Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Watterson Principle, or a Note on Ambition

Dicasalarin Cove, Baler, Aurora province

I’ve been thinking a lot about ambition these past few months. It started late last year during a conversation with a good friend, let’s call him M. He’s been working for years at a big company (I won’t mention his real name or the company because it’d be too obvious). He got a job offer from another big company that’s sort of related to what he’s doing now, although in this new one he’d be senior management and would be heading an entire team.

M passed on the offer, partly because the pay wasn’t that much better than the one he has now, but mostly because he was too attached to his current job and he couldn’t see himself building up his career again in a relatively new industry and environment. 

In subsequent conversations with M, I gathered that his future plans involved retiring with a piece of land outside the city where he could build a modest-size house with a garden and to go on the occasional trip out of the country with friends. He’s not exactly close to retirement age yet but he’s already got things figured out and that’s what he’s working towards now. 

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Compare that with M’s colleague, let’s call him N. For years, M and N worked alongside each other. But this year, N abruptly left his cushy job because he was looking for something more. I can’t say anything else because the personalities and institutions involved are fairly well-known, even for those not in our shared circles of acquaintances, but let’s just say this new endeavor is vastly different from his current occupation and involves actual power and a much wider sphere of influence. 

I know people want different things out of life, but I had to wonder about the circumstances in each of M and N’s lives that led them to pursue wildly different tracks. Why is one content to coast through with just the bare minimum, while the other feels like he wants the sky and the stars? Inevitably, these thoughts led to an internal dialogue about what I want to happen in my own life. 

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as far back as I can remember. I still have my old journals from when I was nine or ten years old where I would write stuff that happened to me throughout the day. There was even the occasional short story there (or what passes for a short story for a fifth or sixth-grader).

A view of Prague Castle from Charles Bridge

I was lucky enough to get into one of the best universities in the country and graduate from a course that I actually liked. It took me a few years to get into my groove, so to speak. I went through a few other jobs, most of which were only tangentially related to what I studied in college (and one that wasn’t—hey, I needed to eat). But eventually, I settled into a job that was the Holy Grail for most working professionals—one that I liked and one I thought I was actually good at. 

It’s been about 12 years and I’m still at it. Writing was all I ever wanted to do and how lucky am I that I get to do it for a living. It’s not perfect, and I have to make professional compromises from time to time, but generally, I wake up in the morning still looking forward to go to work. How many of us can get to say that?

The fulfillment of an ambition, even one as simple as getting to do a job you actually love—that, to me, is the definition of success. Yet somehow, society has led us to believe that there are other, loftier goals we should aspire to. A house or three, a new car, annual trips abroad, overflowing money in the bank—those are all benchmarks of success, and most of us toil in hopes of getting one or all of those and more one day. They’re not bad, of course, but are they really the best, most foolproof ways of telling us how far we’ve come? Who says we can’t live and work towards our own definition of success? Why can’t we set our own targets and live our lives in pursuit of our own goals?

Burano, Italy

I’ve never heard anyone express all of this quite as eloquently and as succinctly as Bill Watterson. In a speech in front of the graduating class of 1990 of Kenyon College, Ohio, the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes said: 

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential—as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

“You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.

“To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.”

Dusk in Vienna, Austria

That last sentence basically sums it all up and has become a mantra of sorts for me, and I suspect, for many other people. Don’t get me wrong—the fact that I’m finding fulfillment in my current profession doesn’t mean I’ve stopped setting other goals for myself. I’d love to interview my writer heroes, work on an intensive journalistic piece, and even write and publish a book someday. Contentment shouldn’t be confused with complacency.

But for now, as I celebrate another turn around the sun, I’m happy to say that things are going great. There’s room for improvement, as always, but I choose to be grateful for what I have right now that makes life worth living. I’m inventing my own life’s meaning, and, just as Mr. Watterson surmised, I’m happier for the trouble.  

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