A few weeks back I tweeted: “After leaving academia, I had to really think about what I wanted out of life. I have far more ambition now than I ever did before.” For whatever reasons, the sentiment resonated with a lot of people and the positive response I received prompted this post.
The entire time I spent in academia, from undergrad through to the completion of my PhD, is best characterized as deadline oriented. Write a paper. Submit. Receive grade. Apply for next course/program/degree. Rinse and repeat. Of course, there was a lot more complication to that process, but the way in which I approached every year of my higher education was essentially the same: meet pre-existing deadlines and fulfill pre-existing requirements. The end goal was the degree, obviously, but I can’t honestly say that I was driven by a specific sense of ambition. “I want to be a professor” was not so much a statement of ambition as it was an assumption of the final outcome of my academic efforts. Once I realized that a professorial life was not in my future, I was faced with a question that I had been avoiding for the entirety of adult life: What do I want to do?
As a person who most often did what was expected of me—I truly excelled at listening to authority figures—it was extremely difficult to not have my efforts directed by an outside force when I found myself no longer a graduate student and unemployed. In my mind, I was a failure. I tried to work for my spouse. That experiment failed spectacularly within a few weeks. In those first long months out of my PhD program, I can only imagine how awkward and challenging it was for my partner to have me (unconsciously) looking to him for the direction and guidance in my life that he couldn’t provide. My housekeeping and pet tending efforts were doubled. But a spotless house and an increasingly spoiled cat did nothing to give me purpose. I was depressed for quite a long while (and it certainly didn’t help that I was coping with chronic pain, which, at that time, was quite severe and debilitating). I was completely adrift without institutional structure. I had no deadlines to meet. I had no ambition.
Graduate school showed me what I didn’t want—an academic career—but it also provided me with experiences of work that were outside of any possibilities I was exposed to as a child. People can, and do, make a living from researching, writing, and exploring difficult and new ideas. There wasn’t any discussion of an intellectual career happening outside of academe, but I read enough to know that independent scholarship—respected, widely read, and transformative engagement—does exist. When I made the mental leap to thinking of myself as an independent scholar, all of the institutional rules of "what is possible and who can do what" started falling away. Freed from other people’s deadlines, I started making my own. The first goals I set were small: set up a website, read a book, write a blog post. Then they started to grow: present at a conference, start a business, edit an essay collection. Each time I devised of and completed a project of my own choosing I became more confident in myself. And I started wanting more.
I want to write a book. I want to write a screenplay. I want to edit science fiction. I want to be an invited keynote speaker. I want to be the next big theorist. I want to never limit myself to the options in front of me. I want to go beyond the obvious outcomes of my current labour and find new ways to grow as individual.
To make my new found ambition public is both terrifying and liberating. Part of me worries that people will say, “who does she think she is?” Another part whispers to me that these dreams are too big for such a small person. But there is also an ever increasing desire to try. I finally understand now that I am only a failure if I don’t take risks. I spend much of my time alone and it is easy to become lost in my own world. My newly found ambition pushes me to write, to learn, to reach out to other people. I have no idea what my future holds but I no longer feel like I am staring into some horrible directionless void. Instead, I am curious and eager to find out what I’ll be doing at this time next year. While not every project I dream up will work out, some of them will.
When asked about her best advice to writers, Octavia Butler (in Bloodchild, p. 144) said that it was to persist: "It’s a truth that applies to more than writing. It applies to anything that is important, but difficult, important, but frightening. We’re all capable of climbing so much higher than we usually permit ourselves to suppose. The word, again, is 'persist'!"
I have ambition. I will persist.