Be Less Ambitious


Emily Layden’s excellent exploration of when a person can call herself a writer (or a painter, or a musician), given that many writers must also call themselves waiters, teachers, or lawyers, raises an interesting question about job satisfaction and how we measure success. I do write, make art, and make music, and have been paid actual US currency for each of those endeavors within the last year. But if someone asks me if I am a writer or a musician or an artist, I shrug and say, “I’m a lawyer.” That’s easy because it’s true, and eminently defensible: I make a lot more money from being a lawyer than from making block prints or leading a band or writing here. But defining myself as a lawyer has an added benefit: it lowers expectations for my creative output. When people who know me as a lawyer see me with my band, or stumble upon my modest contribution to the internet’s literary corpus, they say, “Wow! I had no idea you did that! You’re really good.” It’s easy to be the best criminal defense lawyer ever to lead a brass band, and I like it that way.

That works for me because in both my day job and my creative pursuits, I enjoy doing well but I’m essentially unambitious. I want to win cases and represent my clients well (and I do!), but I have no desire to become a supervisor or to one day be the director of my agency. And while I was delighted to sell a print for $200 a couple months ago, and to get paid $250 for a gig a month before that, I’m mostly content to make art that makes my kids smile and play music that makes people dance (and moves them to buy me drinks afterward – that’s essential).

Is there a financial formula to be distilled from all this? I recognize that I’m mostly lucky to have found, after some bouncing around, a job where I could make a decent wage and still draw some clear boundaries between work and life.

I’m also blessed with low expectations: because my parents lacked money and stability, I always accepted without much consideration that whatever my artistic inclinations might be, I had to find a steady, reliable job and keep it. Starting from that baseline, my worldview never really included the idea of becoming a full-time musician, writer, or artist. So now that I get to do those things part time, I feel like I’ve hit the lotto.

But is “have low expectations” a workable mantra for the next generation of financial advice? Probably not. My girlfriend was telling me about a friend of hers who, from her perspective, had an arrangement nearly as perfect as mine: he was a schoolteacher with a schedule – afternoons and summers free – that let him devote a lot of energy to playing music. His band was doing well, gigging and recording regularly. But unlike me, his expectations were high: he wanted to be playing to bigger crowds, getting signed to a big label, and maybe most of all, immersed in a world full of other people similarly inclined, not coordinating practices around everyone’s day job. So he quit teaching and moved to Brooklyn (of course!), where he waits tables, shares a tiny, pricy apartment, and plays music all the time. Probably, that is right for him, for now, anyway.

What do you think, dear readers? Putting aside the oft-talked-about structural problems that have so many of us in financial straits, do we do ourselves a disservice in how we define success? Is it even possible to change our expectations of ourselves and our lives?


Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photo by the author.


11 Comments / Post A Comment

Heather F G (#6,074)

Oh man, this.

A serious confidence-boosting opportunity in my Facebook’s “Other” inbox has just in the past week encouraged me to put myself out more for doing what I love to do, to the point where I wonder if one day I might be able to make more than the less than $500 I’ve earned for it in my lifetime.

I majored in my “field” in college, and debated pursuing it academically, but thought I had put it off indefinitely till just now. It’s so funny now, because I’m at this weird point where I’m basically throwing a Frisbee into a vast chasm with some things, then I inquire about other things I find locally on Craigslist and they tell me how overqualified I am, and I want to inform them that I’m really just an administrative assistant! I do like being at the point where any little goofy thing that more serious-about-the-field people would probably not shake a stick at make my entire week.

Optimism and the vastly lowered expectations of a Millennial is all it takes, y’all!

la_di_da (#1,425)

A couple things…

I was having a conversation with old friend from high school, another, similarly over-achieving workhorse and we were talking about our lives and the way we want them to go versus what we wanted for ourselves years ago.

“I’m okay with being normal now,” she said, and I totally was with her. I want to be good at my job, but I’m a little okay with not having a CEO role if it means I have weekends free and (eventually) time to spend with my kids. I think the middle class mentality of, look! your advantages! Use all of them and rise higher! does some people a disservice.

I feel so lazy for not wanting to be the best. For not wanting to be in charge of everything, but if I didn’t have friends or hobbies I’d go crazy. So…yeah, maybe don’t think about it as aiming lower so much as simmering, rather than boiling. I don’t know. It’s Friday and I’m tapped for metaphors, who’s got a better one?

Maybe because Millenials didn’t see people holding on to their jobs or their mortgages or even their retirement stuff, we’re trying to put our eggs in other baskets, having side gigs and hobbies and work/life balance.

At the same time the problem is, yes, we have to reach higher and do more to maintain the same lifestyle because of various terrible shifts in the job market and the general malaise of the economy. We have to aim higher to not fall behind. Even getting my MBA this fall, I’m terrified that I will not be able to send my kids to a decent public school or take them to locations that will _broaden_ their minds. Anyone else completely afraid for the children they will bear who aren’t even born yet, nor are like to be in the next 5 years? Just crazy old me? Thought so.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

@la_di_da I really try not to worry about my unborn children (which is a conscious choice, because I’m a worrier, I’m pregnant, and I don’t have a full-time, permanent job right now). Things look grim right now but I try to remind myself:

1. The conventional wisdom for “getting ahead” hasn’t worked for a lot of us, so we can’t guarantee what our children will need to adjust to how the world changes, either.

2. We’re just going to have to deal with a lifestyle contraction when the kids our young (and trust me, we do not live extravagantly as it is), but our parents did that too, and we and they all wound up ok. Both my and my spouse’s parents were on really tight budgets for most of our childhoods. Not “poor,” we never went hungry, we just couldn’t live in expensive areas with good public schools or go on trips (other than car camping in state and national parks), or buy much stuff, or do expensive extracurricular activities. Our minds were “broadened” with library books at home.

But we are well-adjusted adults, and our parents have a lot more financial breathing room than they used to. Of course, with wage stagnation that may not wind up happening for us in 20-30 years, but going too far with that train of thought leads to MADNESS.

3) Pretty much every generation thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and sometimes it does, but then it swings back. Mid-twentieth century Americans were sort of the exception in being able to have the expectation the economy would keep on getting better, but THEIR parents lived through the depression. People can survive a lot and find meaning in it.

This is my pep talk to myself, not trying to talk you out of worrying, but just saying here are some ways to think about it if it gets too crushingly frightening.

@la_di_da Your post disturbs me a bit. I don’t mean that as an insult. But free weekends and time to spend with your kids are NOT luxuries or things to feel guilty about. Those things should be basic rights for everyone. There is no reason at all to work every day, and work into the night every day! I don’t believe that’s what you need to to just to survive. None of the people I know do that, and we are all middle to upper middle class. Do you live in NYC? I used to. The work culture there is seriously fucked up. I knew people who actually pretended to be busier than they were, or made up problems so they had to stay late…just to fit in. It’s ridiculous! Everyone just stop it. We can all be productive from 9-5 or 10-6 or 11-7 or whatever, make some money, then have lives afterward. It’s not lazy, it’s living a life.

allreb (#502)

“because my parents lacked money and stability, I always accepted without much consideration that whatever my artistic inclinations might be, I had to find a steady, reliable job and keep it.”

YES, THANK YOU. That is totally my life and how I feel. This is why I get so frustrated by “follow your dreams!” advice that doesn’t also include “while handling realities in a pragmatic fashion!” And why I have no patience for anyone who claims work gets in the way of art. There are definitely people out there who have both the talent and the hustle to make ends meet on artistic dream jobs alone, but most of us have to balance both. Your art doesn’t have to suffer, you just have to figure out your priorities and how to fit pieces of your life together.

eemusings (#6,021)

You and I have reached similar conclusions despite having grown up in vastly different families. Mine had stability and enough money, and so that is my benchmark and I refuse to fall short of it.

garli (#4,150)

I just don’t at all see how not expecting someone to pay you for what you enjoy/care about is some how unambitious. Possibly because I’m no kind of creative or arty and the spectrum of “what I love” involves contact sports or any physical activity where there’s a strong chance of injury I never for a second considered some one would pay me to to it.

I don’t really care about my job (in the sense of what we’re accomplishing, I care about my paycheck and benefits) but I think as long as I’m stuck here all day I might as well try to kick ass.

I don’t feel like not wanting to be at the top of a single occupation because you would rather have fulfilling participation in many occupations is really being ‘unambitious’. I think it’s a different kind of ambition really, and one that not everyone would be cut out for. I feel like I am kind of this way as well, though at the moment I am not getting paid for anything other than my day job, so I guess that makes my other occupations more hobbies. My mom, who is a very ambitious person (a hospital CEO) thinks that my involvement in ‘extracurriculars’ seems exhausting. I’m sort of young in my career though so maybe this will change as I get more experience, but it’s hard to think about not being a part of the other things I enjoy so much, so I can see why it would be tempting to sacrifice traditional ‘ambition’ for things that are fulfilling to you.

Runawaytwin (#2,693)

This is me to a T.

I have an ok paying day job in Manhattan. I also (and it sounds odd to say) am a ‘very talented’ seamstress/deisgner/sewing of historically based clothing .

I am constantly defending my “decision” to stay at and excel at my day job in lieu of pursuing my ‘passion’. FOr me the choice is not a choice at all: I like getting paid, i hate sewing for money and i want to be able to make my art when how and what I want. I love my sewing but I also love knowing that I don’t have to eat from it.

That is not to say my job is all roses and unicorns- but rather that I use my sewing to motivate me to get through my tough days at work and my days at work to motivate me when i want to get away from my sewing. I suspect too that were I to be embracing my hobby as a career I would hear a lot more negative comments about marketability, competing talent etc etc of my very very niche interests.

And while all of my opinions are subject to change: I think it is a complete mistake that everyone tries to make their passions their career. For me the fastest way to lose passion for something is to make it a job. Id rather have a job that give me the financial means to pursue my passions.

dude (#5,879)

@Runawaytwin — I reluctantly agree with you. Though I often reflect on how cool it might have been to do “what I love” for a “living,” the reality is what I love to do doesn’t pay jack shit (relatively speaking). And I’ve met people who do the thing I love to do for a living, and now that they are getting to my age without any financial security, they themselves voice some regrets about their choice. So I’ve contented myself with the idea that, in 5 short years when I retire from my current well-paying occupation at a relatively young age (though maybe not by Billfold readership’s standards), I can pursue that passion with a financial backstop. Right now, I’m taking the necessary steps to get the training and certifications I need (my passion involves a particular outdoor recreational pursuit) to make the transition. I guess my only regret, if I have one, is that I didn’t start my current occupation at a younger age (due to military service, undergrad, grad school), but all were necessary conditions precedent to my current place in life. And hey, 50 is the new 40, right?!

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