When Ambition Goes Wrong

I wrote a few days ago about dreaming big, and I stand by everything I said there. I think having big dreams and wild ambition (and the confidence to stand by it and go after it) is awesome, if that’s what you want.

But as I’ve worked through going after that ambition through my creative process, I’ve hit a few major snags—and I think that the very ambition I celebrate is to blame for some of it.

The danger of ambition is what I call “hollow ambition.” This is ambition for the sake of ambition, or dreaming of success for its own rewards. Now, dreaming big and imagining yourself as successful without knowing exactly what you’re successful for is natural, especially early on in the creative process. But the longer it goes on, the more it can warp your creative process until everything you attempt to create is measured against some phantom of your future success, and almost always found wanting. Or, as happens to me, you start creating for your ambition rather than for yourself, and you lose sight of what you really want in the process.

The best path is to apply that ambition to your passion, your creativity, rather than letting that ambition become your passion in and of itself. Find an idea that speaks to you regardless of how it may be perceived, and then use your ambition to fuel that idea. It sounds counterintuitive, to apply such effort and big dreams to an idea that you feel might fail, but I think it’s actually the only path to real success.

Most successful people begin with an idea they’re passionate about, and their ambition allows them to fight for it even when others doubt them. Their ambition does not supply the idea—it supplies the confidence to go after an idea which may fail—which DOES fail. And, if that idea does indeed fail beyond any ability to revive it, that ambition supplies the perseverance to go after something new.

But you might be thinking (as I am), what if you know you want success, but you don’t have some inner passionate idea to apply that desire to? What if all you want is success?

Well, some would tell you to get out of writing. I will never tell anyone that, because I think anyone can become a writer for any reason and using any process and to tell someone they can’t be (or worse, “aren’t”) a writer because of some arbitrary “rules” for “real” writing is hurtful and wrong. Mostly, I feel this way because I’ve read things in writing books that have told me I am not a real writer for this or that reason, and I refuse to believe them.

Anyway, I think starting with just wanting success without a clear idea of how is okay—not great, but okay. But it has to be handled with care, because it can get out of control, as it has with me, until it takes over and devours your creativity. When you throw away ideas because they may not be successful, or you hold onto ideas you don’t like only because of potential success or other people’s opinions, you have let your ambition grow hollow.

How do you fight that?

The first step is to find some distance between your creativity and your ambition. This is not about abandoning that ambition; it is about finding a looser definition of success to go after. For example, dreaming about a big six-figure debut can be fun and enticing, but not only is it rare, it is also not the only path to success. There are authors who explode into success seemingly overnight, but there are also authors whose breakout works come later in their careers. Some start with short stories, some move from paperbacks to hardcovers over time, some have middling success until one book breaks out into stardom.

Allow your ambition to morph into a looser, more eventual dream. Imagine a future in which you are celebrated for “working your way up.” Rewrite your vision of success into years of struggle leading into fame and fortune, and being stronger and more appreciated for that very struggle. It’s not as glamorous as an instant phenomenon, and especially for those who dream of young success… well, it’s not that. But it’s still success, even giant success, and it’s much more attainable.

The trick is that thinking about working for your success contains the key ingredient—work. And maybe you’ll still get that huge debut, but by not hungering for it so desperately that it shuts down your own unique creativity, you’ll actually get that much closer to it. And a bit of distance from your dreams will allow the ideas that only you can contribute to the world (yes, even when they’re cliché unoriginal messes, they can still be uniquely your unoriginal messes) to flourish.

But how do you find these ideas? When you’ve let the voices of your ambition, the voices of other people’s opinions, play such a fundamental role in the creation and shaping of your ideas—how do you find your voice again?

More on that next time.

Dream on! …Carefully.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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3 Responses to When Ambition Goes Wrong

  1. Pingback: Finding Your Ideas | J. Sevick

  2. Sue Klein says:

    Don’t dream of six figure success, dream of self-publishing a first short story, and receiving kudos. Start small, but start! You can build from there…

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