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Is the age of ambition over?

I was once an ambitious young man. Back in the 1990s I was in a lesser-known indie band called the National Prayer Breakfast. I will not even pretend to be hurt if you have not heard of us. But this band obsessed me every waking hour before it all ended in mild acrimony and quiet failure in my late twenties.

Ambition is a strange thing for Generation Xers. We’re usually in deep denial about having it. Also, traditionally in the UK and Ireland, people were never meant to be particularly vocal about wanting stuff. To some extent, I think you’re still meant to gaze at your petfood empire or bestselling novel and say, “This old thing? I do not know where I got that. ”

Here are my first ambitions: when I was five, I wanted to be in The Monkees because their TV show was repeated every Saturday on the Irish national broadcaster RTE. I did not realize it was made in the 1960s. I thought Davy, Micky, Mike and Peter still lived in a groovy house, probably in Dublin, that I might be able to drop into sometime. And so my first ambition was thwarted by the linear nature of time.

When I was eight, I wanted to fight in a war. My dad was a soldier and I was obsessed with war comics like Warlord and Battle. I was pretty sure I’d be good at being in a war and at killing people with big mustaches and German accents. I know now that I’d be terrible at being in a war and that I would betray all of my comrades at the first hint of discomfort and, also, that war is probably a bad thing. At a certain point I realized I did not want to be in the army; I just wanted to dress in a uniform from time to time. That’s more a fetish than an ambition.

When I was 15, I wanted to be in Dire Straits or Genesis. I found their songs of middle-aged, middle-of-the-road heartache strangely relatable. I wrote songs about getting divorced or how to keep love alive in a long marriage. I repeat: I was 15. My ambition in this instance was thwarted by the unlikelihood of Phil Collins or Mark Knopfler hiring a teenager who was bad at guitar.

All my ambitions boiled down to one simple dream: to be loved and admired by all. Maybe that’s what all ambitions boil down to. Isn’t every billionaire’s pet space project just a plea for love?

© Kyle Ellingson

The National Prayer Breakfast began in 1995. Ireland was still in the recessionary doldrums, and arts graduates emigrated, joined the civil service or signed on the dole and pretended to make art. I started a band. As a teenager I had been in another band, but I had given up on this. Then my future bandmate D gave me a family tree of interlinking punk rock groups that he had carefully made with a felt-tip pen. It was like a road map for my future. Punk showed me I could have creative ambition without skill.

My friends and I lived in a shared, red-brick, terraced house in north Dublin and all of our other friends lived nearby in similar houses. Most of them were ambitious in the same way I was ambitious. They were creatively incontinent without a clear career trajectory. We all recorded music and created zines and posters and short films.

One of our friends was a “film-maker”. This involved getting very high and filming himself for a film he called The Cocaine Diaries. It’s possibly the worst film ever made. Another friend created a fully funded art project that involved him going on the train every day to run around the small town of Waterford. Actually, that was pretty cool.

Most of us were also involved with an anarcho-syndicalist pirate radio station that was run from another terraced house in north Dublin. It had a broadcast radius of about a mile. We were convinced “The Man” wanted to shut us down due to our challenging punk rock playlist and incoherent political rants.

Look, I know this might all sound insufferable. It probably was insufferable. But we had no way of knowing how typical or weird or ordinary or unusual any of it was. Our news of the world came from music magazines and fanzines, and we only knew a few hundred people at most. Nowadays, everyone is constantly in touch with everyone they’ve ever met and, also, everyone who exists. Younger writers I know feel like they’re in competition with their whole generation. Social media has turbo-charged ambition.

In the 1990s, nobody knew what their generation was at. No one I knew had five-year plans. Nobody went to networking events. Nobody had a mentor or knew an old person who could stand them. Nobody had any practical notion of how to make a career at anything. When I went to a university guidance counselor in my early twenties, he looked at my CV and saw that I was in a band. “Anything going there?” he asked hopefully, indicating by default that my literature degree was absolutely useless.

It turns out that at this time, the Celtic Tiger was kicking into gear. Going against all precedent, Ireland would soon find itself with a booming economy. My friends and I slowly realized that other young people were no longer emigrating or going on the dole and were being hired by the multinationals that were popping up all over Dublin’s docklands. The Irish people began buying and selling houses to one another. I know this is a financial newspaper so, suffice-it-to-say, it was a wonderful era and it all ended very well.

Soaking up the ambitious energy of the age, my friends and I chose to get more serious about our musical careers. Perhaps we could have the political ethics of the anarchist puritans Crass but also earn the millions of U2? I remember once, in the dole queue, D the bass player loudly announcing that he would consider himself a failure if by the age of 30 he did not have apartments in London, Paris and New York. This did not seem odd to me then but in retrospect it’s lucky we made it out of the dole office alive.

We organized tours of the UK and released music on a shoestring. We got write-ups in music magazines and airplay on pirate radio stations but were largely ignored. The band came to a squabbling end, like most bands do, when we reached the impossibly old age of 28. About a year later I remember bursting into tears in my kitchen. I never realized how ambitious I was until that moment, feeling heartbroken and lost, knowing I had failed at something I really wanted.

Here’s the first big thing I learned: several years after that band ended, while chatting with my bandmate Paul, we both realized that we were relieved the band had not been successful. The best fun I have had in my life was touring the squalid and tiny venues of Ireland and the UK with my friends. But a few years later, the prospect of touring, even in some sort of luxury tour bus, already looked grim. I like being home on Friday nights. That’s basically the core of my personality. I realized that people can be a hostage to the ambitions they had as a younger person. I think this happens all the time, that what looks like a dream in your twenties might be a nightmare later in life.

Here’s the second thing I learn: it’s still better to be disappointed by your own dreams than shaped by the dreams of others. A lot of things that look like achievements have nothing to do with ambition at all. People from the privileged middle classes do not particularly need strong visions of their own because they have absorbed the ambient ambitions of their parents and their class. I think a lot of these people wake up one day in midlife and either sing “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads or hastily retcon their lives to make their incidental trajectory seem intentional.

Other people’s ambitions are inherently strange things. When ambition is about status, it seems monstrous to me. Saying “I want to be CEO or prime minister” basically means: “I want to be on top of everyone else, possibly wearing a crown.” It feels less like an ambition than a pathology. It does not feel any saner than wanting to eat one of every animal or wanting to have a neck like a giraffe’s or, in fairness, wanting to be a rock star.

Chasing lots of money seems similarly grotesque to me now. I understand why people need money and how important it is when you do not have it or why someone might want to amass wealth to offset insecurity and fear. But amassing billions? It should be seen as the bizarre hoarding behavior that it is. Just because you’re hoarding money and not fidget spinners or mouse corpses does not make it any less weird and unhealthy. Why being a billionaire is not listed in the DSM as a disorder is beyond me.

Here’s the third thing I learn: your own ambitions can be a hard master too. In my thirties I decided to focus on trying to be a writer and a journalist. I had cleverly worked out that while music was a dying industry, print media was surely the future. I worked very hard at this. I pitched articles. I wrote for every publication that would have me. In the wake of my musical failure, I worked too hard. This time I succeeded in making a career of it but I also hit a wall. I became unsure if I liked writing any more or even what constituted “success”.

The problem with wanting to become something and focusing so much on some future version of yourself is that you do not really fully experience things in the present tense. Everything you do becomes just one more thing on an anxiety-laden to-do list. Things I might otherwise have enjoyed, like interviewing an interesting person or visiting a cool place, become worry-filled steps on the road to “success”.

A few years ago, ground down by my own psyche, I decided to enjoy things more, to pick projects based on curiosity rather than what would bring me closer to a phantom notion of my future self.

Even the desire to create things – the one ambitious drive I can still relate to – can leave people feeling empty and depleted and underwhelmed once those things are out in the world. It’s all bizarre behavior that overreaches our genetic programming. I imagine dogs who chase cars feeling similarly confused when they eventually sit behind the steering wheel with no opposable thumbs to grasp it with. At the end of the day, even success feels like failure.

Here’s the final thing I learn: change can be good. Like a lot of other people, I’m reassessing things at the moment. It’s not unusual to find that the ambitions we once had do not fit us any more, and the pandemic has intensified this feeling. Covid-19 has been busily rewiring our wants and needs. Ambition seems very silly when the corner office is the same boxroom that everyone else is sitting in. And we’ve spent two years looking at our peers on Zoom and realized that no matter how successful or unsuccessful we are, to an outside observer many of us are doing the same ridiculous thing: we’re huddled over a laptop, taking orders from it, occasionally talking to it and then typing frantically.

I think another change is in order. Maybe I’ll try to be a billionaire. Maybe I’ll start a new band. Maybe I’ll just go outside.

Patrick Freyne is a feature writer with the Irish Times. His essay collection “OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea” is published by Penguin

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