There are some topics of conversation that really are the death knell of any further frivolous conversation. Save to Buy ISAs, rent prices in London, tax breaks for the super-rich… Actually no, scratch that last one, I’m sure there’s comedy to be made out of that. But still, these are heavy subjects that are usually incongruous with the kind of atmosphere I want to evoke at a dinner party I attend. To say the least.
Ambition in a capitalist society
One topic of conversation that I truly despise is the dreaded, “what is everybody we went to uni/school/college of further education doing now?”. It always seems to rear its ugly head at any dinner party held by university-educated twenty-somethings. I don’t know if we just enjoy torturing ourselves, or if the upset we cause to ourselves and to others is purely accidental, but it is real. Real boring.
As soon as someone brings the topic up, I immediately know how the conversation will end. My friends say that I have psychic powers – I don’t think they want to admit to themselves how predictable they truly are. Any chat that begins with ‘Have you heard about blah-blah’s new…’ is doomed to continue along those lines until we are all required to huddle round and comfort each other about that time we got fired, that failed attempt to start a “zine” (whatever that is), or that PhD application that never got beyond the line “I want to discuss the effects of neo-liberalism”.
Not that I’m blaming my friends. Though they are the ones that keep bringing it up. No, I blame the wine. And society. I find that most things can be blamed on either alcohol or society. In this case, it’s both. I don’t know what they put in those bottles of Oyster Bay but it seems to make recent graduates incredibly bitter about their life choices and the life choices of others. Not that I’m exempt from this – I enjoy a hefty glass of Oyster Bay as much as the next person.
One time, we were really getting going on the subject of that-bitch-in-contemporary-lit’s new DJing gig in Paris, when my friend said something that struck a chord with me. And this time, it wasn’t the sauvignon blanc. She simply said, “I guess I’m not ambitious like that”. That was all; it managed to do what I had never managed, which was to make other people stop talking about recent reviews of Lisa Barberetti’s residency at Le Baron Paris.
I have had pretty much the same conversation a dozen times, but I hadn’t expected that. It made me think, to be honest. About how nauseating the whole thing was. Our careers, other peoples’ careers… I have spent a lot of time thinking about my career. I’ve probably spent more time thinking about my career than actually pursuing my career. But I’d never stopped to consider it from an outside perspective.
It’s safe to say that most of us are told throughout our lives that we should have ambition. We’re told, especially as women in the twenty-first century, that we deserve to have ambitions, and that we should do everything in our power to achieve our ambitions. In fact, those who are told to have ambition are the lucky ones. Not all of us have the luxury of ambition. But that’s a topic for another day.
Ambition is, throughout our lives, seen as a sort of constant. If you don’t have ambition, you are patronised and pooh-poohed for your lack of it. Ambition is a very middle-class phenomenon, and I am convinced that this topic of ambition is really another instance of the class divide in this country.
The fact is that as a middle-class person, it can often seem as though there’s no opt-out option on the ambition form. As somebody from a lower-middle-class background, I have never seen ambition as a box that could be unticked. In fact, as somebody from a background that hovers somewhere between the middle and working class, ambition was pretty much what defined my childhood. I had to have ambition; otherwise, there was no way of getting out of the town I grew up in.
In the midst of all of my numerous ambitions (most of which consisted of moving to London, getting into a good university, and trying to become a panellist on Have I Got News for You… sadly, it’s still a ⅔ currently), I had never considered the purpose of it all. Sure, I want to write, but like, what does that mean? Amid the endless pursuit of our goals, none of us really stop to consider why we have them, and what we’re going to do once we achieve them. If we do achieve them, that is.
It might seem like a #firstworldproblem and admittedly, it kind of is. However, I regularly hear people who become what society deems as “successful” in their chosen fields, talk about the gaping chasm of life beyond ambition. It’s the kind of thing we mere mortals who have yet to achieve our goals, usually shrug off as the protests of the out-of-touch, privileged few. We never stop to think that they might have a point. We’re too busy trying to be them.
This pattern of aspiration and achievement has been so drilled into us that it has never occurred to most of us that it isn’t necessary and in a way, has been constructed for us, by somebody else. Most likely a white, straight, rich man. We are encouraged to have dreams and goals, but it’s rarely acknowledged that there are numerous obstacles that stop us from getting to where we want to be in life. Obstacles that are beyond our control, whether it be race, religion, class, or sheer dumb luck.
So, why do we bother?
The outcome has been predetermined. Well, because all we hear are other people’s – people wealthier, more successful than us – opinions about our goals. We’re crowded by the discourse that exists within the society in which we live. It’s one that draws a line between happiness and unhappiness, almost exactly along the same line we draw between success and failure. Success and happiness are almost synonymous.
The same can be said for failure and unhappiness. We treat them as much of a muchness. If we want to be happy – and who, apart from angst-ridden fifteen-year-olds with stretchers and blogs, doesn’t want to be happy? – we have to play the game. We have to succeed in our chosen career and have the wealth, wellbeing, and credit score, to show for it.
This is the paradigm that’s drummed into us from all sides. So much so that we never stop to consider whether it’s actually doing us any good. So much so that we never stop to consider whether it’s actually true.
So much so that we forget that it’s in society’s best interests to keep us chained to goals that we might never reach; and, even if we did, they might not quite be the ticket to happiness we thought they would be.
So if you don’t achieve your ambitions, remember it’s all a sham designed to keep us chained to the whims of corporate capitalism. Light a candle, pour yourself a cuppa, and stop comparing yourself to everyone you graduated with.
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