Ambition is a Bad Word

A few years ago a teacher told me: “You have large hands, and that means you are ambitious.” I objected: “But my hands are so small.” He shook his head: “Not compared to your body size.” I doubted that my hands were large, even compared to my small body, but I never doubted my ambition. I’ll be going places. I knew that.

From childhood, I was convinced that I was special. School came easy for me, and despite never doing much work at home and no more than doodling in class, I still found myself invited to the principal’s office year after year to be acknowledged for my excellence. With an A+ in Math, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and more, it seemed silly to care about a B or a C in the corner of my report card. And anyways, I knew that if I had tried at all, I would have gotten an A+ in that subject too.

Ambition is defined by the Free Dictionary as “An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame and power.” I had a desire to succeed, to have an A+ across my report card, but I was not willing to put in the work. I knew it was the effort that was missing, not the ability or the brains. My ambition for a perfect record gave way before other activities, mainly reading, and out of the failure to achieve success grew a belief in my own innate laziness and inability to work hard.

Two of the new leghorns

As an adult, I designed my goals around my ambitiousness. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.” If I was ambitious, I needed to make my ambitions count. I wanted to be a writer, I knew that. But surely that was not enough. Surely, for writing to be an ambition, my book must be a bestseller, a Newbery Winner, life-changer, one of a kind. Measured against such terms of success, my novel never seemed enough.

My hands, however, are little hands, small palms with short fingers. They enjoy doing little, ordinary things: cooking for the kids, cleaning the chicken coop, planting in the garden, swinging back and forth as I hike. I find that I prefer doodling to painting masterpieces, and I’d really like to go back to singing without feeling that I ever need to perform in front of a crowd. I want to write a book without the burden of needing to change the world, becoming famous, or winning prizes. I’d like to write for my own pleasure, my magic of creation, the sound of my laughter.

My plumeria

“Where ambition ends, happiness begins,” said monk, poet and spiritualist Thomas Merton. I think I prefer his quote to the Emperor’s. I would like to find happiness in my ordinary life nearby, to give myself permission not to be ambitious or strive for fame. To be me, no matter how small, as long as that is what my heart tells me to be.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109