on the role of 'ambition' in the creative life

We create in order to grow. For our own nourishment. For our own enrichment. A healthy ambition fuels in us the desire to create without feeling the need to compete or compare.

on the role of 'ambition' in the creative life
Photo by Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash

If there's one word that I've consistently misunderstood over the past couple of decades, it's 'ambition'.

I went from being a competitive, ambitious, high-achieving, high-performing kid during my school and university years to later renouncing all ambition in the pursuit of contentment, having convinced myself that those two words were entirely at odds with each other, that they could not co-exist, to now finally understanding what healthy ambition could actually look like.

I always did well academically. I scored great grades, although in hindsight I think that was more due to the nature of the tests that were used to gauge students' knowledge levels.

I don't know how things stand now but when I was at school, most exams were designed to test your memory rather than your understanding of the concepts of the subject matter on hand. I was quite skilled at learning by rote, so it was only natural that I'd do well on tests and exams.

However, I distinctly remember three separate instances from my undergraduate days when I encountered the joy of taking on a challenging task and attempting to do well at it. And each time, the lesson learnt was different.

Trusting in the work done

The first time was in my 2nd or 3rd year of undergrad studies. The subject was Applied Mechanics, or App Mech as we used to call it.

(I studied Chemical Engineering, you know? I ranked 2nd in my class of 65 and even earned a gold medal for excellent academic and co-curricular performance in the department. And my first job out of uni was on the shop floor of a cigarette factory.)

Anyhoo, for each subject we used to have two small tests and one longer end-term exam. Somehow I performed dismally in the two small tests for App Mech. I thought I knew the concepts but I ended up applying the wrong equations in the paper.

I remember talking to my professor about it and after he had gauged that I did indeed have a good understanding of the subject matter, he suggested that perhaps I was stressed about the exams and that I could try relaxing a bit.

After that I studied really hard for the end-term exam and I remember this very clearly — I didn't look at my books and notes for revision on the day before the exam. I trusted that I had done my work and I decided to relax, like my professor had suggested. I even remember going for walk the evening before the exam and going to bed early, while many of my peers stayed up late at night, cramming.

And I nailed it. Boy, did I nail it! I later heard from a fellow student that the professor took to raving about my splendid performance to whoever was around to listen.

Tackling a challenge

The second time, it was another subject, Computer Simulation. This was in my 3rd year, I think. This was one of those subjects that students from different departments could take.

Back in the day, there used to be an unspoken hierarchy — Computer Science students were considered intellectually far superior to everyone else. Chemical Engg students were somewhere in the middle of the pack, with Aeronautics and Naval Architecture students pushed all the way to the bottom.

This was mainly to do with the disciplines that top rankers preferred, which in turn was mostly governed by job prospects at the time or the potential each field of study offered one to go abroad to pursue higher studies (and eventually settle there).

I was really determined to not succumb to that stereotype. For some reason, I was determined to prove that I too could understand the tough concepts that someone had deemed the exclusive domain of Comp Sci nerds.

I remember intentionally working hard on the subject, taking the time to understand the concepts (none of which I remember now, evidently). But I remember enjoying the process. I remember that one Saturday afternoon I spent in my room, studying the subject for several hours and attempting a tutorial on my own.

And I aced the exam. I scored the highest grade that could be awarded.

It was a moment of pride when I saw the grade I had scored in the subject. They used to put the grades up on a notice board on a pre-determined date for all eyes to see.

For the love of it

The third instance also had to do with my undergrad days. I took French as a foreign language for one semester and fell in love with it.

It was the first time that I realized how much I could love a language even though I had grown up trilingual (English, Hindi, Tamil) and had been been exposed to two other languages owing to school and the states we lived in (Marathi, which I hated because I never got the grasp of its grammar; and Gujarati, which I was exposed to for only a couple of years in grades 8 and 9).

That one semester of learning French at uni triggered the creative part of my brain that somehow hadn't existed until then because the analytical half of my brain had taken up all the space.

I was so enamoured by the beauty of language that after graduating, I went on to learn French at Alliance Française, first in India and then in Singapore when we moved there.

What makes ambition toxic?

Everything went downhill after I graduated. It took me several years to find my feet in the working world.

After several false starts, I eventually found my calling in writing, editing and content creation, and that was where I spent a good chunk of my early career years: 2008—2014.

I was writing fiction alongside, mostly short tales. There are several unfinished manuscripts from those days that I don't even have anymore. Many were handwritten on foolscap paper. I was out of my depth. I didn't know what I was doing.

It was somewhere around this time that I came across Osho's teachings on ambition.

Ambition means you want to be ahead of others. Ambition depends on creating an inferiority complex in you. It creates an ill state of affairs; it depends on that. Unless inferiority complex starts existing in you, unless you are full of it, ambition cannot function. So each child has to be wounded in such a way that he starts feeling a deep inferiority: that others are superior and he has to surpass them, otherwise he is nobody. Each child is taught to create a name in the world, fame in the world. Each child is told, ‘The way you are is not right. You have to prove your mettle, you have to become ‘somebody’—as if you are not anybody yet!
You are born with a certain flavor of your own, with a uniqueness, with an individuality. Nobody else is like you—nobody else has ever been like you—and nobody else will ever be like you. But this truth is never told to you. You are told, ‘Become somebody’—as if you are nothing.
So you have to become, you have to compete to become. And of course then struggle starts, because everybody is told to become somebody, everybody is told to become the president or the prime minister. Now how many people can be presidents and prime ministers? Then naturally there arises a cut-throat competition. Everybody is against everybody else, life becomes a war, a constant war. In this state there is no possibility of peace, love, silence, joy, celebration. All is lost.
~ Osho, Tao: The Golden Gate, Vol. 2, Chapter 4. Living in Tune with Tao

I took these words to heart and tried to stamp out all desire for a better career or more pay. I'd write stories but the instant I'd start to gain an audience, I'd somehow self-sabotage and convince myself that my work was not good enough and that I'd be doing my readers a disservice if I continued to write and regale them.

Sigh! I was one person with a helluva lot of issues, wasn't I?

Now, the trouble with wisdom teaching is that it is often taken out of context. We subconsciously latch on to one aspect of the words, the one that seems to make the most sense to us at that point in time given our life circumstances and our state of mind, and make that our truth.

I did this after D was born. And every time 'ambition' rose in my heart, I told myself that I ought to be content and tried to stamp it out.

Conversely, I also felt deeply envious of many of my peers who seemed to be doing well and soaring to great heights in their careers or chosen professions. I wondered why I couldn't do the same, why I chose to be a stay-at-home mom for those initial years.

Even though I had started writing and publishing books at this time, beginning with In Search of Leo in January 2018, I often told myself that I was doing this as a creative hobby, that there was no money in it, it was just something I was doing to keep myself busy.

It became very easy to belittle myself and my efforts when they seemed really small and insignificant compared to what the rest of the world was doing.

How inner growth differs from ambition

It took me a long time to realize that the problem here did not lie in my efforts, but in the second half of the above statement: compared to what the rest of the world was doing.

Once that penny dropped, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

But the funny thing is I forget this every single day, and I need to remind myself of this, of what truly matters, every single day.

This is especially hard because we do not live in isolation. Every day, if we're lucky, we meet a lot of people and we are exposed to what's going on in the world around us.

Even if we don't meet people, all it takes is one moment of logging in to social media or even the news to see the heights others are achieving in their careers or personal lives and find our own efforts piffling or lacking in some way.

Or conversely, we can look at all the terrible things that's broadcast on the news channels and convince ourselves that the world is a terrible place to live in, that the apocalypse is on us, and we just need to keep our heads down and go into survival mode.

When anxiety tries to hijack my brain with all these meandering arguments, I have to remind myself that my true anxiety stems from the uncertainty of my work.

I don't know how this particular story I write will turn out (which is quite an outward-looking statement, relying on others' judgement and opinions for its validation). I don't know how it will be received (which is yet another outward-looking statement). I don't know if it will sell enough copies and make me a decent living (a statement enough to render the strongest among us helpless and powerless).

These are my real anxieties, and no one can really answer these questions for me unless I actually sit down and write and publish my stories and send them out to readers and/or editors.

Although I didn't realize it back then, I was making the mistake of equating ambition to growth, and in stamping out 'ambition' from my life in the conventional sense, I was refusing to allow myself to grow too.

If we were to revisit the context in which Osho made his comments about 'ambition', we'd see that he wasn't anti-growth at all.

People ask me, ‘If we drop competitiveness, if we drop ambitiousness, then how we will grow?’— and trees are growing and animals are growing, and the whole existence is moving and growing — just you cannot grow without ambitiousness…
And with ambitiousness what has happened? Have you grown? Something wrong has grown in you; something like cancer in your being has grown. Yes, that cancer will not grow anymore. If you drop all ambition, then a totally new process sets in: your natural growth takes over. Then you are not competing with others; you are simply evolving each moment within yourself, not comparing.
If you are playing music and it is beautiful this moment, next moment it will be more beautiful, because out of this moment the next moment is going to be born—from where else it will come?—next moment you will have a deeper music arising, and so on, so forth.
You need not be competitive with other musicians; in fact, if you are competitive with other musicians your inner music will never grow. You may learn more tricks, strategies, techniques how to defeat them, how to go ahead of them by right or wrong means—because competitiveness is so blind it does not bother at all what is right and what is wrong.
Competitiveness believes that whatsoever succeeds is right and whatsoever fails is wrong. That is the only criterion for an ambitious mind: the end makes the means right.
For a non-competitive mind there is no question of thinking of others; you simply go on growing on your own. Your roots go deeper into Tao, into nature. Not that other trees have reached deeper so you have to reach—you reach deeper for your own nourishment, you reach deeper for your own enrichment, you reach deeper because your branches can go higher. The deeper the roots go, the higher the branches reach—but it has nothing to do with others; others are accepted as they are. Nobody takes any note of others.
~ Osho, Tao: The Golden Gate, Vol. 2, Chapter 4. Living in Tune with Tao

When I look back at that essence of spirit in me, which drove me to strive and learn and do well in App Mech, Comp Sim, and French back in my uni days, it had nothing at all to do with competition or ambition as we know it.

I was entirely driven to grow for my own nourishment, for my own enrichment. I wanted to face something that was believed to be hard and prove to myself that I could do hard things.

Since I wasn't in competition with anyone, I also remember my efforts back then being effortless.

'Effortless': this is another word that can often be misconstrued.

Effortless is not easy.
There is a lot of work involved but what effortlessness lacks is the desire to do or be better than anyone else.
Effortlessness does not make us angry or snappish when we fail or things don't go our way. Effortlessness gives us the strength to persevere while also holding fierce compassion for ourselves in the process.

I put in a lot of hours of study, but it didn't feel like hard work. It was immersive and uplifting. There were no external factors involved. I just wanted to tackle a subject that had become challenging for me and seek to understand and learn it more. In the case of French, I wanted to learn more out of a pure love for the language.

In Search of Leo was my very first novel that I published.

Some of the things I remember most about writing it are personal.

I outlined it when I was pregnant with D and wrote and published it during the first eighteen months of his life.

I remember one afternoon when D was asleep and I was cleaning up in the kitchen when suddenly an idea for a particular turn of phrase came to me and I ran to my laptop to quickly type it out before D awoke from his nap.

I can still feel that elation that lifted my heart when my hands were immersed in a sink full of soapy water and dirty dishes, the smile that stretched across my face and gave me hope, and the ease with which I was able to write down the few pages that eventually made it into the final published book.

Eventually, as I wrote and learnt more about writing, I heard things like 'words are not important' and that 'only storytelling matters' — which all led me to question the happiness I felt that day and its source.

Was I so foolish as to feel happy about having written something in a way that tugged at my heartstrings when the rest of the world was saying that this is exactly the kind of stuff that won't sell?
Because I remember how awed I used to feel when I read vivid descriptions and emotionally intense prose, even though it took a while for the story to move along.
And now industry stalwarts are telling me that this is not what makes for good writing?
So I had been loving the wrong thing all along? I had been attracted towards the wrong thing all along? I had even been creating the wrong thing all along?

I felt the effect of this kind of thinking more intensely after Dying Wishes came out.

It didn't help that a close friend of mine read it and loved it, it didn't even matter that the book was nominated as a finalist for the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in the Speculative Fiction category.

All I can remember are its lack of successes. Like the blogger to whom I had reached out asking if she'd review it, only to get ghosted. Or the fact that it didn't get a wider audience than it did. Or even the fact that it didn't win the Kobo prize!

But then again, to be fair, I didn't do much to promote it — except post a couple of times on social media back when I was still on FaceBook — yet it found its way into many hands without my doing anything at all.

Creating without comparing or competing

In short, when my ambitions for growth are tied to the successes I see or don't see in the world outside, then I have invited trouble.

Because the instant we look outside, there comes the tendency to compare and feel worthless and inadequate in our efforts.

That is not to say we shouldn't ship our work and learn from what others are doing that's working for them. But it's a fine line between learning from others and lambasting ourselves for what we didn't know or do.
It's one we learn to traverse well only with repeated practice. And just because we get it right once, doesn't mean we'll never falter again.

In parting, I'll leave you with these words of advice I once gave in response to an interview question: Do you have any advice for emerging writers like yourself? Any advice you wish you had had when you first started writing?

My answer has since found its way into other places, including the Kobo Writing Life newsletter (June 2023) and in the newsletter that the International Association of Fantasy and Science Fiction Authors sent out this month (August 2023).

Here goes:

Luck and time have a far, far greater role to play than we realize (or even want to accept) when it comes to achieving material success in our writing and publishing journeys.
When we are told that we only have to work hard and keep showing up to eventually get what we want, we forget that there are no guarantees. It is such a common and universal human experience to not get what we want.
Besides, innumerable factors in this industry (and in life) are not in our control. Yet we may mistakenly believe that we’re not successful because we’re not exhibiting enough grit or discipline or perseverance.
So if you’re not seeing the kind of worldly success you had hoped for, no matter where you are on your journey, please know it is not your fault.
Please come back to what had brought you to writing in the first place; I suspect that had little to do with getting rich or famous and more to do with an unadulterated love for expressing yourself through words.
And when all else fails, please read And Then We Grew Up by Rachel Friedman for a wise reminder that there can be as many ways to live a creative life as there are creatives.

Keep creating!

Keep living the creative life!