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Ambition Addiction: How To Go Slow, Give Thanks And Discover Joy Within

By Benjamin Shalva

Before becoming a father, I thought I would love snow days. I imagined whipping up pancakes for a half dozen chattering cherubs, then stuffing my animated offspring into cocoons of puffy outerwear and the lot of us diving from the front porch into billowing mounds of snow. We’d spend the day building forts, snowball fighting, and white-knuckling down toboggan runs, returning home at dusk to sit by the hearth, warm our frozen digits, and watch mini-marshmallows melt in our mugs. Dinner, baths, and books would work their magic, lulling our rosy cheeked children to sleep, some not even making it to bed but passing out right there by the fire. Having carried the last of our slumbering litter upstairs, my wife and I would open a bottle of wine, cozy up on the couch, and let our gaze drift from the fire’s flickering yellow to the vino’s deep velvet. Then, with looks of dreamy contentment in each other’s eyes, we would regale one another with tales of the day’s frolicking fun.

Therefore, I was shocked to discover that, as an actual father of two flesh-and-blood children, I hate snow days. The minute I hear word of an impending storm, I bristle. My stomach tightens. My jaw clenches. I seriously consider climbing into my car, pointing it due south, and flooring it until I see palm trees and retirees. As the storm looms closer, I grow feral and irritable, pacing the house, mumbling to myself, and peering outside for portentous signs of the apocalypse. When flakes finally fall, I’ve been known to lose it completely. Thankfully, my kids no longer need help climbing into snow pants and boots, so, as they strap on their gear and bound outside, I retreat to my bedroom, lie down on the floor, and curl into a ball. I imagine summer. I imagine sunny days and bright blue skies. I imagine running unimaginably fast across rolling hills of tall grass and wildflowers. When I dare emerge from this cocoon, I catch, out the window, ever-so-brief glimpses of our kids stretching out their tongues and running to and fro, eagerly imbibing sweet manna from heaven.

It’s not just snow days that fold me into a fetal position. I panic before any school closings. I hyperventilate on the first mornings of winter vacation and spring break. I grow morose most Fridays, the weekend looming large. I secretly seethe when a kid gets the flu. I’m no monster—I worry, too. But the concerned look in my eyes, as a child’s temperature climbs past 100, reflects both love and self-interest. I am a self divided. I love my children with all my heart and soul. But I’m an ambition addict and I work from home. A day without school, instigated by design of calendar or by dint of falling snow, is a day of plummeting productivity. A day being full-time dad requires a detour from my dreams.

We addicts love our families. We love our friends. We love our errant siblings and aging parents. We even love our incontinent pets. We may appreciate the supermarket cashier who rings up our groceries and the Starbucks barista who whips up our latte. We may feel affection for our neighbors and for fellow citizens alike. Yet, these sentient beings, of the predominantly hominid variety, have one thing in common: They don’t serve our ambitious interests. They won’t enable us to beat the competition. They can’t help us win. True, some of them will play supporting roles in our dreams. When we construct our triumphant tableau, we place a few of them in the frame, beaming dutifully by our side. Until that day, however, their presence, at best, serves an ancillary function. At worst, they impede our progress. We may very well like our Starbucks baristas, calling them by name, asking if they ever resolved that car insurance snafu they told us about last week, groaning about the weather, and pretending we go way back. But, come on, fellow addicts. Let’s get real. When it comes to grabbing that brass ring, this assembled lot gets us nowhere. As we reach for the stars, they may as well not even exist.

Most of us keep thoughts like these hidden safely away. We would never say to a child, a spouse, or, for that matter, a kindly greeter at Walmart, “Look, no offense, but, when it comes to my all-consuming, all-encompassing ambition, you can’t lift me to the stars. You won’t help me get ahead. In all honesty, I’m just not that into you.” While we ambition addicts refrain from speaking these words, we communicate this sentiment through a different medium. Our use, or misuse, of time lets others know just how we feel.

On the race to our goals, time is our most essential ally. Time paves the path to our dreams. More than effort, more than luck, more than all the maniacal rage we could possibly muster, time offers us true hope for success and salvation. We ambition addicts cannot physically travel from the present moment to our cherished future without the passage of time. In fact, the very words “any day now” describe a relationship in time. They provide a four-syllable surrogate for the lengthier proclamation: “There is a future, presently not the present, that will, with the passage of time, replace the present, becoming, forever, the now.” Or, more mercifully: “Any day now.”

Time being an ambition addict’s most cherished commodity, we dole it out scrupulously. We hope to receive, with every precious minute, a high return on investment. We allocate as much time as possible to productive activities. If we dream of sculpted, glistening, cellulite-free physiques, we funnel time into fitness classes and weight-lifting sessions. If we hunger for professional advancement, we pour time into early-morning e-mails and late-night meetings, and spend many a lunch hour glued to orthopedically agreeable office chairs.

We ambition addicts also allocate as much time as possible to advantageous individuals. Hoping to reign supreme over fellow parents in the carpool line, we hobnob with the heavy hitters, with the immaculately dressed, impeccably manicured moms and dads whose domestic domination might amplify our own. If we aim for pop stardom, for a Grammy on the shelf and platinum albums on the wall, we devote our time to agents, managers, studio executives, publicists, and esteemed members of the press. A minute effectively distributed to influential individuals is a minute well spent. In that minute, we’ve moved 60 seconds closer to actualizing our dreams.

So when the world knocks on our door, asking us in the form of, say, a snow day, to donate time, we may resist. Rationally, we get it. Snow falls. Kids stay home. Tomorrow’s another day (unless, like me, you happen to live in the D.C. area, in which case the snow won’t get cleared for a week). Emotionally, though, we feel attacked. We feel perpetually panicked and disconcertingly disembodied. We feel like Steve Jobs, who, on a luxurious family vacation in pictureperfect Hawaii, admitted, “It’s hard for me. I’m always, always thinking about Apple.” Here we dive, 50 feet down, searching for sunken treasure. Now someone’s come along and asked us for our oxygen tank. Can’t they see? Don’t they get it? We need this tank. We need this time. It enables us to strike gold. It keeps us from drowning alive.

When we consistently say no, however—when we systematically withhold our time from inopportune individuals, be they family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers—we spread seeds of suffering. By hoarding our time from the homeless veteran we see on the street corner, or from the attendant pumping our gas, or even from the family dog once again whining for a walk, we devalue these individuals. And they know it. They get it. They observe our indifference. They track the way our eyes look right through them, searching for someone or something more influential on the horizon. They hear the impatient disinterest in our voice, or worse, the upbeat singsong of feigned politeness, as if, with enough mindless repetitions of “That’s interesting” or “How was your day?” we will have fulfilled our social contract and contributed our due. Even the thick-skinned in our midst will resent our unfavorable verdict. Our lack of care and concern hurts. Some might strike back in anger. Others will bury their resentment. Still others will grow accustomed to belittlement. They may even extrapolate from our actions, and from the callous indifference of so many others, that the entire world works this way, that not love, but crafty, calculated pragmatism, makes the world turn. It’s enough to make even the dog turn cold as stone.

On the road to recovery, then, we redistribute our attention and donate time. We donate time to the people we love most in this world. We donate time to absolute strangers. We donate time when convenient. More often than not, we donate time when inconvenient. Even rushing out of the office and down to the parking garage, on a roll, in the zone, ravenous for that win dangling inches from our nose, we donate time to the parking attendant who, knowing what we do, knowing who we are, has chosen this as the opportune moment to pitch us his damn screenplay. We stand there, hot and bothered, bouncing from foot to foot, as he lays it all out—the predictable plot, the stock characters, the “interesting twist” that proves neither interesting nor really a twist. We nod and smile. We drown and die. But we don’t move. Not until the five minutes once ours has been sufficiently shared. Not until we’ve tipped him with our time.