Ambition Gnaws the Paws of Success*: Does Creativity Only Generate from Discontent?

(*With apologies to U2)

Thanks to a coworker’s recommendation, I’ve been catching up on a new podcast called The One You Feed

An engaging topic that hosts Eric Zimmer and Chris Forbes highlight in their latest podcast with ABC News Correspondent Dan Harris is the intersection of mindfulness and ambition.

If you are practicing (and struggling at) being in the NOW, accepting what is here with you as it is, where does orchestrating a long-term artistic/professional/spiritual goal fit?

This got me reflecting on an even deeper question: What drives an artist to create?

Many of the seekers and wanderers I’ve encountered over the years were catapulted onto their trajectories by negative experiences and/or hostile relationships. Many of us have sought within our passions the resolution to old conflicts, wholeness to remake the broken pieces we carry with us, answers to the tragedies we have witnessed or endured.

It’s a familiar trope, right?

But how long can we sustain this reaction to a perceived negative event or toxic relationship as the engine for our creativity? When does relying on pain to fuel our artistic or spiritual endeavors cause us harm or undermine our practices?

I’ve known that I wanted to write—to be an author of stories and books—since I was eight or nine. I was always a dreamer of a kid, stuck inside my imagination, and the divorce of my parents and the departure of my father from my life found me out of synch with many of my classmates and friends. Part of what I was looking for even then was a tacit acceptance. Call it love or appreciation or even adulation, there was an ego-driven need to be identified as a writer so that I could feel better about myself. This neediness only deepened through my adolescence, especially after I discovered music and rock and roll posturing (what Brian Eno calls ‘Negative ambition…the thing you’re pushing against.”) And it stayed strong throughout my twenties.

Something shifted in my thirties and continues to evolve in my forties, though. I got bored of the same negatively-framed narrative I kept repeating to myself. My non-artistic life had—despite my most self-destructive efforts—become a life I enjoyed thanks to my second marriage, my children, my job, my friendships. And as I’ve mentioned before several times in this blog, I gave up writing for a while, and giving up felt wonderful. (In retrospect, giving up the artist-as-damaged-goods paradigm was probably what felt so blissful.)

Eventually, I found I missed writing. I missed the act of creating. As I began again, the impulse to make art came from a different, simpler place – I write because it’s what I do.

None of this happened by design. It was all a result of my usual bumping and flopping about. But somehow the fulfillment I’ve found in my craft has nothing to do with accolades or acknowledgement outside my own skull; it has to do with my relationship to the works themselves. Novels and stories present themselves to me, and I am obligated to do my best to bring them into the world (however slow and excruciating that process may be).

That’s not the end of it, though. I do want to publish my novels and stories, and I do want as many people as possible to read what I’ve written. I don’t deny this ambition. Stories are meant to be shared, and if I can add my own to the many others already out there while maybe making a little money doing so, well, that would be gravy. 

So I come back around to the question raised in the podcast: where does ambition fit?

The advice that Harris repeats—by way of what he’s read and studied—is to not invest in the outcome. 

I don’t know what I think about this. How the hell do we not invest in the outcomes of an endeavor that we’ve spent hundreds of hours partaking in? I don’t care how egoless any of us pretend to be, we all invest in the outcomes. That’s just what we do.

But there you go: Work hard, do your best, and don’t invest in the outcomes. Chop wood. Carry water.

There's more, though. I have found all these accidental friends and compatriots and family while partaking in the most challenging endeavors of my life: adolescence, writing, parenting, coping with anxiety. The lesson I learn and re-learn (and re-learn) is that if you keep the frustrations and the struggles to yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you share, others will come forward. As ever, if you open yourself to the life around you, and you allow yourself to be vulnerable and say, “This is who I am” others will respond, most of them positively.

Paths are not meant to be wandered alone. Loneliness is a fabrication of ego, too, this thinking that we are somehow unique in our successes or our failures (especially our failures). Be here now, yes, and more importantly, be here now together.