Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.
Bill Watterson, Cartoonist, in his Kenyon College commencement speech, 1990
It was a few years back that I first came across this quote. It moved me like nothing had ever done. Bill Watterson worked at an advertising agency for a few years before he quit his job to pursue his dream of being a cartoonist. It was back in the 1980s. The digital era hadn’t started and it was a herculean task to get a break as a cartoonist in one of the print media. Watterson spent 5 years facing rejection after rejection but he still stayed sane. He thanks his cartoons for it. He believes that it is because he loved what he did that he could endure the difficult years of rejection. Years later, he came up with his legendary cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, which became a classic and is adored by millions of fans around the world.
Watterson’s story is different from any other success stories that you would hear in an inspirational workshop. Once Calvin and Hobbes became an international success, many wealthy companies approached Watterson to create merchandises based on Calvin and Hobbes. It was worth millions of dollars. However, Watterson drove them away with great zeal. For him licensing Calvin and Hobbes was out of question and it clearly didn’t confirm to his values. He wasn’t ready to confirm to the society’s definition of achievement. His quote at the beginning of this post summarizes his definition of achievement. It is bold and beautiful.
A few years back, I was commuting to work through the outer ring road in Bangalore. One of the bill boards caught my eye. It was an advertisement of a jewelry shop. It portrayed a young women by her work desk, attending a call with a mobile phone that she clutched between her neck and ear, typing something on the computer with one hand while carrying a child in the other. The advertisement claimed that they have bold jewelry for super moms. Rather than getting inspired, I was unsettled.
That advertisement is one of the subtle hints of the mindset of our society – a society that is ever hungry for achievements. A society that pushes people off the limits so that they can feel accomplished, keep up. We live in an era where everyone seems to be pushing their limits. Getting a decent education and getting a job has become mediocre. Being a jack of many trades have become a norm. This is where Bill Watterson’s quote becomes very relevant. It talks about not falling for the society’s definition of success but create an ecosystem of values that would help you define your own version of success and happiness. For some people, climbing the career ladder might be the barometer of success. But it doesn’t mean that professional achievement is the sole measure of one’s worth. People who take a back seat to take care of family and kids usually considered as not being living up to their full potential. For example, being a sit-at-home mother is good, but being a mom who is also a CEO is super cool. There is nothing wrong in being a supermom who achieves so much, but it is wrong to define it as a bench mark like that jewelry advertisement did.
A few months back, I was having a conversation with my sister who is an artist. She is currently doing her post graduation in painting at MS University, Baroda. For people who are outside the artistic society, she is a cool person who dares to follow her dreams and passions. I was quite shocked to hear her version of the story. She told me that the field of art has huge competition. There is pressure to create a unique style, bag more awards, being followed by more people, being different. It was surprising for me because I thought the rat race existed only the non-artistic fields, but I realized that the demand to achieve more is alike in every field.
When I recently quit my job to full time writing, my manager was very concerned. He thought it is risk that I am leaving a lucrative job. He was worried that I would lag behind the career ladder because of this break. I don’t blame him. It is how we are all wired. It took me almost 2 years of contemplation to gather the courage to quit my job and pursue something I loved. Every time I thought about it, I was precisely worried about being left behind in the race. I was worried that my professional achievement would suffer if I took a detour.
Society has got us on a such a tight leash that, even the slightest detour horrifies us
Bill Watterson’s view about achievement had helped me hugely to look at success and happiness from a very different perspective. However, occasionally I feel insecure. I am afraid that I would be a classic case of failure defined by the society. I occasionally give in to the pressure of society and spends hours pitying myself for being a fool.
But at times, when I really think about it, I am able to appreciate the fact that
creating one’s own definition of success is the biggest achievement of all
Deciding what matters you the most, what you want to do with your life, what you consider as a great achievement -are all that matter. As Bill Watterson rightly says, defining your own benchmarks will not be easy, but it is still allowed and you will be definitely happier for the trouble.