I’ve recently seen the film Whiplash, about a young man who has a dream of becoming one of the great jazz drummers of the age. He is tutored by a teacher who pushes his students to, and sometimes past, their mental and physical limits. The teacher’s argument is that if you don’t push people beyond their own expectations, they will only ever be mediocre. These ideas tie in with a book I’m reading at the moment called Mastery: the author’s main argument is that to become a Master, a true great at something, isn’t just talent and luck but years and years of practice and hard work.
I find ambition an intriguing concept, being someone who often hasn’t felt particularly ambitious. For whatever reasons, it’s only quite recently that I’ve started believing I might be capable of doing what I want to do in life. For a long time I felt that I just wasn’t one of those people, that most things I just wouldn’t be able to do and I shouldn’t try because I’d make a fool of myself trying – and if there’s one things I’ve always hated, it’s making a fool of myself. I expect something happened to me when I was very young that set that in motion, but I can’t remember now what it was. I do remember being forced to sing the Calgon advert theme tune in front of a science class in high school, which was truly desperately embarrassing. Thank you, Mr. Davis, you total and utter [insert expletive here].
Anyway. One way or another, I got into a mindset that made me think even if I was trained to do something – like fly a plane – I just wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m getting a lot better rejecting this negative thinking now, and am a lot less worried about making mistakes and more willing to try at the things I want to be good at. But it’s difficult sometimes not being one of these people who has a burning something that they always wanted to do, deciding that they’re going to work and work and put themselves through hell to get to it. I’m wondering at the moment if that is the only way to get what you want, and to get to where you want to go. In which case, I need to decide exactly what it is I want to do pretty soon. I need to do that anyway, as if one more person asks me what I’m going to do after this Masters I’m going to kill them. But I’m worried that even if I do pick what I want, if there are too many issues then I’ll just change my mind.
In Whiplash, the boy meets a girl who has no direction in life. They don’t understand each other because they have such totally different outlooks on their future. I wonder, who would end up happiest? Someone who is happy to drift, and see what comes up, or someone who has a very set goal which they aim for every minute? One thing this Mastery book is suggesting is that getting the pleasure in life only from things outside life is depressing and a waste of all the time you spend working. Well, maybe so. But it’s difficult for everyone to do their dream job their entire lives. We still need people to work in McDonald’s, but whose dream job is it? (It actually was the dream job of a penfriend of mine when I was younger. Even at the time, aged about ten, I thought it was a bizarre thing to want to do in life. But then again, in China young people want to work in fast food restaurants because they’re often seen as signs of modernity and being culturally up-to-date. I’ve done an anthropology course on this, I’m not just making it up.) As someone who gets a lot of pleasure from hobbies, I think it’s harsh to tell people that opting for this way of life is wasting their time.
All this also throws up interesting questions for me about how important our psychological make-up is in creating our ambitions, and achieving our ambitions. There are many reasons why someone would decide not to set goals so that, by not achieving them, they feel more in control of their own life. Most of them are psychological obstacles. If you think you’re going to fail, you’ll probably fail. And if you think you’ll probably fail, you won’t even try. I think it’s extraordinary how people can train themselves psychologically to remove those obstacles, and achieve things that they never believed that they could. I think that’s the point of this film Whiplash. The boy shows enormous mental strength to keep pushing himself when he’s being pushed harder than he can stand. It seems that his unfaltering ambition makes him believe you should be able to take anything because that’s what’s required to get where you are going. I understood why he did it, but I marvelled at it. Sometimes it doesn’t work because in pushing yourself harder and harder towards your goal your mind breaks, especially if you’re being pushed as aggressively by someone as this man is. That’s what scares me about a burning ambition like that. What if you do break, and can’t get back up again? Then you’d need a new mental strength to change paths and not regret the path that didn’t work. I haven’t yet finished this Mastery book, but I will be interested to see if he offers any advice for what happens if you try and try and it doesn’t work out. Or maybe that’s not the point: that if you’re ambitious enough, and you work hard enough, you will get there – short of a physical issue that stops you, if it’s something physical you want to achieve. I suppose it’s all about how much you love the thing that you’re trying to do. Sooner or later, you’ll find out if you love it enough – you’ll either keep getting up or you’ll go down a different road. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with either option, as long as it’s not an invisible psychological obstacle that makes you turn away. That’s the scariest thing.