Ambition is a double-edged sword. It can drive us to achieve amazing things but it can also, when not fulfilled, lead to no end of self-flagellation.
The bigger the ambition, the bigger the stick we beat ourselves with when we fail to achieve it.
I have to say that living in France has profoundly altered my own personal relationship with ambition.
In North America, I feel constantly bombarded by the success stories of famous people such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates who have achieved the holy grail of worldly riches.
Consequently, I don’t have to be back in North America for long before I start feeling rather badly about myself and my life. I should be earning more. I should be published more. I should be more successful, like Buffet and Gates. If they can do it, why can’t I? Something in me is clearly defective.
I recently had a lot of chats about the success conundrum with my friend Emmy, whom I met when we were both doing degrees at Oxford.
One of my Oxford tutors described us students as “hot house flowers”; bred to strive for success, but ultimately rendered more fragile because of such grooming.
Our subject matters couldn‘t have been more different; Emmy was studying third world development and I was studying law, nevertheless the term applied to both of us. We went to school with other high achievers where we were told time and time again that we were going to set the world on fire.
Years passed, and Emmy and I both got married and had children. Nobody was more shocked or disenchanted than ourselves when confronted by the fact that grasping at brilliant career success conflicted with the family life that everybody had forgot to mention.
At some point along the line both Emmy and I had to make a choice between the version of “success” that had been peddled to us during our formative years, and our families.
Emmy summed it up nicely.
“I used to think I was going to change the face of Third World Development in South America,” she said. “Now I figure I’ll be satisfied if I can have a good relationship with my husband and be a good mom to my kids.”
After five years in France, that was pretty much the same conclusion I had come to as well. It’s easier here, because most French people I know simply haven’t internalized grandiose goals.
I think part of this stems from the school system. School for French children is almost exclusively academic after Grade 1. There are no sports teams, no debating clubs, and definitely no high school musicals. This means that if it a student is to shine, it has to be solely through their academic achievement.
My high school, in contrast, was feverish in its pursuit of excellence in all aspects of life. The students who were star rugby players, played the lead in the school musical, and won the latest math competition were held up for the rest of us to admire. The accolades were numerous and glorious.
In the French school system there just aren’t a lot of accolades, period.
French teachers are notoriously stingy about giving out positive feedback or praise to middle and high school students. The result of this is that besides a minuscule handful of academic superstars who get really high marks, every other French teenager’s definition of academic success is simply to avoir la moyenne, or to pass.
These relatively low standards can lead to a sort of apathy in France that reaches out and slaps you in the face whenever you have to deal with an organization such as France Telecom. On a more individual level, however, the French aren’t burdened with an unrealistic (for most of us, anyway) conception of success.
Success for one of my French friends is hosting a convivial meal where everybody experiences a few hours of laughter and good food.
Success for another French friend is creating a wine that honestly reflects the terroir of her family’s vineyards.
For yet another, a successful day is not one where you have changed the world, but one that is dotted with les petits plaisirs de la vie, or the small pleasures of life; an unexpected postcard in the mail, a square of black chocolate with a perfectly brewed coffee, or the way the sun slants down on the pot of red geraniums.
I am starting to adopt the French idea that happiness and a successful life springs more from les petits plaisirs than from the North American ideal of fame and fortune.
Who knows? Soon I might be able to put away that cat o’ nine tails for good.
***Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for injecting a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in Nuits-Saint-Georges or Nepal.