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Excessive ambition often mars resolutions

Published 10:16am Monday, January 2, 2012

The great failure of New Years resolutions, we have all noticed, is a predictable failure to follow through. A subtle version of this is to over-reach, to be overly ambitious so as to reach beyond what is reasonable to expect. Ambition is praised as a great American virtue urged upon everyone, but many lives have been ruined by ambition that has misled. Beware of how far you allow ambition to drive you and make right choices before its point of no return.

The Chelsea Hotel on Manhattan’s West 23d Street has been almost the default residence of New York’s ambitious writers, artists, and assorted low-lives. It has been a place in which to perch to exercise such ambition, but more ambitions were lost there as were realized.

Dylan Thomas fell into a fatal, whiskey-induced coma. William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch there. So, too, did Jack Kerouac work On the Road in one of its apartments. Leonard Cohen had his famous romp in one of its beds with Janis Joplin. These names we know; the others we never heard.

Writing insightfully in The New York Times, Jeff Giles observes in the Chelsea what is so sorrowful is “all the young and old hopefuls who have just enough ambition to push their lives past the point of no return.”

What Giles observes in New York I recognize everywhere. Ambitious artists sustain enough ambition to make it to an entry level, but no further. They publish a novel that earns only the advance, land a bit part in an off-Broadway show, or get exhibited on consignment. Such ambition motivates more than artists, however. Others become a clerk in a Wall Street brokerage firm, play minor league ball, or get a civil service protected professional job. They never blossom, only rot.

They had grown up with weak or no competition and it spoiled them. They wrote better than anyone in their hometowns, always got the lead in high school plays, and aunts loved their drawings. They alone understood the market, were always first string, and smart enough to graduate from college. Of course voted most likely to succeed, the voters knew nothing of the seductive, destructive power of ambition.

Excited and even deluded by ambition, they fled home for some Big Apple. Impatiently big in the small puddle, they jumped ambitiously into an ocean of impossible competition, struggling just to keep their heads above water.

If you just work hard enough, they’ve heard, you can be anything you want to be. Their ambition pushed them, but ambition eventually wore out far short of the top. They are good, but not good enough. Bridges burned behind them, they can’t go home again. They had declared themselves better than their contemporaries (often are), but they have too much personal capital invested in their ambition to cash it in at a loss. They consider themselves too good for home, but they are not good enough for the world.

These television talent competitions in which amateurs are incrementally eliminated seem harsh, largely because no one had ever been honest enough to tell them they’re awful. Self-delusions are more narcotic than drugs.

Encouraging youth to “bigger and better things” is well meant, but it takes risks. Sometimes ambitious kids need to be cautioned, “Honey, are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?” Someone, sometime needs to lay it on the line: “Kid, you just don’t have what it takes.” I respect the wish to save feelings, but I think it’s more important to save lives. Teachers, parents, and friends sometimes need to force youths to face reality.

Remember the aphorism: Have fun, but don’t quit your day job.

A singer who is mediocre as a professional could remain home and spend a lifetime pleasing friends and enjoying their admiration. But once having tasted the big time, no appetite remains for what once satisfied. We each need to decide what is of ultimate importance and make our choices.

As ambition pushes a person further from home base, it addition to celebrating how far he has come he needs to estimate how far there is yet to go. There is a point of no return, and an intelligent, realistic decision needs to be made before passing it.

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