Ambition Revisited

“Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.”
― Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

It is difficult to encapsulate the past four years of one’s life in a single column. In searching for the right subject, I found myself reading columns my sister wrote when she was a senior working on The Spectator as a managing editor. One piece that stood out to me revolved around the word “ambiguous,” she titled it, “Ambiguity is Ambiguous”. This 1019 word masterpiece explained how she grappled with the word, described how her understanding of it changed over time, and, like any 12th grade English course will teach, ended with a meaningful set of implications. In typical little brother fashion, I will attempt to “copy and paste” her column onto the 2021 Senior Issue, but, instead of “ambiguous,” choose a word that has significance to me.
If you know my dad, you have either witnessed him walking laps around Huntington Woods with his face buried in his iPad, or had an in-depth conversation with him during which he used incomprehensible vocabulary. As a middle schooler, one of the many “perplexing” words that he frequently would mention was “ambition.” As I reminisce about chats with Dad, I cannot remember why he always talked about ambition. Yet, I can recall the meaning slipping through my grasp every time I heard it. But as time went on, the definition began to click.
I thought I heard him say, “Ambition is striving for success. It is reveling in achievement. It is coveting awards. It is wanting to be known for being the best.” This is what was on my mind when I looked ahead at what seemed to be a daunting uphill battle: high school. So, I set goals for myself, ones we all see as markers of success: achieving straight A’s, having extracurriculars that make your resume pop, acing the ACT, and ultimately getting into a prestigious college. I put an immense amount of pressure on myself: doing homework on Saturday nights, cramming for tests even though I had already studied hours prior, and making sure I was just as exceptional outside of the classroom as I was inside. When I received a good score or an A in a class, I was not ecstatic, but merely content. On the flip side, whenever I did not meet my expectations, I was devastated. Living without emotional highs is an unfortunate way to exist for four years of one’s life. But weren’t the costs of my ambition all worth it so long as I got into a top school?
My understanding of ambition did a full 180 when I went back to my dad this year and asked, “What did you mean when you talked about ambition?” His heartfelt, carefully articulated response left me in awe. He explained that his understanding of ambition is not hunger for success, conventionally defined: Ferraris, mansions, promotions, or in my case, admission to prestigious schools. Rather, it is the passionate pursuit for what uplifts you: surrounding yourself with people you care about, partaking in activities that are fulfilling, and putting yourself in stimulating settings. If you do these things, my dad said, you will achieve a happiness that is self-sustaining. And that happiness is the foundation upon which careers, families, and reputations are built.
An example of the “right kind of ambition” that quickly arises in my mind is Ethan Findling’s curiosity. Amid quarantine’s dreadfully boring hours, Ethan could be found at his computer navigating the internet where he cultivated new interests and acted upon them. Once Ethan came across a topic that caught his attention, his curiosity was eager to learn more — about finance, sports paraphernalia, and philosophy. Because of Ethan’s ambitious way of thinking, because Ethan is always hunting for new interests, hobbies, and possible career paths, he has already placed himself on a trajectory toward a life of personal satisfaction.
Notwithstanding that Ethan is a close friend, his determination to act on his curiosities makes me also view him as a role model. Next year, when I am off at college, I hope to apply my new understanding of ambition. I want to be motivated for the right reasons. Instead of thinking of success only in conventional terms, I would like to be focused on finding true passions that constantly intrigue me, force me to ask questions, and encourage an intellectual curiosity that I am certain will be rewarding.
This column may depict me as an uptight, stressed out, workaholic. However, that portrayal is not entirely accurate for many reasons. In fact, I like to think I have developed an ability to see the bigger picture, to put things into perspective. Hours before receiving my decision letter from Harvard, the school on which I had pinned so many hopes and dreams, I sat peacefully working at Super Car Wash and practiced gratitude. I catalogued the reasons why a rejection would be okay. This therapeutic process allowed me to reflect. I thought of my family and the wonderful, warm environment in which I have been raised. My mom’s constant psychological aid. My sister Alana’s uplifting and loving spirit. My great groups of friends — both at BHS and elsewhere — who I am so lucky to have, who have given me so many memorable experiences and who have taught me meaningful lessons. And, finally, my time spent at BHS. Class periods during which teachers and students happily conversed. Tennis tournaments defined by the camaraderie of teammates. Afternoon hours in Dominican Republic classrooms where I surpassed my limitations. And late nights in Room 116. These memories and experiences have made my time at Berkley nothing less than phenomenal.
During that frightening Tuesday evening at the car wash, I once again realized that “failure” to achieve status markers meant far less than I originally thought. Harvard or no Harvard, I would have the things that mean the most to me: my values, passions, and experiences. I end with this: don’t allow the stereotypical ambitions to control your life. Don’t become unhappy trying to acquire those brands, luxuries, and status symbols that society glorifies. Instead, govern your own ambitions. Work hard at things that you care about, cherish the relationships that you love, and continue to do what makes you truly happy. Ambition should come from your heart, not society’s.