The flame is a powerful image. It beckons and promises. It teases by only showing a glimpse beyond its range. To reveal one secret, you have to hide another. But a flame is also destructive. It can lay acres of woodland to waste. One stray cigarette is all it takes. Too potent or uncontrolled a flame can turn your marshmallow into charcoal and level your house.
This is what ambition is like for me.
I have always been a striver. Don’t tell me I can’t, I’ll figure out how. I may never be great, but I’ll throw myself against the wall hard enough to draw blood. I don’t always stop to ask myself if it hurts, or even if it’s the right wall to be running up against. I get blinded by the light.
Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest. The irony of birth position is that no matter where you are in the pecking order, your siblings think you have the advantage and you think they are full of crap. We’re all right, if you look at it closely enough. Perhaps I was born ambitious, without that mitigating gene that says “Do not touch the sharp shiny thing.”
Ambition kicks my adrenaline into high gear. It brings out my better qualities–my determination, my analytical nature, my relentless commitment. It also brings out the worst in me. I push myself. I push others. I just plain push. I get bossy. I say things in the bluntest possible terms. I can’t be bothered with kindness, not even to myself. I will take that flame and test myself, passing my hand over it again and again, getting closer each time. How much heat can I take? Can I come closer to the flame this time?
Stress is my personal poison. Bee stings hurt me, but can cause my sister to go into shock. Stress is uncomfortable for most, but I burned out my system’s ability to process it long ago. I remember interviewing for a dot.com company and they said they had a stressful environment. Could I handle it? I scoffed. “I’m a management consultant. We eat stress for breakfast. It’s great, toasted, with a little butter and cinnamon.” After years of being constantly “on” , stress became anxiety. Anxiety became panic, and I developed a PTSD-like reaction to anything stressful. The phone would ring, and I’d crawl under my desk. So I went cold turkey.
Once you dance with ambition, however, it’s hard to let go. I see the flame, and I can’t stay away. Just this once. It will be okay. And then the nightmares start again, with the panic attacks, along with the dread and the overreaction. My husband sees it. My friends see it. I get cranky.
I used to just grit my teeth and get through it. Now, when I err, I’ve developed the sense to say “no,” even when it’s difficult. And sometimes, it is. When I fall off the wagon, only to take my dancing shoes and go home, someone is left holding the bag. I must learn to say “no” at the outset.
But is striving always bad? Am I relegated to a lifetime of sitting at home watching the flowers grow?
Perhaps I just need to learn the difference between ambition and aspiration. I don’t really stress about this blog. I sit down and I write, and the time flies. I look forward to it. I carry notebooks wherever I go, so I can write whenever I have a moment. I aspire to publish because I want to share my work. My ambition is driven by ego. Aspire, the reward is in the process. Ambition, the reward is in the outcome.
So when I see that shiny light, I need to stop, and ask myself which flame is it? Ambition or aspiration. When I know the answer? Make a wish and blow out the candle.
Words by J. B. Everett