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What if Jane Smiley is right about ambition?

Here in New York we are waiting for the weather to break. With a little luck, it will do so in a few hours. My shoulders are terribly sore, and I attribute this to the ongoing humidity; we shall see. I'm really fit for nothing but reading, which is okay, because I've been doing almost everything but in the past two weeks. I'm here, actually, because of a thought that this afternoon's reading has planted.

The source book is Jane Smiley's A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck. It's great, and I recommend it, but I'm not going to talk about the book itself now, not least because I haven't read all of it. I simply want to try out an idea. Ms Smiley has convinced me that horses - which, as she points out, have actually worked with human beings since prehistoric times - are capable of ambition. She has observed horses who perform above and beyond what they're asked to do, and I'm persuaded by her findings. It's a colossally interesting idea, because we're so mired in the association of ambition and payoff. There is no payoff for ambitious horses. There's simply the opportunity to do something that they're good at and that they like to do.

This amounts to a redefinition of "ambition."

There are plenty of people who think that they're ambitious for payoff, but by Ms Smiley's definition, this is not possible. You can plod and save, and you can finagle and gamble. Ambition has nothing to do with these approaches. Ambition means loving something that you do well and, as the book title has it, waiting for the money to follow. Or the fame.

This kind of ambition is not something that you can pursue or develop. It requires natural gifts. It requires a kind of undistracted energy that achieves results with grace. Once the gift is recognized, then it can be honed and disciplined, but the mere will to do something is not enough. This is why so many people who would like to be writers will never be read; writing begins with inborn abilities. Such abilities may have little or nothing to do with intelligence; I'm not sure, for example, that I attribute good writing exclusively to intelligence. And think of all those actors downtown who, for all their classes and try-outs, can't be ambitious because they haven't got the goods.

What is the special skill that mediocre but successful performers and politicans have? It's the ability to be at ease in public, among strangers. It's the desire to be onstage. Yes, you've probably got to be good looking, but being good looking isn't something that you do. Therein lies one of the mysteries of great beauty, and the emptiness that so often attends it.

There are undoubtedly people who are ambitious about sex. They may, but are unlikely to, be monogamous.

Something creative people hear all the time: "But you're doing something that you love. That makes up for the lousy pay." Well, it makes up for not being filthy rich. But poverty is not productive after a certain age. Nevertheless, there is a paradox of sorts here. In What's New, Pussycat?, Woody Allen's character tells Peter O'Toole's that he's got a job as a chorine dresser and, when he's asked what the job's worth, he names a low figure - adding, "It's all I could afford." He likes the job so much that he pays for the chance to do it. In our exchange-driven world, where money does not grow on trees, however, this is not a sustainable approach to life. People who do something really well will always be better-paid than people who don't, even though they do enjoy what they're doing and the others would rather be doing something else. Where ambition is lucrative (and it often isn't; consider mothering and the other domestic arts), the reward is double.

And ambition is thus doubly unfair. Anyhow, I hope I've just blown the possibility of excellence out of the "personal responsibility" rot.


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"To have ambition, is my ambition." - The Gang Of Four, I Love A Man In A Uniform

I was thinking about the very same issue, but only in the context of humans, not horses. I was continuing to muse about this topic after lunch today with a very dear friend.

We had been were discussing endless "corporate-ladder" struggles, and we listed the skills and qualities that we thought an effective CEO of a financial institution must posses. We agreed that brain power,street smarts, knowlege of the industry, drive, leadership ability and people skills were all necessary traits. However we felt that a CEO also must be able to evaluate all employees, divisions, products and competitive issues in a dispassionate manner, with little reference to the "personal side of things." We are very familiar with this viewpoint,having worked on Wall Street for years, and we have the "intestinal fortitude" to run an enterprise this way for a short period. Very soon, however, we would be totally miserable: this Wall Street worldview produces behavior that is entirely contrary to the way we think all people, including leaders, ought to behave.

We speculated that if we ever turned down such a CEO position, the Street wisdom would be that we didn't have enough ambition. Nothing could be further from the truth. We hope to continue to work for a long time; we are lucky enough to enjoy our work and our colleagues. We enjoy very challenging and interesting problems, we are good at developing workable solutions and usually we can persuade people to do what we think best. Indeed, hardly shrinking violets!

Nevertheless,we have found that adopting, being caught up in, or merely exposed to, the Wall Street world view, is very draining. It undercuts the pleasure of working hard and well; it hobbles the personal ambition that Jane Smiley identifies. In fact,it interferes with the "undistracted energy that achieves results with grace," as RJ so perfectly states.

Do animals have ambition, I don't know? Some perform better than others in controled laboratory conditions and we chalk that up to individual variation and let it go at that. If a horse does something spectacular, there is a payoff even if we can't identify the payoff, it's certainly there. There are payoffs aplenty in the world and they are not all monetary. For people the payoffs many times are very difficult to see because they are internalized, we do things so that we can view ourselves in a certain way to maintain or change our self image. If animals have a self image, we will not find it until we teach them to talk. I find it a bit odd that recently RJ wrote "When we look at the penguins and see the drama of their winter schedule, we see something that, for them, simply isn't there," and now he talks about ambition in horses. Anthropomorphizing animal behavior is a good literary technique but a terrible animal behavior technique. Have we redefined ambition? Not yet, I don't think so. And, payoffs, there are payoffs, rewards, if you will, for every action whether we can identify them or not doesn't matter by definition rewards exist. Every desire has in its conception its satisfaction as demonstrated in the logic of the language, 'I want' demands an object, you must fill in the blank, otherwise its a neurotic condition or a literary device.

All that aside, "undistracted energy that achieves results with grace" is just so good. If that's ambition can I have a double, please?

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