Ambitionism & Incrementalism

In thinking through my goals, what I want, and also, how to stay sane, a few things have become clear to me.

  1. that i have to stop with the pushy ambitionism* that makes me irritable, aggressive, and feel constantly disappointed Some how this idea of failure, of being a failure, has taken root in my psyche. not in a way that pushes me to push myself, but rather that I perpetually dismantle and discount everything I have done
  2. the wiser approach is what I’ll call incrementalism. Incrementalism, in case you missed the freakonomics show on it (I didn’t hear it) or the article in the new yorker (I did read that), is not thinking of or looking at things in terms of big, cataclysmic change, but rather small, *incremental*(!) steps that gradually lead to  a different situation or state. In the nyer article, this is presented in terms of medicine: the writer of the article, a doctor, had believed surgery to be the most exciting way of transforming life, but he comes to appreciate the transformitive power of primary care–work that is being in a patients life slowly, carefully, and over a long period of time, causes change.
  3. If I think about this in terms of my own life, it is apparent to me that I want some sort of dramatic success–something that I can brag about, something that I can show to others that will (in my fantasies) make me matter more to them than I do now. I want to be impressive, interesting, and know that I am surely not.
  4. As I’ve grown up and come to understand people and my own fantasies better, I’ve learned that you never get that moment of awing someone from your past. It can happen that you get to tell someone you’ve always wanted to impress something which is, in fact, impressive, but one of two things invariably happen: (a) the person is not at all impressed, and the desire to impress them falls flat in your face, all the more embarrassing and empty for the fact that it didn’t work, or (b) you realize you just don’t care anymore. (years ago I sat on a bridge in the middle of the night with a guy that I had once been madly in love with. he started to slip his arm around me, to suggest that we had some new beginning, and I slid away. I had boyfriend, after all. But really, in the time between his breaking my heart and this moment on the bridge, I’d change, my life was completely different, worlds had opened up to me. He truly meant nothing, nothing more than a friend from some other time, and the arm was nothing more than the arm of someone that was not my current boyfriend.)
  5. So to take this idea of incrementalism in my own life, I’ve mentioned before that I want to build habits. Let go of “trying to get to the end” of all my many, many projects, and accept that the writing really is a joy just in an of itself. Nothing that I will write will change lives, nor will what I write likely change my own. if one day I quit my day job, it will not be next year, but 10-15 from now. If I succeed in getting published or into a creative writing program it will be not a radical shift but just a sliding into the next step, the natural progression of a trajectory.

To take this all back to practical day-to-day terms, I am (once again!) giving myself a pep talk on the 1 hour a day. Just do that 1 hour. And maybe next year, I’ll be able to 2 hours. At this rate, it will take me a ridiculous amount of time to finish just one story. And there can’t be just one. There can’t be just one, not because I’ve got several I want to tell, but more to the point, it will take dozens (100s?) before the storytelling itself just becomes natural, for the routine to take route, for various experiments and questions about character and structure that grow in the back of my head will have a chance to be brought out, examined, given a chance to play, and raise new issues and questions and experiments.


*I’m totally making up this word “ambitionism”. I mean, maybe it’s really a word, but I haven’t heard of it and wordpress is flagging it as a misspelling.


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