In business, there are the hunters, and then there is everyone else. The ambitious play life as a game, moving one piece at a time and never fully being satisfied. The rare few have a greater mission, some intention for greater good or art, but most just enjoy the game itself, and, of course, winning.
My current mass media obsession is Mad Men, the television show, which I’m woefully behind on – all the way back on season three. The lag is due to the fact that I only watch television these days with my boyfriend, outside of the occasional reality trash, and he can’t stand the show. At first, I didn’t understand why he didn’t like Mad Men – it’s well acted, it has a long, drawn out storyline, and plenty of television connoisseurs adore it. But then, as I let myself drift through the slow-moving episodes, it hit me why he can’t stand the show, and why my own engagement has lagged: the show is entirely about ambition, cut-throat, self-absorbed, occasionally sociopathic American ambition. The 1960s were much like present day, although a New York’s advertising agency could be easily replaced by a technology startup. Or maybe any business which blends creatives and sales. It is, at least up until season three, a story of ambition and the American Dream.
I’ve forgotten what my American Dream is – or, quite frankly, I can’t make out if I ever had one. In Mad Men one thing surely that led to its success is that most everyone can relate to someone in the series – perhaps even more than one person. Peggy, the character who worked her way up from secretary to first female copywriter in the agency, who is awkward and an outsider, despite being successful for her gender and age at the time, is the one I can most relate to, in some ways. But her drive far surpasses my own. Maybe if I were a full-time creative I’d be equally ambitious. Maybe if I were born at another time, when writing copy for an ad meant coming up with the best content to fit in a 11×14 print, I could have found some other American Dream to pursue. Today, all I know is I feel entirely lost and ambition-less. I hate myself for it, for lacking that fighting instinct, for wanting to feel something, I don’t know, magical – that poof, here I am, I’ve made it, I’ve found where I’m meant to be. And the jarring, jagged edge of the reality that I’m no where near it, if it actually exists.
Maybe it’s just my millennial tendencies, my Achilles heal, the need to be credited for my work while ensuring that work is uniquely my own. I grew up at a time, in a community, where life was comfortable. Unlike my parents who grew up just on the cusp of poverty, I had everything, and thus sought to be different, to be – not a doctor or lawyer – but something – someone – outstanding and different. But ambition itself never painted itself clearly enough. I spent my life running blind towards a target I could not see or imagine.
I can’t say I’ve wasted my life because my bank account would disagree – but is this it? I should be grateful and thrilled to have the opportunity to thrive, I should shut up and keep my head down and fight to move up the corporate ladder because – that is what I should do. That is what young women in 2015 who were born without a trust fund do. We work and often our careers far outshine those of our significant others. Somehow we procreate and manage to keep a job that pays the bills of increasingly expensive households. We trap ourselves to never be free again, to be tied to the responsibilities of an overpriced life, or we settle for a life that is less comfortable than the one which we grew up in. Or we find a rich husband, perhaps, and likely watch our own Mad Men scenario play out and our marriages fall apart.
Perhaps this is all impossibly dramatic, but I can’t help but constantly returning to this fact that I feel so empty and lost. I have this great job, I am making more than I could have dreamed of 10 years ago, and I continue to save towards my lofty annual networth goals. Yet the only happiness I find in life is waking up cuddled up in my boyfriend’s arms. I imagine us together in some small town, far away from this expensive region, far away from our few friends, and even far away from family, and still there I’d have him, and our walks together and our crazy jokes and my horrible and likely offensive accents and his which are spot on, especially his british, scottish and slightly gay german.
But we do still need money. Of course we do. Life isn’t cheap, even if it can be cheaper. We’ve locked ourselves into another year of our rent, now $2400 a month for our 850 square foot one bedroom, cementing another year of who knows what life will bring, but at least I know where it will bring it. I foresee a summer floating in the pool, unemployed, not by choice, attempting yet again to figure out what it is in this entire world that might fulfill me, or how to shut my needy, whiny, self-absorbed self up long enough to grow up.
While my boyfriend was never ambitious, and doesn’t have an inkling of ambition in his blood, I believe I once was ambitious. I can still relate to the characters on Mad Men, I can taste the excitement of the opportunities ambition paired with a little bit of luck and the right timing can bring. I wonder how different I am from my peers – are they truly happy or they just doing what they fell into, just getting by. I struggle to find motivation purely for pay, which is ridiculous, but I know for me I’d be happier if I had a job which somehow intrinsically motivated me – and perhaps I ought to cool off the aggressive savings for a while. Ambition is useless if it doesn’t fulfill any of one’s needs beyond the basics of survival.
Earlier today I read an essay from the creator of Mad Men who didn’t manage to get his first job in television until he was 30. He received his masters in film from the prestigious USC, but couldn’t get his foot in the door. He eventually obtained a gig for $600 to help make a television pilot funnier, which he did well enough to get offered another job. Even then his script idea for Mad Men was turned down by virtually every television studio. But a few people believed in him enough to give him more work, and eventually AMC took a risk on the project. The point of the essay, which is a collection of stories from “mentors” that I must read, is that few who are successful are willing to share how hard it is to get where they are. Artists are especially ashamed of the “brushstrokes,” so to speak. But it takes time and a heck of a lot of grit to make it.
It’s not the fear of failure that is holding me back. It’s the fear of not living up to my own expectations of myself – as a creator. When you’re not the best shaped cog for a machine it doesn’t hurt quite as much in comparison to building a machine that is missing half of the parts.