'I Have No Ambition Whatsoever'
Your guilt over how lucky you are is blocking your joy.
Red Hill Form - Badlands, New Mexico (1934) by Georgia O’Keeffe
How do I accept mediocrity? Not in the world (ha! That is a question no philosopher can answer), but in myself? I suppose this is a mid-life crisis question (I am 35), but it also feels like a career or parenting or pandemic question, possibly all three. I have (a version of) my dream job (English professor, not tenure-track), I have two adorable toddlers, a house, and no ambition. I have no creative pursuits or outlets beyond some very entry-level gardening and most of my time is taken up with either family or work. I was very ill for most of 2019-20. My neighbor kindly (?) reminded me yesterday that I am lucky to be alive. I have been back at it (work, living my life) for nearly a year now. And yet I look around and want more.
Make that: I want more without having to do more. I feel exhausted by everything I need to accomplish in a day and I also know that real change requires effort. I don’t have it in me to “publish” my way out of my job (and I know the realities of the academic job market, having adjuncted and worked exceptionally hard for the job I do have).
We have so many stories about people who have a health scare or medical emergency followed by an epiphany. Someone wakes up from a coma and decides to become a chef or finally move to France or tell their hot neighbor how they really feel. I went back to work teaching freshman composition. I feel like I really missed the boat to make radical change.
But do I even want change? Growing up I never had concrete dreams like the white picket fence or X number of kids or a wedding or anything like that. I was just a nerd who loved school and books. And I have a job where I do a lot of reading (most of it shitty essays written by teenagers, but still reading). My yard does have a fence; I have those two great kids; I did get married in a way that felt very right for us at the time.
Sometimes I feel like a casualty of those elementary school motivational posters: Shoot for the moon and you will land among the stars! I don’t feel like I reached the moon or the stars. I have picked up a slew of little practices that help (yoga, walks, meditation, sleep, anything a “wellness” blog could recommend, short of wheatgrass and B12 shots). I have a therapist I can talk to about all of this. But sometimes I feel like I am spinning my wheels and I would really like to do more than cope with the way things are.
Is this a phase? How can I feel fulfilled by the life that I have?
Dear Just Okay,
I love that your neighbor said you’re lucky to be alive. YOU SPECIFICALLY ARE LUCKY JUST TO BE HERE! In her mind, your sickness was an essential part of your identity and your fate, and now that you’ve escaped that curse, you should be thanking the gods every morning for sparing your life.
Is she also lucky to be alive? If she were my neighbor and she said that to me, she would be.
Luck isn’t motivating for most people. Celebrities and evangelicals like to go on and on about their good luck and good fortune, but trust me, they’re mostly trying to remind themselves of everything they have, because most of them can’t feel it.
I get letters from lucky people who feel paralyzed and lost all the time. And the absolute worst part of being lucky is the guilt it incurs. Just like the belief that you ARE your sickness and some merciful god spared you a nasty fate that was your birthright, nothing will make you more unhappy more quickly than the belief that your luck means you SHOULD BE HAPPY AND AMBITIOUS AND PRODUCTIVE or you’re an ingrate. Guilt over how you should feel is a nightmare realm many people never escape from.
Luck does not make life easier. Go to a luxury hotel and talk to some rich motherfuckers. Interview a few famous celebrities with Forever Money in the bank. Some people can handle the particular mixed blessings of wealth and popularity and scrutiny and others (MANY!) are simply too anxiously attached and too sensitive and too tormented by their own guilt and self-recrimination to thrive. The essential confusion that sets in… I mean, we don’t even want to know. It’s ugly and if you don’t see the proof everywhere, you’re not paying attention.
Now let’s talk about you specifically: 35 is not middle aged, it’s “I Was Twenty Nine A Minute Ago.” Moreover, there is no way on earth to be anything but mediocre when you have two toddlers in your house. When I had two young kids in my house I wrote this piece about my writing career and my life.
I was sinking into debt and I’d taken a teaching gig at Cal Arts to see if I enjoyed it. Guess what? I didn’t. I enjoyed talking to young people, but I didn’t enjoy teaching them things. In fact, about halfway through the class it became obvious that one of my students should be teaching the class instead of me, because she had a million and one thoughts about culture and she was incredibly good at articulating those thoughts in real time. (Her name is Niela Orr and she’s a writer and you should read her work. She’s just a great person in general.)
You know what I was good at that year? Candy Crush.
I wanted an escape from reality. I had a good time with my kids. I cleaned the house occasionally. I wrote funny things every once in a blue moon. I threw parties and ran with my dogs. My life looked lucky from the outside. I was reasonably happy, but I felt pretty adrift. I was anxious and tired and I beat myself up constantly. I have everything I ever wanted, I would say to myself. I am a working writer. I am married to an amazing man. I have adorable children who go to public school down the street.
But I couldn’t relax. All I saw were dirty windows and toys that needed to get put away. I was always exactly five pounds overweight (inside my head). My hair was frizzy and I colored it myself and it just kept getting darker and muddier looking. I looked as frazzled and disorganized as I felt.
I considered it self-indulgent to hire a housekeeper (some part of me still does, unfortunately for me and my dirty house). I considered it vain and also way too expensive to even think about my hair. I wasn’t allowed to do anything for myself – buy clothes, relax, go on a short trip with friends away from my kids – and any writing I did had to be serious and respected. I had to write for the cool places even when they could barely pay me. I had to continue climbing some kind of invisible ladder to a certain kind of specialness.
I couldn’t write about feelings or being a mother. Too uncool. If I did, it had to be funny. I couldn’t write another memoir. Why would my life matter to anyone?
I was so supposedly lucky and I felt so guilty and I wasn’t allowed to do so many things. But most of all I WASN’T ALLOWED TO FEEL MY FEELINGS.
That’s what guilt does to people. The world tells them they have enough. Sit the fuck down and enjoy it. WHY CAN’T YOU ENJOY IT? LOOK HOW LUCKY YOU ARE! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO DIE!
Oh man it’s dumb, so fucking dumb. Because you know what makes you feel lucky? FEELING MORE. It’s not about shooting for the moon and landing among the stars. You could argue that I’m living among the stars now, I guess? Sort of? How can you tell? But shooting for the moon wasn’t what got me out of that mediocre place. You know what broke me out of my rut? Writing whatever I felt like writing, which included this column, and throwing all of myself into it simply because I enjoyed it. I loved to USE ALL CAPS and shout about bad boyfriends. It was fun. Not respectable, not special, and maybe it kept me from being seen as literary. What the fuck is literary? What’s it like living in that celestial realm? What are we even talking about?
I’m still living on planet earth. You know what’s nice about living here? I know what I love now. I know how I feel. I don’t care about dirty windows but I do care about my fucking hair, so it looks better now. I don’t care about writing for the special places, but I do care about writing things that feel special to me, so that’s what I focus on. I don’t care about how much I weigh – I have no idea – but I do care about how energetic I feel.
My only dissatisfaction right now is wrapped up in wanting my book to sell like crazy. I mention this only because I want you to understand that it’s natural to feel ALL KINDS OF STUPID WAYS, even when you know better. I love my book and I even enjoyed promoting it, but I slowly fell into the trap of believing that I needed a certain kind of validation that would only come from selling trillions of copies. Please note: If everyone who gets this newsletter for free bought one copy of my book, it would fix my problem in an instant.
Nevertheless, ambition that’s aimed at external validation doesn’t function well in my life. I can’t sustain it. I have to FEEL why I’m doing something. So it’s important for me to understand which of my desires feel good and which feel poisonous to my state of mind. You know what I do care about that’s dumb? My hair. So I pay someone else to color it now. The point? Everyone is different. Some people can feel the specialness of moving units and some people can feel the specialness of hair color.
YOU DECIDE WHAT YOU VALUE BASED ON HOW YOU FEEL. You don’t decide that you should feel more joy, feel more grateful and TADA! there you are, feeling grateful. Nope. It’s the opposite. Nothing will make you feel worse than believing that you’re an asshole for not feeling joyful enough.
People write about these things a lot, but many of them do so from a place of true misery. “I shouldn’t have to feel joy!” they shout at the page, but never move beyond that. You can’t just kick joy across the room and write it off forever, any more than you can RESOLVE TO BE MEDIOCRE when you’re haunted by a longing for more.
Instead, you have to investigate, occupy that space of longing, savor your larger, sweeping desires — the ones that connect you to who you were when you were younger, the ones that remind you of what you love and believe in. You can’t protect yourself from desire itself. You have to remain vulnerable to it. Because it’s your doorway to feeling more alive and more joyful.
Sometimes you have to get over the things you’ll probably never have, like youth or a bestselling book. That’s important work, letting go of the impossible here and there if it’s dragging you down. Sometimes you have to accept imperfection, i.e. stare at the dirty window until you don’t care anymore, or you care enough to clean it, either one! But most of all, you have to reconnect with the life you have, you notice how you feel inside that life, and burrow into the good things there.
Reconnecting includes noticing the things that you don’t enjoy, and asking yourself if it’s possible to say no to that stuff. Now we’re talking about daily life and also marriage and also kids and also sex and also everything: You notice how you feel, notice what turns you on, notice what turns you off. You give yourself space to be a human animal who wants what it wants.
You’re an academic so you have to endure the arbitrary ways that other academics measure status and relevance and worth. What an absurdly stupid load of shit it is, every single time! The idea that teaching freshmen is lowly but TEACHING GRAD STUDENTS IS GLORIOUS AND RIGHTEOUS! Oh my sweet Jesus, that is rich. My best writing teacher was just an instructor – I think she reminded us of that a lot, so I adopted her lowly view of herself. But she taught one of the most popular classes at my university, and her encouragement taught me to believe in my writing for the first time. What an amazing thing, to give that gift to young people who are prone to giant waves of self-doubt and nihilism!
I’m not blowing smoke up your ass or insisting that you feel lucky to have your job. I’m merely insisting that you 1) accept and even celebrate a certain level of mediocrity and filth and confusion and chaos because YOU HAVE TWO TODDLERS, 2) define success on your own terms, and 3) feel your way toward saying yes to things that matter to you and saying NOOOOO to the things that don’t matter.
You are the decider.
You can say no to cooking. You can decide your house will be dirty, often. You can decide your kids will be with a babysitter one night a week. You can decide to take a cheap, short yearly vacation with friends. You can decide, as I did, that fish sticks and carrot sticks are not just a good lunch, they make a good dinner for the whole family that takes about 5 minutes of preparation.
One of the most important things I did for my happiness in 2018 was play 500 hours of Stardew Valley. Every time I picked up that game, I was saying to myself, “You get to do fun things.” But man do I wish games like that would stay fun forever. Eventually, you get the sheds full of kegs fermenting beer and the cellar full of fine wine and the barn full of truffle pigs and the horse and the diamond-making machines and the sword that slices serpents in half in one blow and… life gets boring.
Then you want a bestselling book instead.
See how life works among the stars? We just keep wanting more. That’s human nature. Real happiness requires a tightrope walk between accepting the imperfection of what you have and savoring the deliciousness of wanting more. For me, the kind of wanting that’s delicious is more sensual and less ego-driven: I want a life that feels romantic, poetic, sublime. I get there through my writing.
It does take work. But it doesn’t take *motivation.* Because I crave the work itself. I don’t want to arrive somewhere special. I just want to discover something transcendent inside the mundane.
Writing something that pulls the sublime out of the ordinary, and reveals the romance in simple human connection and simple desires: that’s the most deeply satisfying thing in the world for me. When I was your age, I didn’t believe I’d ever manage to do that. When I had little kids in my house, I didn’t believe that I’d ever love the work of writing. I was just trying to earn a living without losing my mind.
You don’t have to feel ambitious or motivated. You don’t have to feel lucky. Stop telling yourself what you SHOULD be feeling and just feel what you feel instead. Your path forward to a life that feels good leads through the weeds of what feels good and bad in the life you have right now. You have to tune into what you feel and make adjustments. Say no to things that drag you down and say yes to things that lift you up, and KEEP FEELING EVERYTHING. Give yourself permission to put words to those feelings. Give yourself permission NOT to “publish” your way up some arbitrary ladder, but to write your way out of this stuck feeling, toward a more divine and sensual experience of your life.
Give yourself permission to feel your way forward, through the grime of daily existence, through the exquisite textures of this spring day. Remind yourself to slow down and take in the absurd chaos of your kids and your spouse. Allow yourself to dream of deep, true friendships and memorable connections forged at the peak of your self-doubt and bewilderment.
Imagine a rich life. Imagine feeling its richness in your cells. It’s not about what you get. It’s about what you build from the inside. Other people’s standards and methods of validation are as irrelevant as flies on your windshield. Don’t get tricked into navigating with an insect for a guide. Don’t get lured into seeing yourself through the eyes of your unhappy neighbor.
All radical change comes from inside. Real joy begins not with what you have, but with who you are. It doesn’t require energy or ambition or motivation. All it requires is opening your mind and heart and letting the world in. When you can do that, you will feel lucky. Follow that feeling and keep following it. Build a religion around what you find and enjoy and love and long for. Don’t become another person. Don’t aim for another world. Cultivate the sublime in this one.
Are you feeling lucky and guilty and stuck? If so, my letters suggest that you’re not alone right now. Don’t underestimate how much patience and self-acceptance and refusal to remain angry at yourself are required to take a tiny step forward. You’re being asked to believe in your gifts, to love them, to manifest them, and to notice how good that feels. If you want to discuss it, I’ll be around on and off today, so post a comment and let’s hash it out. As always, your support is massively appreciated.