It’s (Probably) Okay Not To Have Any Ambition

0.    Oh Shit

I recently wrote about the difficulties I have relating to groups. As a not particularly well-socialised human being who spends an inordinate amount of time in his head, I frequently see groups of humans as more trouble than they are worth. Yes, I could seek their approval and Yes, I could throw myself into one of their cultural institutions but my general feeling is that most attempts at collaboration are doomed to end in frustration and alienation. As I said, I do not relate well to groups.

One of the symptoms of my frustration with groups is an extreme sensitivity and antipathy to people who are obviously trying to “get on”. I rage at self-publicists and bristle at any attempt to win me over, coerce me or play me. This is one reason why I abhor the performative aspect of Internet life. I groan at the moral outrage of Twitter as I know that its hysteric nature has less to do with genuine expressions of anger and sorrow than it does with broadcasting the fact that you are the type of person who gets really annoyed about this type of thing. Similarly, people engaged in attempts at climbing the greasy poll immediately repulse me. I hate dishonest reviewers who swamp Google search results with jottings designed to secure them more review copies and more invitations to parties and I am horrified by the people who turn their coats and trade in careers as commentators for careers in the industry on which they are commenting. I hate all of these things because I am obsessed with the need to be authentic and I prize nothing above honesty with both oneself and the world around us. Of course, the problem with this attitude is that it is complete and utter bullshit.

On a purely subjective level, I am aware of the shifts in my moods and outlook and how these neural spasms affect my reactions to the things I read, the things I hear and the things I see. On a more philosophical level, I am aware (thanks to Hume) that the self is largely an illusion constructed, like the ship of Theseus, out of carefully selected fragments of entirely unreliable memories. I know that there is no such thing as the ‘real me’ and yet I am obsessed with the need to be true to myself. Given that there is no ‘self’ to be true to, my obsession is thus revealed as self-serving bullshit. Indeed, I recently realised that many of my protestations and calls for greater honesty and transparency were really nothing more than a defence mechanism designed to help me cope with a deeper tension, a tension that cannot be resolved through demands for greater moral purity or honesty.

The tension within me takes the following form:

On the one hand, I feel that my daily activities should be directed towards the pursuit of a greater goal whether that is a return to academia, a move towards more widely read websites or the monetisation of my thoughts in the form of a publishable book or full-time employment as a writer.

On the other hand, I have no real interest in any of these things because my income will never rely upon my capacity to write and because I relate to groups of humans so poorly that, rather than welcoming wider audiences, I tend to fear them (in fact, when one of my pieces recently attracted some discussion on one of the big aggregating websites, my first reaction was neither pleasure nor pride but panic. I actually said ‘Oh shit’).

A different way of expressing this tension is to say that while I am not an ambitious man, I feel that I probably should be.  This is a post about why it is (probably) okay to live a life that is free of ambition.

1.    The Pressure to Succeed

Everywhere I look, I see greasy polls and everywhere I go, I encounter reasons to climb them:

If you begin writing reviews then the expectation is that you should seek out wider audiences and cultivate a greater degree of influence.

If you enjoy writing stories then the expectation is that you should seek to get them published and to parlay this accomplishment into a book deal.

If you enjoy singing then the expectation is that you should try to land a paying gig and then to become a full-time professional singer.

If you enjoy conducting research and engaging with big ideas then the expectation is that you should be making a run at becoming a professional academic.

If you enjoy playing football competitively then the expectation is that you should try to play for larger and more successful teams and maybe take a shot at a professional contract.

Regardless of whether you’re a writer, a gymnast, a yoga instructor or an opera singer, the expectation is that, sooner or later, you should monetise your passion because if you are not getting paid then clearly you are wasting your time. This expectation is now so universal that video game magazines routinely publish job adverts and websites exist that explain how you should go about turning your interest in 1980s cartoons or sadomasochism into a job.

The logic of capitalism is impeccable: if there’s money to be made in a particular area then institutions will rise up in order to extract that money. Once created, these institutions will act to squeeze out non-affiliated rivals and will impose a set of ‘professional’ values that vilify those who do not respect the limits of the new professional order. For proof of this look no further than the attitude of academic biologists towards naturalists, the attitude of academic archaeologists towards antiquarians and the attitude of many professional newspaper film reviewers towards the people who do the same job as them for free. The problem is not with the individuals but with the institutions, institutions require growth and so these institutions normalise and reward greed and ambition. Indeed, if there is one thing that graduate school taught me it is that political nous and a capacity for networking are at least as valuable to a potential academic as clarity of thought and depth of expertise. They are certainly a good deal more valuable than a capacity to teach and a desire to circulate one’s ideas to non-academic audiences.

As James C. Scott points out in How Not To Be Governed (2011), his anarchist history of upland South East Asia, the logic of institutions is not necessarily the logic of men but institutions would bend all men to their logic and call these broken creatures civilised.

Nowhere is the increasing pressure to get on more evident than in changing attitudes towards fictional characters.

 2.    Models of Unambitious Resistance.

One of my all-time favourite films is Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). The film tells the story of an aimless tramp who falls in the river only to be ‘saved’ by a well-intentioned middle class bookseller. Feeling a sense of ownership over the poor creature, the book seller sets about attempting to civilise him by telling him that he can’t just spend his life hanging around in parks and taking all of his clothes off purely for fun. In fact, the bookseller provides Boudu first with a suit, then a haircut and finally an entirely respectable wife. However, having married the girl, Boudu simply leaps into the river and disappears off with a dog. He has no interest in bettering himself; he has no interest in becoming middle class. A man of no ambition whatsoever, Boudu is quite content to live the life he has. Having not encountered the film until its recent cinematic re-release, I was initially horrified by Michel Simon’s demented performance. Indeed, Simon renders Boudu as a man who is simply too odd to fit in. In fact, by the standards of contemporary film characters, Boudu seems mentally ill.

Another example of incomprehensible behaviour is that displayed by Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942). One of the reasons why this novel has retained its capacity to unnerve after nearly seventy years of life is the fact that, despite being a first person narrative, the book provides us with little insight into Meursault’s emotional state. When Meursault’s mother dies, he complains about the heat. When confronted by a knife-wielding Arab, he complains about the heat and claims that the trigger simply gives way. When Meursault’s boss offers him a promotion that would see him reassigned to Paris, Meursault’s response is puzzling to say the least:

He then asked me if I wasn’t interested in changing my life. I replied that you could never change your life, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with mine here. He looked upset and told me that I always evaded the question and that I had no ambition, which was disastrous in the business world.

Reportedly, reactions to Meursault have closely mirrored those to Boudu. In the 1960s, people saw Meaursault’s detachment and devotion to the moment as admirably cool while 1980s audiences (particularly in America) saw him as nothing more than a self-destructive dropout who turns down opportunities for advancement and so winds up on the societal scrap-heap. It is difficult to tell what contemporary audiences make of Camus’s character but some have taken his emotional disconnection to be a sign of a dissociative condition known among psychiatrists as Depersonalisation Disorder or DPD.

A similar medicalization of an unconventional fictional character can be found in contemporary reactions to Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street” (1853).  Bartleby tells the story of a Manhattan lawyer who becomes strangely obsessed with one of his employees. Initially, the lawyer welcomes Bartleby as a calming influence upon his practice but after producing a lot of good work, Bartleby suddenly refrains from taking on additional duties. When asked to do something, Bartleby simply responds, “I would prefer not to”. Melville never really explains why Bartleby suddenly refrains from doing anything and the strangeness of this reaction stokes the lawyer’s obsession as well as our interest. By the end of the story, the lawyer is offering to take Bartleby into his home and bribing guards to ensure that he is well treated but Bartleby simply would prefer to do nothing. What he would prefer to do is never made clear but Melville is quite adamant that Bartleby has no interest in improving his situation in life. Regardless of the opportunities presented to Bartleby, he would prefer not to take them.

As one might expect of a story that is nearly 160 years old, Bartleby has generated a fair number of interpretations including the idea that Bartleby is a negative reflection of the narrator. The narrator cares about his job, his practice and other people. He is ambitious not only for himself but for the people he cares about. Bartleby, on the other hand, lacks the requisite amount of ambition involved in feeding himself. Bartleby is thus literally incomprehensible to the narrator:

There would seem little need for proceeding further in this history. Imagination will readily supply the meagre recital of poor Bartleby’s interment. But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator’s making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it.

Another decidedly contemporary take on the personality of Bartleby is that this short story is an early depiction of what we would now think of as clinical depression. Naturally gloomy, Bartleby’s job in a dead letter office caused him to slide into a state of depression so deep that nothing seemed to matter, not least his own life.

Though very different in both temperament and outlook, these three characters stand united in both their lack of ambition and their tendency to invite psychiatric diagnoses even from lay readers. Indeed, the institutional logic of capitalism and the expectation that we both aspire and work towards the satisfaction of these aspirations have coincided with an increasing popularisation of psychiatric jargon resulting in a tendency to pathologise anyone who fails to play by society’s rules.

 3.    The Pathology of Dissent

This tendency to reach for the DSM-IV whenever we encounter someone markedly different to ourselves serves to imbue conformity with a veneer of medical authority. Having survived the 1960s, our culture now realises that labelling someone a ‘freak’ or a ‘weirdo’ lacks the moral authority required to force them into a state of conformity. In fact, both of these terms have now been reclaimed as terms of individualistic empowerment and capitalism has happily embraced rebellion as a commoditised marketing bracket. However, by framing the unconventional in medical terms, we drain it of its power to challenge our values. If someone is ill then there is no reason why we should consider their lifestyle as anything other than abhorrent and if we label someone as ill, the clear implication is that they should seek treatment that will allow them to live the same ‘healthy’ life as everyone else.  As Thomas Szasz puts it in his The Myth of Mental Illness (1974), the applying medical terminology to everyday behaviour:

Provides professional assent to a popular rationalization – namely, that problems in living experienced and expressed in terms of so-called psychiatric symptoms are basically similar to bodily diseases. Moreover, the concept of mental illness also undermines the principle of personal responsibility, the ground on which all free political institutions rest. For the individual, the notion of mental illness precludes an inquiring attitude towards conflicts which his “symptoms” at once conceal and reveal. For a society, it precludes regarding individuals as responsible persons and invites, instead, treating them as irresponsible patients.

Of course, Szasz was neither the first nor the last person to cast a sceptical eye at the science of mental health. Back in the 1960s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that modern psychiatry was nothing more than the latest iteration of our age-old tendency to isolate undesirables and protect society from their unconventional views and behaviours. Similarly, a recent series of reviews published in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell surveyed an array of sceptical books that suggested (among other things) that many psychiatric disorders are simply labels attached to reactions to drugs. What is depression? It is how you feel before you start taking anti-depressant drugs:

As Carlat puts it, “By this same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain conditions is a deficiency of opiates, since narcotic pain medications activate opiate receptors in the brain.” Or similarly, one could argue that fevers are caused by too little aspirin.

Being neither a psychiatrist nor a trained psychologist, it is not for me to say whether many mental illnesses or genuinely physical ailments of the brain but it does seem to me that the vagueness of diagnostic criteria combined with the increased visibility of psychiatric terms has resulted in a cultural climate where differences of opinion are all too easily chalked up to mental illness. As my brief survey of changing reactions to fictional characters suggests, a lack of ambition is now so unusual that its strangeness invites medical diagnosis.

4.    Fuck the Man, Stay at home

Watching Boudu Saved From Drowning, it occurred to me that my inability to accept my own lack of ambition was simply the product of growing up in a particular time and a particular place. Though neither of my parents were particularly ambitious, the thousands of hours I have spent reading books, playing games and watching TV have nurtured the utterly fraudulent notion that I should be seeking to better myself. I feel no great desire to save the world by imposing my vision upon it and while I would be quite pleased for my writing to reach a wider audience, I feel no great desire to seek that audience out and assail them with my views. Confronted by an endless series of greasy polls and the socially constructed demand that I climb them, my only desire is to echo the words of Bartleby and say that I would prefer not to. I would prefer not to resurrect my academic career and I would prefer not to attend cultural events and rub my sharpened elbows against people who might be in a position to help my writing find a wider audience. I would prefer not to do any of these things and, in truth; I think that this is perfectly okay.

As David Foster Wallace suggests in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, the paradox of happiness is that no matter how happy you become, that experience of happiness will rapidly fade causing an even greater desire for happiness to assert itself. The happier we are, the happier we think we should be and the more our aspirations are satisfied, the greater our aspirations become. The only solution to this ever-expanding appetite for euphoria is to be happy with what you have and to realise that ambition and aspiration are simply society’s way of compelling you to behave.

Of course, the danger here is that I become so completely self-contained that I become complacent but a lack of ambition does not necessarily dictate a refusal to change. Indeed, the world changes around us all the time and our moods fluctuate with the passing of the seasons and quality of the things we consume. Like Boudu, I will continue to try things and to modify my beliefs and practices but these modifications and changes stem not from some grand desire to be adored or even accepted. Instead they come from a desire to hold steady in the face of entropy as, at the end of the day, I suspect I would prefer to  jump in a river and play with a dog than dirty my hands with the grease of aspiration.


  1. Some thoughts, in no particular order.

    Firstly, I covered Bartleby at mine which may be of vague interest to you. The review I’d suggest reading at mine though, and more to the point the book, is Beckett’s Murphy. You’d, well, enjoy may not be the right word. You’d find it interesting. If you haven’t already that is. It’s directly relevant to this post.

    Otherwise, are you familiar with the concept from Russian literature of the superfluous man? Again, if not I suspect you’d find it interesting.

    Our society medicalises the unusual, and as time goes on defines the usual ever more narrowly. By all accounts some 2% of the population are essentially sociopaths. If that’s correct in what sense is that a mental illness, and not just a minority cognitive state? ADHD, manic-depression, Asperger’s, handy labels that allow us to medicalise anyone not normally productive.

    Be glad you have the money to abjure ambition. With money one is merely eccentric. Without it treatment beckons. A final book mention. I recently wrote about Huysmans’ With the Flow. That’s about a man who feels much as you do, but the irony in that work is he lacks the money to be one of the aesthetes Huysmans more commonly wrote about. As such he despises what he sees around him, but remains part of it for lack of the money to choose otherwise. The Huysmans too may be of interest.

    You only feel you should be part of groups, be ambitious, of course because that’s what’s expected. But then you know that.


  2. On a more digressive note, ambition can be seen as culturally sanctified aggression. It has historically been linked to male prerogative, signaling the dominance of one’s rivals and the expression of virility.

    In business as in war, one’s enemies must be overcome and thrown down. Sexual and monetary spoils seized. The ancient Greeks both embraced ambition when it was displayed on a civic scale and feared/denigated it in the shape of tyranny when encountered on a more personal one. The Romans held fewer reservations, and personal ambition was commonly intermixed with the business of empire.

    Late capitalism has swept away whatever philosophical objections may have lingered, and buried much of our ancestors’ healthy distrust of ambitious individuals. In the medieval period which developed after the fall of the Roman empire in Western Europe, there was a strong counter current to personal ambition running both through the dominant religion and the communal nature of small-scale, local agrarian societies.

    The birth of the mercantile class, the re-entrenchment of commerce on a European and later global scale, brought back the Roman ideal of the ambitious man: whose wealth and success dominating others feeds in an endless loop into the dominance of his state and culture.

    To opt out is not simply to pass on its benefits, but often to signal those who remain opted in, that one is a potential other. A lose unit of uncertain value who may be either dominated, destroyed, or at best, ignored.

    As mentioned, those without the defense of wealth will be subject to the whim of the ambitious. They may be marginalized, but more often they are either criminalized or medicalized. A value must be assigned and if the individual refuses to self-assign or at least collude with its assessors, then one will be placed on them against their wishes.

    An ambitious man may be seen as a dangerous rival, and an ambitious woman has long been seen as being dangerously masculine, but a man – especially, without ambition, is often seen as a danger to society even though such a man is more likely to be the victim and not the perpetrator of violence and aggression.

    To be a man of neither violence nor ambition, is to declare oneself “not a man.” It is not uncommon to be labeled either feminine or queer, if not outright medicalized.

    Ambition of this sort if often modulated through the lens of one’s class. So while citizens are extolled toward being ambitious, one is best served to be so within the boundaries set by one’s social and financial brackets. Working class ambition should not be conflated with aristocratic ambition. Those within the stratification will both motivate each other, competing as rivals, and serve as a check to wayward advancement.

    Subcategories abound, from scholastic to sporting, as you’ve already pointed out in your examples.


  3. After reading this post, I’m intensely curious about how readers’ attitudes have fluctuated with respect to Flowers for Algernon. And it will be quite interesting to see, going forward, how fiction of our own time that tackles medicalization or deviancy from mental norms will stand up in the long run—I’m thinking here of books like The Corrections or Generosity or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

    Concerning diagnosis, I’ve always found this very strange tension between the commodification of human behaviours via names and criteria and the legitimation of the same. The commodification you know well enough already: put the thing in a manual and there’s your source of capital for psychiatry and pharmaceuticals (with Scientology sitting in the back, gleefully absorbing gullible resisters). The legitimation is less obvious: it comes in the form of a benign pat on the back, saying “It’s okay! It’s not you, it’s your genes and/or brain chemistry.” Thus giving a pass to the patient’s free will or self-determination or moral conscience or what have you, and presumably fostering an inclusive attitude by sending society the message that it’s not you, it’s your disability. But we saw how well that worked out for homosexuals in the attempts to cure them. It’s so disarmingly empathetic it’s sinister.

    The retroactive diagnosis of fictional characters, meanwhile, is downright weird. For physical ailments that we now understand on a biological level, like smallpox or tuberculosis or leprosy, I can understand; for mental ones, it’s clearly a case of wishful projecting. I wish I could say it surprised me, but it routinely happens with historical figures. “Mozart had Asperger’s!” Chrissake.


  4. Max — Yes, I remember you covering Bartleby and I think that’s where I first encountered the story. I hadn’t encountered the idea of the Superfluous man (despite being familiar with Eugene Onegin) but some aspects of the concept do seem quite salient. I have long felt a certain degree of kinship with Oblomov for example :-) Thanks for the recommendations, I shall look into them.

    My financial situation is (obviously) a part of all of this and one of the reasons for my attempt to come to terms with my lack of ambition and my problems with groups is that I’m hoping to move out of London and I feel that I’m retiring from the world and putting up the drawbridge as a result. What I realise now is that even before my financial situation changed, I was not someone who had great ambitions. Yes, I chose my academic disciplines quite poorly in terms of the fit between the institutions of those disciplines and my personality but even when I did have to work in order to feed myself, I was quite content with maintaining my existing levels of comfort.


  5. E.M. — You’re absolutely right. In a society where the need to succeed is everything, announcing a lack of interest in climbing the ladder is not only to invite people to step on you, it is also making yourself into a kind of incomprehensible and monstrous Other.

    One of the things that interests me is the way that political rhetoric changes even though the spirit behind that rhetoric stays basically the same. Nowadays, the talk of psychopaths, aspergers cases, ADHD sufferers etc is simply an adaptation of the desire to distance oneself from different people. Once upon a time, one expressed one’s disgust by labeling people as ‘subversives’ and ‘anarchists’ but now those words have no political muscle behind them, they’ve been drained of their significance. And so, society generates a new rhetoric that allows people to demonise and distance themselves and that rhetoric borrows heavily from the lexicon of psychiatry.


  6. Nick — Interesting. I think that legitimation and commodification are two sides of the same coin.

    Commodification is what you do to other people: By applying a label to someone and saying that they’re mentally ill or possessed or politically subversive, you remove yourself from the burden of human empathy and allow yourself to think about these people free from the sneaking suspicion that they may be right and you may be wrong.

    Legitimation, on the other hand, is when people apply that same process to themselves. It’s a way of freeing themselves from the burden of having to be responsible for their shortcomings and eccentricities. Thus you are not an under-socialised and creepy dick, you’re an Asperger’s sufferer and it isn’t fair to judge you by the standards of other people!

    I see this process of legitimation quite a lot in the talk around trigger warnings. Essentially, people claim to be abuse sufferers or traumatised by something or other and this explains why they react negatively to images of rape, murder and child-abuse in the media they consume. However, rather than simply saying that they don’t like these things and would rather not see them, people demand trigger warnings and expect the world to conform to the limits of their psychology. Every time I hear someone talking about the need for trigger warnings and how images of child abuse cause them to have panic attacks I think that the responsibility for that lies with the individual and not the creator. If you’re freaked out by fictional violence then go and see a therapist. Most therapists will tell you that ultimately we are all responsible for our own mental health and if we do not seek help then it is up to us. I think many of the trigger-warning crowd use the trappings of mental health-speak to try to enforce what are really a set of aesthetic and moral preferences but if you say “it’s wrong to show violence against children” people tend to ignore you while if you say “it’s wrong that you force me to have panic attacks” people tend to pay attention.


  7. Well, you gotta pay the rent somehow. You can do that by doing the thing you love, or you can take my path.

    It’s not that I don’t enjoy being three lines of code in the great capitalist system (though it doesn’t light my fire, to say the least), but I often feel wistful about all the other things I could be doing with that time.


  8. I know nothing of your financial position, of course. If the rent is covered, then the priorities change. That question “what do I do if I don’t have to fight to survive?” is a biggy.

    Fortunately for me, it’s not one I need address.


  9. This is a very personal post, Jonathan, as was its predecessor. I admire your boldness in putting them online. And, of course, they have made me reflect a little upon myself. I have little interest in monetising my work, which partly stems from finding the term and the concept behind it distasteful, as well as from growing up with formative ideas around DIY punk and anarchism. Of course, there is also the pragmatic part of me which doesn’t try to pursue money in return for anything I do outside of the day job, because if it’s not enough money to entirely supplant said day job then why bother? Play is more fun than work, but once you introduce money it becomes work.

    I suspect that a lot of the above is, indeed, self-serving bullshit. I suspect that, in fact, I am inherently lazy, and enjoy taking things as far as I can be bothered to at any given time and rarely much further.

    Anyway, I particularly enjoyed the part of this post around changing societal attitudes towards difference, deviancy or behaviour otherwise at odds with contemporary social trends. I suspect that today, many people do actually relate, deep down, to characters who step outside of the boundaries of what is acceptable, normal or expected, even if by day they are as conformant as everyone else to the demands of neurotic late capitalist society. If the last century has achieved anything in terms of dissemination of popular ideas, it is drawing a new kind of rarely perceivable line between our interior and exterior selves.

    I suspect that the above may be bullshit, too. Semper idem. :)


  10. Thanks Shaun :-)

    I’ve been writing quite personal stuff for quite a while now. My game columns in particular are starting to present quite a coherent viewpoint as I frequently wind up using game-writing as a means of exploring certain ideas about myself and the world. I think writing directly about myself without the device of a review or a column was just the next natural step along that road. I’m glad you like it though, it’s quite experimental in a way.

    I think that one of the reasons why the term ‘Other’ is so brilliant is that it is as much a verb as a status. I think a lot of the time, minorities are made to carry the can for the majority’s distaste at their own characteristics. Rather than confront themselves, they exaggerate those tendencies and project them onto a socially convenient group. As such, I suspect that you are absolutely right about people relating to outsiders and the Othering process is a part of the attempt to deny the fact that there are moments when you’d really like to stand at a bus stop and pull your cock out and scream obscenities at anyone who’d make eye-contact. I find the medicalisation of dissent to be fascinating because *everyone* does it and I think it connects up to that stuff I was saying about people being increasingly passive-aggressive:

    I think most of us now realise that it’s really not okay to be judgemental and if people are different to us it is generally because they have their reasons and their reasons are different to ours. However, rather than label people we dislike as freaks we now mutter about them having a potential mental health issue and so we can not only judge people with impunity, we can judge people in a manner that makes empathy impossible (as they are ‘broken’) and do so in a manner that makes us feel good. Awww… look at that man, he should really see a doctor about his being a twat!

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