When Ambition Isn't Everything

A sharp-dressed young man walked into Habit Burger where I was chowing down. He had a limp and asked if he could sit down instead of waiting in the long line near my table. I said sure and he started asking me questions. Oh, here we go, I thought.

He asked me what I was reading. I tried hard to explain Scott Adams' God's Debris. It's basically a short story about a conversation between the smartest man in the world and a curious postal worker. Adams uses the structure to explore all sorts of topics, like God, probability, affirmations, and more. The young man sitting at my table was blown away. He asked, "What got you into reading books like that?" Jesus, man, what kind of weird ques- I don't know. No one ever asked me that before.

I stumbled around an answer somewhere between nature and nurture, but when the conversation inevitably and quickly turned toward a pyramid scheme pitch, I think sharing my plan to move back home scared him off. (Always a good way to deflect people's ideas for you, have your own plan ready.)

I devoured my hamburger and milkshake and left Habit Burger thinking about his question. I have read a lot of books in my lifetime, and I'm starting to think I've been hypnotized by confidence. I've read the theories of so many authors that are convinced the world is the way they see it. They have a personal philosophy strong enough to fill pages, a legacy instruction manual, one size fits all.

Reading like this is the reason I'm scatter-brained when the normal 9-5 ends and I have time to do whatever I want. The choice is paralyzing. You want to make sure you make the right decision to make the right steps to nail the right future. And I'm assuming there is one, and quite possibly, only one. Someone has to be right, right? Tim Ferriss compiled a 700+ page book titled Tools of Titans to highlight the habits of 200 mega-successful people and guests of his podcast, and, of course, they're not identical. Some things work for some and some things don't come close to working for others.

A bit more perspective for me comes from another book written by Scott Adams entitled How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big: "My main point about perception is that you shouldn’t hesitate to modify your perceptions to whatever makes you happy, because you’re probably wrong about the underlying nature of reality anyway."

I've driven myself crazy for years thinking that there is some sort of optimized formula for success when it was probably better to listen to myself and change course. I'm glad to say I'm starting to come around.

Dave Chapelle did that. Like most, I honestly hadn't thought too much about him until his recent triumphant return to stand-up comedy. Chapelle had three season of one of the funniest shows on television ever, Chapelle's Show, and then walked away from a 50 million dollar deal to keep it going. He felt Hollywood getting to him. He felt disconnected from his family. The man has principles and when he was offered an ungodly sum to do something he didn't want to do, he walked away.

And then, more than a decade later, Netflix offered him 60 million dollars for three stand-up specials.

Talking about the deal and his return on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Chapelle said, "When I'm walking down the street, [fans will] be like, 'Dave, that's right, you tell it like it is.' Not really. I don't really know what it is, I just say what it feels like."

Lately, I've been feeling off. Questioning your story against a pile of personal development successes will do that to you. I started to see everything as a nail and the exhausting need to hammer them all wasn't all good for me.

Often my need to satisfy ambition got the better of me. I can avoid people because I have things to do or projects to complete. Or in an even more subtle way, I'll pick my head up and notice the days that have flown by without me even thinking to call my mom or text another friend. They are the decisions most short stories warn you about regretting on your deathbed.

Comedian Maria Bamford ran up against this problem in an intense way. With mental illness running in her family, she knew it would get her. When suicidal thoughts started to get too strong, Bamford checked herself into a psychiatric hospital and stepped away from stand-up comedy for two years. In a bit for This is Not Happening, she pretended to defend herself against the world's most ambitious and obnoxious comedian, and, in light of his successes, she admitted, "I can't be as ambitious as I once was." No one can fault her for valuing her health over her ambition.

Luckily, a work conference came up right around the time I was feeling this way. I decided to extend it into a much-needed vacation from ambition and see my friends, Teri and Marianne.

It was surprising how easy it was to step away from my habits and appreciate the experience. It didn't matter what we did, I was already glad to catch up with two friends I hadn't seen much in months. We drank on St. Patrick's Day and hiked a mountain over the weekend, and took those photo booth photos wherever we could.

And I spent a good amount of time alone too. Teri could only take so many vacation days so I was left to decide for myself how to enjoy the time. Luckily, my ambition didn't paralyze my choices. I did still manage to train for my 10k training in the apartment gym but, while the Seattle rain did its thing, I lounged hard on the couch, watching Last Week Tonight and Chapelle's latest special on Netflix. Plus, for the first time, I think I went at an appropriately slow museum pace, walking around the Museum of Popular Culture, reading scribbles from Jimi Hendrix's notebooks and oogling horror movie props, like the ax from The Shining.

Seattle was an excellent reminder that I could be wrong altogether. Sometimes I just need a good reminder that ambition isn't everything. Or, at least, that's what it feels like.