A friend sent me a tweet recently that said … Bad writing day? Probably not this bad: http://www.salon.com/2012/06/27/my_book_was_a_bad_idea/
This article in Salon tells the story of someone who quit her job to write a book that didn’t sell – a book she came to believe was a bad idea, written for the wrong reasons and in the wrong spirit. It is a raw and honest piece. One part, in particular, jumped out at me. Here, she is writing about the process of writing her book:
“…for most of that time I was not working because I was an artist who must write or die, or because I was a crusading journalist who saw truth and needed to tell it. I was a self-absorbed striver reaching for another brass ring, and I used words as the best way to get there. I sometimes hear successful authors refer to their books as their babies. In the end I didn’t love this book like a baby. I resented it for not doing what I wanted it to do, and myself for not being able to make that happen.
“In the last year and a half, since the arrival of an actual baby, it has been made stunningly clear to me that the things you love don’t owe you anything – not success, not plaudits, not a decent night’s sleep, nothing. You give them your effort and devotion because they deserve it, because their presence turns a light on in your dim little life and there will never be enough ways to say thank you. You can’t confuse what you do in the service of ambition with what you do for love. I love my kid and she literally vomits all over me constantly and I don’t care. I love writing, too, and I’m sorry to admit that I was using it to selfish ends.”
I’ve been thinking about these comments since I first read them. They raise all sorts of questions for me about the nature of love and ambition, and the dangers of trying to make a living doing what you love.
Is it true that the things you love don’t owe you anything, that the purest sort of love is completely unconditional?
This implies that true love is un-self-conscious, always focused out, always giving regardless of the return on investment. Ambition, in contrast, is all about return on investment.
How does this play out in what we do? When we’re doing something we love in an area where passion meets talent – writing, painting, cooking, listening, speaking, performing, helping, whatever – on a good day we can lose ourselves in that activity. We can experience what artists call flow – a deep, happily-absorbed focus on what we’re doing. The self- and other-awareness inherent in ambition is the antithesis of flow. Ambition by its very nature seems incompatible with flow.
But if love and ambition really are so incompatible, what does this mean when we try to meld passion with ambition and make a living doing what we love?
I’m reminded of a social psychology experiment that divided college students who liked to solve puzzles into two groups. One group was allowed to keep solving puzzles as before, the other group was offered a small financial reward for each puzzle they solved.
After a couple of weeks the people given a financial incentive were less interested in solving puzzles on their own time. Although these people had earlier been just as eager as those in the first group, offering them an external incentive seemed to kill their internal drive.
“You can’t confuse what you do in the service of ambition with what you do for love.”
Yet isn’t that exactly what we do the minute we try to make money doing what we most love doing?
It’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t it? It’s clear that if we try to make a living doing what we most love doing we risk enjoying that activity less the minute we are dependent upon the paycheck it generates. Yet the alternative – making money doing something that we don’t find as enjoyable or meaningful, and reserving our truest passion activities for evenings and weekends – isn’t that appealing either. Especially not during a season of life when evenings and weekends are crowded with the never-ending demands of young children.
I don’t have any easy answers on this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
What do you do for love? What do you do for ambition? Where do the two overlap? How does that work (or not) for you?