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2000 Commencement Address - Ambition
May 21, 2000
NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AGO MY FATHER was very sick. He had been hospitalized at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. He and my mother lived in the house where I grew up down along the shore towards New York City, about a half hour away by car. I must have been back there with my own family visiting in the early summer or late spring, around this time of year. Someone needed to go up to the hospital to bring him home. I volunteered: it would be a chance to spend some time with him and a chance, too, to drive his cherished sports car, a Mercedes 450SL.
When I checked him out of the hospital I asked if we could take a longer route home. Maybe I mentioned the shore roads. We ended up meandering along Route 1 on a succession of half loops to various beach towns between New Haven and Fairfield. The beach along the Sound is nothing to make postcards of: there are a lot of small houses, some run-down bars, a few pretty piers and old Victorian neighborhoods. Long Island Sound isn't the ocean, it's a big salty pond, murky with all the rivers—including the Connecticut—that silt into it. But it's familiar water to me and was to my father. He had grown up on one of those rivers, and I had grown up along the shore.
Not far from New Haven—in a little town called Milford—he said that he recognized some of the shore houses and a little park. "We used to come down here before the Depression," he said. "We rented one of these places." He pointed to a bunch of ramshackle cottages at a more or less defunct motel. I asked him what it was like then, coming down in an old Ford they had: he and his brothers and his parents, renting some rooms, dispersing along the little patches of gray beach, swimming and playing ball. I can remember his gaunt smile and his unshaven jaw as he recalled it all. He was one of nine brothers, and there was lots of daring and who-goes-first and who-can-climb-higher among them.
As we were leaving town I asked him if he played only with his brothers in those days. "No, there were friends down at the same time," he told me. "Who?" I asked. He recalled two or three names. One, in particular, brought back memories of long swims out to a buoy in the Sound at night. "What ever became of him?" I asked. He laughed a little. "I don't know exactly. Last I heard he had moved out to California and was sort of a beach bum." We both liked this idea and chuckled together at the thought that someone my father's age—just about 70—had held out all those years against the expectations of a career and success, against fame or wealth or good works. I had the sense that my father's laughter harbored a judgment that it was a silly way to live your life. "Dad, do you think he was as happy as the guys like you with careers?" I said. He mused a bit on the young man he remembered. "Maybe he was," he said.
I don't know how many of you are headed for the nearest or farthest beach this afternoon. And if you get there I don't know how long you will stay. But I suspect that a few of you are still puzzling hard over where to head out from here. Your parents may have all sorts of ideas about your future; your friends must have notions; you may even have a job starting this fall or a graduate school to go to. But I mean something much more general: your direction in life. The question is not where will you be in September but where are you headed in life. What do you want to make of yourself? What do you want to do with your life? What are your ambitions?
Ambition was not always the good thing that your parents and friends may tell you. Only since the last century has the term shaken off its origins among the deadly sins to take on the obligatory cast that it now assumes. "Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?" Marc Antony asked in Shakespeare. Did it seem, in other words, excessive, prideful, domineering?
We have tamed the term now and, particularly among the young, hold it out as a sort of extracurricular requirement. "Be ambitious:" meaning, be successful, powerful, famous, maybe rich. And some of you—many of you—are ambitious. But for what, exactly?
Many, many centuries ago, Socrates was criticized sharply for bothering his fellow Athenians with unanswerable questions about what they wanted from life and how they went about seeking it. Let me bother you, then, Socratically, in your last hour at Amherst with some questions about the ambition that thrusts you forward towards the rest of your lives.
Ambition seems to come in two forms: there is the desire, first, to pass your time doing something—teaching, painting, medicine, starting a business, caring for kids. It's a way of saying: "I like doing this and I want to go on doing it for much of my life." But I would guess that only a handful of you have already formed a definite ambition in this sense. Most of the rest of you might wonder what sorts of things you'd like to do, what sorts of things would make you contented or fulfilled, but I doubt that you have figured out an answer to the question: is there one thing you'd like to work at from here on in? When you can answer the question you will have come to feel a vocation, a calling. "This is it; this is what I want to do; nothing else quite satisfies me; this is the work I want to do." A calling is something like falling in love: "This is the one I want to spend my life with," you will say. It's a wonderful feeling and I hope a lasting one. But more than a feeling, a vocation is a compass for your energy and drive. It can guide you through many a challenge and many a perplexity.
Anyone who has ever worked with a craftsman in one of the less celebrated or gloried professions—a gardener, say, or a carpenter—has felt some of the modesty and devotion in achievement that comes with a sense of vocation, with a calling. The good gardener glories in her garden, takes pride in it, and often smiles at a compliment or the delight of passers-by.
The vision of the garden is only the beginning. It is necessarily followed by days or months or years of work, of digging and planting, weeding and watering—and seasons of hopeful, attentive waiting. But then, as if by magic, the garden is suddenly and gloriously in full bloom—the colors of the petals, the soft early green of the new leaves, the crowded jostling of the plants one against another. The gardener achieves a quiet ambition in a quiet way.
The gardens of our backyards are mostly ambitions writ small. French moralists like Voltaire and Montaigne always turn to the garden to symbolize their rejection of the larger world and its vanities. But now I want you to put the case of a gardener dissatisfied with these quiet satisfactions: what about the gardener who wants to be rich and powerful—and recognized as the greatest of them all? What's wrong with that? There has to be a relationship somewhere between the backyard garden or pond and the immense gardens of Kyoto or Versailles or Central Park.
And here we come to the second sort of ambition, the fiercer sort. This is the ambition we hear so much of in Shakespeare, the headstrong drive towards ends with names like glory or fame, wealth, power, success. I would guess that most of you feel this ambition, but perhaps still as a somewhat unfocused desire for these things in your life, someday, somehow.
"Fling [it] away," Shakespeare counseled, "by that sinne fell the angels." But to fling away ambition may be neither good—nor possible.
Assume for a moment that no one had any ambition for these things, that no one wanted fame or glory. We would be left with a world in which some or all of us acquired vocations for certain arts and achievements, and exercised these vocations for the sheer joy of them: art for art's sake, the gentler ambitions of vocation in charge of all our works and days. There would be a wonderful unselfishness in that utopia, a modesty in achievement that may seem rare today.
But would we have a world as rich in science and art and commerce and education as the one you have grown up in? There is no way to know for sure. My own hunch is that we would not. Let me give two examples: I have had good reason in my own life to give thanks for medicine. Yet I have certainly seen the competitiveness and arrogance that often accompany great skill and learning in subjects like surgery and oncology. The rivalries of medical scientists—including some from Amherst—are legend. Surely these rivalries and ambitions account for some portion of the discovery and learning that heal us.
Take the liberal arts as another example. Anthony Trollope once said that he saw no reason to write novels except for money—and he might have added fame. Most of us don't like to hear that works of art come from such a measly desire as extra cash. Are poems and plays and books and buildings all the products of a kind of vanity, a desire, that is, for one person to grow rich and famous, to bask in applause and smiles and a kind of pagan worship? The lack of ambition—of a desire for glory, wealth, power—would rob us all of many of the works that we study here at Amherst.
All of you at one time or another have felt the giddy sensation that you'd not only survive the transition from childhood to adulthood —but that you'd ace it. You'd end up rich and famous and living in Manhattan or Malibu with throngs knocking at your door.
But at college, as you got a little closer to the fantasy, you came across a counter to all this: you have to sell out to get rich and maybe to get famous. You have to sell out something or other to be powerful. Is it worth it? Is it ever worth it?
That depends on what we mean by selling out.
To most of us, the phrase evokes a very primitive barter in which we take what we most value in ourselves—whatever it is—and trade it for something that we want but shamefully or guiltily.
In one of the most elaborate fables of ambition ever written, Charles Dickens wrote of the boy he called Pip. Born an orphan in the desolate marsh country in the West of England, Pip is raised by an older sister and her wonderful blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery, Pip’s truest friend. Soon Pip learns that he has a great but mysterious expectation of wealth and prominence. An unknown benefactor has settled a fortune on him for reasons he cannot fathom. The novel tells a convoluted tale of the boy's quest—through treachery and danger—to reach these great expectations and to take his high place in British society. Only at the very end does a chastened Pip realize that his expectations and even his life were watched over all the while by the poor people he wanted so desperately to leave behind in his ambition for greatness.
Rarely if ever do we go quite so far astray as Pip; rarely will we all come back home in the end as he does. Dickens was writing a fable, with fabulous adventures and a fabulous conclusion. But the lesson of the fable holds.
Dickens' lesson is not that ambition is wrong, in Pip's life or his own. It is the subtler lesson that ambition must be disciplined over and again by a sense of what we care most about as we go about our lives amid complexity and confusion.
Ambition is a passion. Like any passion—jealousy, love, hatred—it can make you its tool. It can take over and drive everything else before it, sometimes destroying those whom you love along the way.
Like Pip, most of you will not escape life's exhilarating temptations. Money matters; only a few of you will be able to live as if it does not. Power matters, too, if more subtly. And fame or celebrity will tug at you as well, whether you seek them or not. All of these are forms of power, I think, that is to say, command or influence over the attention of others. Hegel once said that above all we seek recognition by others. He was not far off the mark.
My hunch is that you too will want these things. You may not; you may reject them; but most of you will have to contend with ambition—with the need in yourselves for power and acclaim—as much as with hunger and desires of all kinds.
Ultimately, the question of ambition is a question about what you want from life and from yourself. The stoics thought they had a way out by distinguishing sharply between the things you can control in your life and the things you cannot. Their lesson was to confine your ambitions to the things you control.
But life does not lend itself to strict control. Things will surprise you and baffle you, things in you and things in others. Ambition is an inescapable energy in your lives, a striving for more and better, an effort to prove yourself against others.
Here then is the simplest lesson I can give you on this subject: let your ruling ambition be your ambition to have a craft, a discipline that you cherish and follow as your own. Treat the wilder, fiercer forms of ambition within you as real and powerful. Accept them and use them. But always keep them in harness to your ideals of a life well lived. There is no more desperately unhappy man or woman than the one who chases down great possessions or great victories, great achievements, while losing hold of the person you always wanted to be.
Congratulations on your work here. Go out and do well.