Boys Be Ambitious!

Here’s another one from the mail bag:

Dear Brad,

Since sitting more regularly I have noticed I am absolutely plagued by “if only’s!” And, thinking back, pretty much always have been. Mine revolve around my drive and ambition; if only I had any! I recently listened to a series of talks by the neuroscientist and psychologist Jordan Peterson where he outlines that the chemical basis for happiness is setting goals within goals and reaching them. He argues that a sense of progress in essential for happiness, and is an advocate of the “5 year plan” type approach to life. 

My plans tend to be more of the “shall I have spaghetti for tea” or at a stretch “I’ll book that train to see my mum next month” type. I am periodically attacked by bouts of underachiever’s anxiety, what if my mum/boss/Jordan is right, I should be planning to get on, move up, save for retirement, prepare for the apocalypse!! If only I was driven, I would be more ‘successful’ and surely less neurotic and unsure. How do I reconcile my feelings of anxiety about the uncertain future (and the pressure I put on myself to plan for a better, more secure one) with my humdrum existence, which I’m basically ok with?  

Here’s my (highly edited and rewritten) reply:

You sound like me!

There’s a statue in Sapporo, Japan of William Smith Clark, a famous American educator who came to Japan in the 19th century at the request of the Japanese government who wanted to find ways to improve their nation’s education system. On the base of his statue is carved his favorite phrase, “Boys, be ambitious!” Every Japanese person knows this saying and they’re usually shocked that any American could possibly be ignorant of it.

I remember once Nishijima Roshi gave a talk in which he brought up that motto and said he thought “be ambitious” was terrible advice.

I guess I try to follow the Middle Way on this one. At least as far as I can understand the Middle Way. I am moderately ambitious. I like to write books, but I know that writing books takes a certain amount of … I dunno … buckling down and just writing something even when I don’t feel like writing. 

Is that ambition? I’m really not sure. It doesn’t feel exactly like ambition to me. But I can see how someone could characterize it that way.

I don’t have a five year plan, though. Not in terms of my career as a writer or in terms of my finances or anything else. 

It’s like the old joke by Mitch Hedberg. He says he was at a job interview and the interviewer said, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” 

Hedberg answered, “Celebrating the fifth anniversary of you asking me that question.”

I figure that if I do good things now, then good things will come of them. So I try to keep on doing good things whenever the opportunity to do something good presents itself. 

I honestly don’t follow Jordan Peterson very closely. I once did a video about one of his YouTube videos about Christianity. This led to lots of people assuming I was a huge fan of his and that I believe every single thing he ever said in his entire career. I don’t. This seems to be one of many places where I don’t agree with Jordan Peterson. At least as you’ve presented his argument. 

I think, in this case, he does have a reasonable point. People generally want to feel like they are doing something, rather than just sort of existing. No one wants to feel useless. And lots of people these days really do feel useless. Their feelings of uselessness often drive them to try to find ways to be useful. Often that leads to really bad things. For example, being a member of a gang or a cult can make people feel very useful. Joining a Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist group can make a person feel useful. Joining a group who commits acts of violence against anyone they identify as a “Nazi” — even if the person is not — can also make a person feel useful. None of these are good for the rest of society.

But if Peterson is suggesting that ambitiousness is the only way to solve this problem, then I have to disagree. You don’t necessarily need to be ambitious in order to feel like you have a purpose in life. At this moment, your purpose might be to pass the butter. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

Your purpose in life need not be a major goal which you are striving to arrive at in the future. Your purpose in life can be to do what is necessary in this very moment. And in moments when no particular action is necessary, you are free to rest. Because, soon enough, some kind of action will be necessary, and if you’re rested up you’ll be in far better shape to take that action. 

The problem with ambitiousness, as it’s usually practiced, is that it puts happiness into the category of “things to be experienced in the future.” The problem with putting happiness into that category is that it tends to stay in that category. The result is that, even if you achieve your dreams, it’s never enough. You can never actually enjoy what you have because you’re constantly building toward an imagined future. 

For myself, I probably have a few ambitions lurking around in the back of my mind, but I try not to take them too seriously. 


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