What Ambition Gets You

By Arun Chittur


I was in Pennsylvania this past weekend for my mother-in-law’s surprise retirement party. She spent thirty years working for the school district, accruing a lifetime of stories from successive generations of parents and their children. The party was a clash of worlds, with friends from her high school graduating class meeting old co-workers and extended family who had traveled from across the Northeast. It was the first time I’d ever been to a party where everyone invited RSVP’d “yes.” Thirty-seven invitations sent; thirty-seven confirmed attending. Not even all-day rains dampened the afternoon as we congregated beneath two vinyl canopies and a detached garage. My in-laws’ backyard was crowded with cousins and siblings, toddlers and teenagers, family members by blood and marriage. One of my wife’s cousins and my brother-in-law dominated the ad hoc cornhole tournament. We enjoyed good beer, great barbecue, and an unspoken guarantee that no external force could ruin the experience.

           Last month I hit ten years with my company. I celebrated the expected but modest pay raise with a decision to leave in the next year and move on to pursue other life goals. Making it twenty years entitles you to a stable, if small, pension. As I’ve shared this with friends, they’ve split in their opinion.

           Some argued, “You’re halfway! What’s ten more?”

           Yet others said, “Ten more years? That’s a long time.”

           I’ve been leaning toward the latter for a while, especially with a company that focuses on pre-ordained patterns of progression after that all-important 10-year mark. And so this transition has me thinking about ambition … the kind we feel internally, and the kind foisted upon us by an organization grooming its next generation of managers for its own sake—at the expense of those closest to us who might wish for something else. A life where they see their husband or wife or father or mother more often. Many wish for something better.

"I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion?"

My parents’ generation, wrapped snuggly in a blanket of stability, valued ambition. A desire to rise. Happiness meant a good education and the same job for decades. Predictable income and minimal risk. As a reluctant millennial, I’ve wavered between the safety of a stable, if flat, trajectory, and something more like a sine wave, with ups and down defined by risk and decisions made without a clear vision of the future. Many of our best memories have been born from the peaks and valleys, where we’ve lived and learned the most. None of these moments would’ve happened had I chosen ‘guaranteed’ success and opted for the stable route. The route with all of the questions answered and little left to guess. I don’t regret my last 10 years. But as I look across the backyard, I know that should I choose the stable path, I will accept the promise of a job at the expense of our best memories yet to be made.

           Under the canopy, no one talked about the latest project at work, or what it would take for the next promotion. Whatever ambition was fueling my current state of work, none of it had resulted in this moment. This moment owed no one else, it came to be because of family and friends who outlasted all of our careers and all of our moves. It came to be because it was based on what lasts. Ambition can get you a lot in a short period of time, but it will never provide for you what you need most to be fulfilled.

           I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion? Otherwise what’s left after the experience of life ends? What will there be but the possessions of a life purchased and not lived?

           Ambition gets you money and notoriety: a nice car, a nice house, even a few acquaintances that will pass as friends in suitable moments. But it doesn’t get you the friends you’ve had since college, or cousins willing to drive hours to help you load and unload a moving truck, and certainly not a family that loves you. In the final calculation, ambition can only get you what’s temporary, what’s fleeting in reward.

Arun Chittur is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches organizational leadership and pedagogy in Nevada.