was conveying.  We go round and round; we can’t find our way together, and we give up.  Other times we keep repeating ourselves, feel we’ve gotten somewhere, only to find ourselves at a loss on how to move forward.

Katie brims with ideas and energy, proposing ideas for classes and projects and things I might do in my position. She presents her case on what I should do and how.   I close down, feeling assaulted.  I need time to let things germinate, to feel into them a bit before moving forward.  I often feel drained as I speak with her, feeling that extroverted energy sapping my slow-burning introverted fire. I am put off, and yet I see how she comes from love and a spirit of service with others.   I tell her I need to do it my way; she backs off.

Katie makes people feel special, delighting them by paying attention to small details. Get doilies and nice little teacups for your book club meeting she tells me.  Such things never occur to me, and the thought of doing them seems a burden.  I don’t care for such things myself, and I don’t want to be bothered.

We tend to differ strongly on how we interact and how we listen, how we motivate. I do not push people; I work best as an ally to the proactive.   Katie regales people with motivational stories, with admonitions to laugh everyday, to make that call, to change their unhealthy habits.  I often think she goes too far.   She cheerleads and urges, I support someone’s forward motion.  I think she doesn’t listen well, but I also sometimes envy her engagement and suspect she is very good for those who need a push.

“We’re like the good cop/bad cop pair,” she says.  “I’m the bad cop, and you’re the good cop.”  Sometimes I think Katie is the good cop, and I am the bad cop.  Do I hold back too much?

In my mind, it’s a tricky thing–to push people, or to take the reigns and run with them, expecting them to catch up.  Will the changes stick, I wonder?  I want to see some motivation from the client, some lead taking, or to at least some curiosity about a new endeavor.

Ultimately, Katie and I both walk a fine line trying to help people who come from a place of few resources, often from very low income, illness, homelessness, or some kind of complex problem centered on disability, such as losing employment or family support, or getting sick.  I don’t think either of us has the training or experience to understand how best to help.  Katie is a brave warrior of willing to jump in to the morass with them and be of service in any way that occurs to her.  I hang back, steering clear of the casework, doing more concrete tasks.

Katie has said to me that she thinks we were hired at the same time so she could learn from me.  I feel the same way about this opportunity to 98888888olearn from her.  I cannot approach things as she does, but I can come from that attitude that each person is special, I can offer them coffee, and yoga, and a good ear.  I can know that our ways or working with people are equally valuable.  I believe I’ll listen to them a bit better than Katie, but she will help them bust through their barriers, if they are up for the ride.

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