Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In Defense of Microambitions

I have a rather large confession to make.  I am, despite my best efforts at personal reform, a devotee of the art of YouTube surfing.  I have made several attempts at sobriety, but I have yet to see meaningful change in my way of life.  My partner is likewise afflicted with the horrendous affliction. We cycle relentlessly in an ever-widening gyre of days of remission only to inevitably fall back into relapse.  Ours can be a painful existence, and I cannot say I'd recommend it to anyone.

Yet, even in that dreadful darkness can we find beacons of hope.  I was engaged in a multi-hour viewing binge about a week ago, when I came upon this delightful video of an address at UWA given by Tim Minchin.  The whole speech is full of chuckle-worthy plays on words as well as meaningful--and meaningless--advice.  I particularly recommend a stretch beginning at 3:15:

"...I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye. "

As a child, I was guilty of sins far worse than YouTube gluttony.  You see, I was a dreamer of dreams.  But not just realistic dreams, oh no.  I had delusions of grandeur the likes of which the world had never seen.  (Obviously, I've never quite grown out of them.)  You see, fate had predestined me to be the world's most brilliant figure skater.  In the evenings, I would consult on high-risk surgical procedures whilst preparing gourmet meals for my five-star restaurant.  On weekends, I would paint landscapes worthy of the Louvre and read poetry to thousands of adoring sycophants.  I would find the life I was destined to live.

Of course, the two times I attempted ice skating I could not maintain my balance for more than thirty seconds at a time.  I had neither the stomach nor constitution to give my mother her weekly allergy shots. I didn't learn to boil spaghetti properly until I was at least 27.  My only contributions to art were the scribbles on my bedroom wall, and my poetry stayed relegated to the catacombs of deadjournal, where I hope they yet rest in peace.

None of these things were in and of themselves bad.  They were sparkling dreams contrived by a young girl who had been taught that there was no goal so high she couldn't strive to reach it.  The problem was never the dream.  The problem was its execution.  I never learned how to work for those dreams, and so, when I realized their non-sensibility, their impracticality, I gave them up, changed them, shifted them into what I assumed were more meaningful long-term goals.

I have come to realize though, as Tim Minchin did, the value of the micro-ambition.  I value these bursts of desire for achievement for two primary reasons.  First, as he suggests, they promote flexibility.  I cannot imagine what opportunities I might have missed had I been too focused on an ultimate goal.  Had I been determined to stick with music education as a career, I wouldn't have moved 700 miles away from the only home I'd ever known to learn a new trade.  Had I been determined to continue my doctoral studies, as I had planned to do, I would have both likely lost the love of my life and been another hundred thousand dollars or so in debt.    Had I not seen the value of entering one small writing contest, then another, then another, I never would have even considered the possibility of becoming a writer.  Had I not been fortunate enough to win one of them, I likely would not be nearing completion of my first novel.  Each of these accomplishments arrived thanks to one small shiny thing that managed to distract me from what I thought was my final goal.
Second, micro-ambitions give you something small and achievable to which you can apply yourself much more effectively and consistently than if your life is defined by enslavement to a particular path.  My whole adult life has come down to discovering and chasing a series of micro-ambitions.  Complete this class.  Finish this degree.  Get this job.  Be admitted to this program.  Move to this place.  Write this story.  Publish this poem.  Finish this novel.  Whether I knew what I was doing or not, I set myself goals which, while rather large, were small in comparison to my childhood dreams.  Because these goals were smaller, I achieved them with an awareness of what could be done now and well, rather than what would take a lifetime of work and might still never see fruition.

At the end of the day, I do still have dreams.  I'd like nothing more than to end up on the bestseller list one day.  My dreams may be flighty, but I value them more for their fickleness.  Every day is another opportunity to make my dreams come true, because every day is an opportunity to bring a new dream to life.  For now?  My dream is to finish Book 1.  Then perhaps Book 2 and Book 3 (both already in the initial planning stages).  After that, who knows?  Maybe I'll throw in the towel on writing and go back to school, finish that Ph.D.  Maybe I'll open a restaurant selling gourmet grilled cheese* or a bookstore or a corner coffee shop with lattes that don't taste burnt (Sorry, Starbucks).

I don't know just yet.  I've honed in on the shiny thing of the moment.  But as to what comes next?  I'm still watching the periphery.

*I'm serious about the gourmet grilled cheese.  Ever tried a jalapeno popper grilled cheese?  Mine are phenomenal -- definitely better than his.  I also make a killer feta/red pepper grilled cheese.  Watch out world.  It's coming.


  1. I have occasional moments when I envy people who apparently knew from their mother's womb what they wanted to do with their lives. But we live on a fascinating planet with so many interesting things to learn and do! A lifetime doesn't seem long enough. As for the food, I'd buy both of those grilled cheese sandwiches. And then enjoy a latte that doesn't taste burnt. So, finish writing those books and let us know when and where you plan to open your cafe!

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment!

    I have a friend who basically achieved his childhood ambition before he turned 30 years old. I still wonder where he's going next. There's so much to be said for letting yourself be fluid, for finding meaning in areas you wouldn't have expected. I read a book recently in which the author suggested that we no longer find ourselves climbing ladders, but jungle gyms. If it looks like we can't get any higher on the ladder we're on, sometimes you have to reach sideways instead. I didn't really care for the book, but that image has stuck with me.

    And I completely agree! Life is too short to be able to sample everything the world has to offer. That would be my ultimate life goal, I suppose. LOL.

    And whenever I do finally open that cafe, you guys will be the first to know. :-)

  3. Great post! And, micro-ambitions--I like that. It's probably one of the reasons I like writing haiku so much. :) I also keep my "goals" and "dreams" in different categories. I can have a goal to finish a book, this is something I have control over, however, the dream of being traditionally published someday is out of my control. But there are many small, achievable goals or steps that can get me closer to realizing that dream. It's like that quote, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

    And hey, why not open a bookstore that serve lattes and gourmet grilled cheeses? :)

    1. That's actually a very wise move, categorizing certain things as "goals" and certain things as "dreams." I might dream of selling 100,000 copies of my book, but at the end of the day there's too much luck involved in such a thing to make it an attainable goal. I will need to ponder this idea a bit more. Hmm...

      And ideally I will one day own a string of LGBT friendly shops:a bookstore, grilled cheese cafe, coffee shop, bar, and adult store. LOL....I'm putting that one in the "dream" category because I'm not in a place to make it work out just yet, but one day.....:)

      Thanks so much for the insightful comment! :)

    2. Yes, exactly! I also like the term "intention" better than goal. For me, as soon as I used the word "goal" I feel like I'm setting myself up for failure. I get stressed out right away because I'm afraid I won't reach whatever the goal is. But, if I use the word "intention" it has a totally different energy and feel. Not sure that makes sense, but it does in my crazy head. lol

      And, on those shops, good luck! I'd love it if there was that type of book/coffee shop around here. I'd definitely be a regular customer. Ohhh, wouldn't a library/coffee shop kind of establishment be fun?