Motivation and Ambition


I've been thinking about motivation and ambition lately. Mine, my kids', my husband's and some of my friends'.  The two concepts are close, but different. Ambition embodies our desires, while motivation gives us the fuel to put forth effort. Sometimes, ambition exists without motivation, and not much happens. Alternatively, motivation without ambition can see us mistaking activity for accomplishment.  We need both. I was reminded of this fact as I finished the latest installment of the Real Vampire series by Gerry Bartlett, Real Vampires Know Size Matters. Finally, after ten books or so, our full-figured heroine, Glory St. Clair, decides to marry her long-time love and find it in herself to want more out of life—generating ambition backed up by the motivation to make it happen. And not a moment too soon; I didn't think I could take another book where Glory remained ambivalent and victimized. It was time to take charge and live large.  Which of course got me to thinking about those who choose to live small. There are lots of options out there, in fact. Some of us are content to be big fish in small ponds. Others strive to live as small fish in big ponds. Then there are those with no ambition who seek to live as small fish in small ponds. Clearly, I have some judgments about those three little fishies. But maybe I'm the one in need of judgment. Is ambition all it's cracked up to be? I have one fish who is über ambitious. He works his ass off, both on the field and in the classroom. He has friends and a girlfriend, but his work and sports come first. His twin brother loves to play and is content to achieve less as the opportunity cost of having fun and maintaining his social status at the top of the high school heap. Both are ambitious, actually, but for different things. And their respective worlds are differently sized as well. One son's world is very focused—smaller, by definition, while the other son casts his net wider. Neither is better or worse, and both are happy with their choices. Which, of course, may change, as Glory's choices evolved over time. Evolution is a good thing.

In another example, I have a friend, who I've written about before, whose life I see as quite small. She doesn't do too much and often stays close to home. But her life is filled with such joy; she revels in the small moments of her small life in her small world. In countless ways, she's much more content than I who aspire to big, bigger, biggest. Who's to say who has the better approach?  Being a big fish in a big pond involves a tremendous amount of work and stress. All of which takes a toll—in my case, the cost was my health and most of my sanity. Was it worth it?  I'm not sure. But I know that I couldn't have been content with a smaller world if I hadn't experienced the bigger one first. We can only enjoy our choice of pond if, in fact, it’s an informed choice, not a default position where there is no plan B.

In this latest novel about Real Vampires, Glory finally wakes up to the fact that she's been in default mode for most of her 400-year existence, which is a major drag. She finally finds the fortitude to flip a switch and decide that less isn't really more – that more is more and she wants it. That is one way we can evolve—finding the desire to upgrade our pond and our position in it.

Or, we discover the opposite—that we've moved into a stage of life where less is more and we want to downsize. In either case, our inner navigation system shifts and our world changes dimensions and we need to reorient.  We may feel lost or overwhelmed when we move into larger digs. Or we may feel claustrophobic at first in more restrictive spaces. Regardless, there is an adjustment period that can be uncomfortable. After that, we may have a different perspective on our space— if we're moving from a small pond to a larger one, we may be a bit star struck. If we're moving in the opposite direction, we might feel more jaded.  And once we adjust to our new circumstances, we can look back and see whether the grass really was greener on the other side. Hard to tell when we're in the thick of it sometimes. You know the feeling when it's not until the headache goes away that we become aware that we were in pain? Like that.

In the end, it all comes down to what we want and what we're willing to work to achieve. These are not simple questions, at least for me. For my kids, either, and, I suspect, for many of us. I was listening to the radio the other day and I caught part of an interview where the guy was talking about the "I want" song at the beginning of most musicals, a song that sets up the central motivating factor for the lead character. It was an interesting concept I hadn't heard before. And it's true.  "I want"—and our ambition to get it— is what creates motivation. But a desire for, and contentment with a smaller life is not necessarily a lack of passion, motivation or ambition. Just like Marie was a little bit country and her brother a little bit rock and roll, there are different strokes for different folks. My judgment be damned.

So I'll get off Glory's case and perhaps have more respect for her previous decision to swim in shallow waters. And in the remainder of the series (I was several books behind, and I have at least two left), we'll see how she does as she dives deep, into a bigger pond.  And I'll try to stop judging others' choices too. What do I know? Only that a lack of desire is fatal—because desire, regardless of its object—creates ambition, motivation and evolution. Without it we’ve got nothing to live for.