Thirty-something years ago, I read a book that changed my life. The book was by Norman Podhoretz and it was called Making It. I can’t really recommend it as a read for today (I tried a month ago and couldn’t get through it) and I certainly find little to admire about Mr. Podhoretz’s current politics. But his book hit me like a box of dynamite. It overthrew everything I thought I knew about myself and turned my life around 180 degrees.
Making It is about ambition. Mr. Podhoretz’s thesis is that the “dirty little secret” of American life is not sex, but ambition. Lust for success, he said, is the love (the book was published in 1967) that dare not speak its name.
When I read Making It, I was living in a rented room in a halfway house in Durham, North Carolina, making $1.75 an hour delivering reconstituted orange juice, Salisbury steaks and frozen Crinkle-Cut French fries to restaurants and school cafeterias. But when I read Mr. P’s confessions (in a 35-cent used paperback picked up at the Goodwill Store), I thought, “That’s me.”
I didn’t dare breathe a word. And certainly nothing altered in my external life. But everything had changed inside me. Norman P. had obliterated denial. He had forced me to own up. I may be a bum, I told myself; I may be a loser, I may still have a long way to fall before I hit bottom. But the truth is I ain’t happy being a bum and a loser and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life at the bottom.
I hate what I’ve done to myself. I hate what my life has become. I want to do something great, and I want people to know about it. At the time I was years away from finding a job that anyone might call half-respectable and a generation away from making my first dollar as a writer. But that was only surface stuff. Inside, I had changed. Inside, I had taken the first step.
Accepting the fact that I was ambitious took a great weight off my shoulders. I felt terrible about it (it seemed so aggressive and competitive and non-regular-guy-ish), but at least I wasn’t lying to myself any more. To admit that I wanted something better for myself didn’t mean that I intended to morph into a raging egomaniac who clawed his way to the top over the bleeding bodies of his dearest friends. It just meant that I was ready to kick my own butt and to, at last, reject every sorry-ass excuse I had been dishing out to myself for so long.
Today, thirty-plus years later, I feel exactly the same. I’m still ambitious. I still hate mediocrity. I still want to do something great. When I get up in the morning, that pissed-off feeling is ambition—ambition rubbing up against Resistance and throwing off sparks.
This doesn’t mean I believe in “success.” I don’t. I don’t believe greed is good and I don’t think wealth or fame bring happiness. Those are externals. Those are fruits. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about labor. I’m talking about doing the work. To pretend to NOT want to excel when in fact you do—and thus crap out on the work–is a prescription for misery. To NOT try is fatal, for me anyway.
Are you ambitious? If you’re reading this blog, you must be. Do you want to do something great? Do you feel a secret power inside you? Do you hate being ordinary and normal? Do you refuse to accept that?
I do. I hate that shit. I don’t believe anyone’s ordinary or normal anyway. An oak litters the earth with ten thousand acorns, and inside every one is the drive to grow to be as mighty as its daddy. Every lion cub, every fledging eagle carries in its DNA the will to be king of beasts and lord of the air. That’s nature’s law. Why should we humans expect to be different?
I thank Norman Podhoretz for making the scales fall from my eyes. What he said about himself was true for me too. The realization that I do value myself, that I do respect myself, that I do expect great things from myself has fueled my work and me for three decades–and I haven’t run out of gas yet.
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