Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Ambition

photo by Ezra Marcos ( )

Is To Continue...

I searched the definition of "ambitious" and "ambition" this morning and here are some of the results:

“Possessing, or controlled by, ambition; greatly or inordinately desirous of power, honor, office, superiority, or distinction.

Strongly desirous; -- followed by of or the infinitive; as, ambitious to be or to do something.

Springing from, characterized by, or indicating, ambition; showy; aspiring; as, an ambitious style.”

“An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.

The object, state, or result desired or sought after.

Desire for work or activity; energy.”

“Having ambition, eagerly desirous of achieving or obtaining success, power, wealth, a specific goal, etc.

Strongly desirous; eager.

Requiring exceptional effort, ability, etc.”

“Having a strong desire for success or achievement; wanting power, money, etc.

Necessitating extraordinary effort or ability.

Having a great desire (for something or to do something).”

At least by these definitions, I don't consider myself very ambitious.

I know I work hard and I'm organized and the things I do are also done by ambitious people, but I don't feel driven towards any particular goal or to achieve any particular level of success of fame. Just doing it is reward enough. I don't feel like I'm reaching for anything either. Just putting my stuff out there and seeing what comes back.

For instance, this year was my best year ever musically, but I have no expectations that next year will be anything like it. I don't find myself at all hopeful. I'm not despairing either, but definitely not hopeful. I don't have the sense that next year will build on this year, or should. I'll just continue to do what I'm doing and see what comes back. If anything, I usually expect that things will get worse and I'm genuinely surprised if they don't.

A lot of people have a hard time accepting this about me. They think that if they were doing what I'm doing, they'd be ambitious, so therefore I must be. But unless it's pretty damn unconscious, I just don't feel it. I'm not indifferent to people liking what I do. I love when people like what I do. But I'm not hungry for it and I don't need for it to happen and it's not my goal to be liked. My goal is to make music and teach T'ai-Chi and see what happens when I do that.

That's my ambition, to continue doing that. In a sense, OK, that means I'm ambitious. But it's not in the everyday sense of how the word is used, or in the way it's defined above. I used to be very ambitious. I wanted to be famous, liked, rich, James Taylor, etc. I was pretty miserable and competitive and pretty bitter when it didn't happen. But since I let all that go sometime in the mid 00’s, I've never had more fun doing music and never been less attached to what comes of it.

I never ask, Will this opportunity further my career? I usually ask, Does this opportunity feel right? or, Will this opportunity be fun? When I opened for America this Summer, people were asking me, "What if America wants you to tour with them?" My answer was, "That is highly unlikely and I almost certainly would not be interested, unless it was for a very short 3 or 5 gig leg. I hate traveling and the life that produces the music I love is this one, not that one."

Anyway, I know this all sounds defensive and who knows? it might be, but it's also in the interest of accuracy and clarity, both with myself and with others that I say it.

If I was more ambitious, always thinking about how each gig, benefit or open mike appearance would affect my career, if I was always strategizing about things like not over-saturating a given market, or getting the maximum bang out of every expenditure of musical energy, or steering my career in a definite pre-planned direction, my life would be very different.

I’m not sure exactly how different or in what ways but I think it would be along these lines:

I might have more and better gigs, or perhaps fewer but better gigs.

I might make more money, get more attention and have more people like me and my music.

I might get to hang out with other more successful people, both socially and artistically.


I might miss all the little casual fun no-ego jam sessions among like minded, in-it-for-the-pleasure of making music, kindred spirits. I’d either not be there in the first place because I was “above” such things, or I’d be there but not really present enough to enjoy myself.

I might miss actually hearing and appreciating the music of my peers which can be really hard to do when I feel in direct competition with them or focused on my own aspirations.

I might miss the kinds of connections with everyday people that a climbing musician might not want to be seen hanging out with.

I might feel more distant from the people who like my music. I might hold them more at arms length for all kinds of reasons.

I might miss being able to tune into my body, feel how it really feels and take care of it. When my attention is acutely tuned to things going on outside of me, things that are changing, “important” and competitively charged, I have a hard time connecting to my own body and attending to its needs. Hanging out at a community musical event with no feeling of self-consciousness about my image, or position or status, I find I can really feel my own body as well as what’s going on around me. I can tune into its needs, its tensions and releases in a way that I just can’t when I’m all excited and strategizing and looking for openings. When I would do that stuff before, I often would have no idea what was really going on in my body until the main events of the evening were over. Only when I got home might I notice an upset stomach or a headache or tight shoulders or a sore muscle area.

I might also miss the pleasure of just liking people without fear of losing anything in the process. When I was strategizing a lot I kept liking certain people in check because it wouldn’t look good in some way or because I was just afraid to let myself. I’m not sure what it was about exactly but there was just this vague fear of liking people too much. It just felt like I would lose something if I did.

In short, while I might be more successful and better at manipulating people and situations to my benefit, and while I might enjoy more of the pleasures of being successful at music, it might be at the cost of the some of the pleasures that come from making music itself. And for me, that trade-off, or the at least the prospect of this trade-off as I see it, are not worth it. And perhaps more importantly, I just don’t have the heart for the ambitious and strategizing life-style. I feel so much better since I let it go.

If you’re young and ambitious and feel like strategizing in this way, I’d say go for it. You might be a talentless, narcissistic buffoon...or you might be a genius destined for greatness, but either way, get it out of your system, or make it big, and the sooner the better. If you’re feeling like “up there” is where you need to be, go for it. It might be your destiny to be famous and excellent and you owe it to your talent and yourself to give it a try. But once it’s clear that strategizing won’t get you any higher or you’re simply not young anymore, I say, Fuck it and just play to play. Let all those considerations go, just make music, take whatever comes back, and enjoy yourself.


  1. Wow...thank you for expressing that so well. It's amazing to me how many people automatically assume that all artists aspire to greatness and the mainstream definition of success. Success is in our hearts, not our income or name in lights.

  2. Thanks Kathleen. I'm after the thing that feels most deeply right, whatever that is, and right now, this is it.

  3. Well said, Gene. It's a very mysterious road to making it. I wanted it very bad, but had absolutely no idea how to do it, and basically just wanted it handed to me. I wanted to sit in my living room drinking most of the time and have somebody come over to sign me to a great record deal. I STILL want that, but I don't let it bother me too often. A

    One of the chief things I miss about home in Oregon is the music get togethers. That's living.

  4. That is a fantastic photograph, by the way.

  5. I hear you Thom. I used to want the same thing! Except it was weed not alcohol in my story. ;~)

    Now I just want to put out my sound exactly as I like to make it and see what happens. "Making it" does not hold the allure it used to. Now I see it as entering into a collaborative relationship with a business entity interested in maximizing profits. Sure I might get more of those profits and sure, more people might like me, but what are they really liking? Is it "me" and my art? Or is it the work of my lead guitarist, or my producer, or my drummer, or my co-writers? I'm not interested in the compromises that are necessary to appeal to a wide audience, or any audience really. I want as much creative control and freedom as possible. I want to do it my way and see who likes it. I know I may not appeal to as many people by doing this, but that's OK with me. I'm sure I'd be more appealing with 2 or 3 albums instead of 26. But part of my art is to do it this way. It's an entire life of self-expression I'm interested in, not carefully marketed "units" of entertainment. The weird thing is that since I stopped trying to please people and get somewhere, I've had more success than I ever had before, when I was all into climbing the ladder (or having it handed to me). It's so much more enjoyable to focus on the work and let the world find and like whatever it does, or doesn't. The life I love and that produces this music is not for sale. ;~)

    The photo was taken at The Rogue Fam Jam at Tease by Ezra Marcos. I like it too, especially since I don't jam that much. He caught a nice moment.