The Year of No Particular Ambition

If you’re a member of New York’s striving classes, ambition is a default mode, almost a tic. It seemed like everyone I worked with was either running a marathon or going to grad school, or they were in a band or traveling to bridge championships.

All that ambition is impressive, sometimes productive, and often escapist: if I get that MBA, or if I get strong enough to run a marathon, things will be better than they are now. The ambitions assuage the existential dread.

All that ambition is impressive, sometimes productive, and almost always at war with the present moment. We cast it as positive — it’s all about growth — but it’s also a way of saying that what we have right now isn’t good enough. Or a way of assuaging that deep discomfort and anxiety. Our ambitions are also our escape plans. If I’m strong enough to run a marathon, everything will be OK. If I’ve got an MBA, I’ll be able to move up in my career, and then everything will be OK.

Escape

Over the years, most of my ambitious activity pointed in a particular direction: east.

Today is my 43rd birthday. It’s also a year since I arrived in Korea to start a new life. And I’m declaring this my Year of No Particular Ambition.

One foot out the door

The last few years have been full of particular ambitions: getting my master’s degree in Asian studies, traveling for half a year in Southeast Asia, moving here to Korea, starting a new job at Samsung. These were big projects, and they all pointed toward the exit from my New York life.

I suppose I’d been planning my escape in one form or another pretty much the whole time, ever since I first traveled to India after college. For the first few years of my career, I kept looking for a way back to India, and then I found it in Korea, where I went to teach English and save money for more travel. When that was over, I had a plan to join the Foreign Service, though that never quite worked out. Then I started working for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations and studying Korean, and why else do you learn Korean except to live in Korea?

So I’ve had one foot out the door for most of my life. And whenever things got tough, I could always look to the exit and remind myself that I was leaving soon anyway, even if soon turned out to be more than a dozen years later.

But then, after years of wanting it, I finally got here. There was no more Next Big Thing. This was it. And this first year has been, at times, almost unbearably stressful. In those moments, my instinct was to come up with a new Next Big Thing, a new plan of escape. Should I get my Ph.D. at Seoul National University? Move to the countryside and be an English tutor? Save up my money to retire in Thailand?

For New Yorkers of the striving classes, ambition is almost a tic. Everyone around me at Google seemed to be running marathons or going to grad school. It’s a default way of thinking for a lot of us: this big thing, and then this big thing, and then this big thing. What are you heading towards? And what are you running from?

Be Here Now

A couple of months ago, in one of those stressful moments, I suddenly remembered the cover of a book my parapsychologist grandmother had on her shelf, one of the many volumes in that book-stuffed Upper West Side apartment that I’d seen but never read: Be Here Now, by Ram Dass. The next day I got a text from a friend back home — something about higher consciousness, and with a Ram Dass quote at the end. It had been a while since I’d heard from my grandmother — she passed away some years ago — so I figured I should pay attention.

Be Here Now was, as Ram Dass might put it, a good book to hang out with for a while. It was a reminder to slow down, to notice, to nurture the spiritual side of my being. I went to Gyeongju and talked to a monk who told me I was too much in my head and should try some prostrations to get back into my body. So I did that until my knees couldn’t take it.

And I made a decision to stop worrying so much about my Next Big Thing.

The five-year test

The absurdity of even looking for whatever is next came into focus one day as I was talking a Korean friend out of buying an officetel — a kind of efficiency apartment — so she could live in it five years from now. Had she ever known, five years in advance, where she’d be and what she’d be doing?

I looked back over my own life. Five years ago, I was starting my MA program, with no solid plans yet to leave Google or New York. Five years before that, I was still at the Korean Mission to the UN, with no concept that I’d be a Googler within a year. Go back another five years, and I was here in Korea, teaching English and thinking I’d join the Foreign Service, with no thought that it would be the Korean government that would take me on instead. And five years back again, I’d just graduated from college and didn’t know shit about shit.

No particular ambition

What does a frog do before he leaps? He pauses.

Once I stopped trying to figure out my future, the present got easier. In the last few months, I feel like there’s been a shift at work: I’m more accepted as part of the team, getting along much better with the team lead, taking on more significant projects to make structural improvements. My social life is coalescing nicely. I’ve gotten to know my own neighborhood a little better, solved a few puzzles of daily life.

That’s why I’m making a commitment this year to be here with this Big Thing. No grand new ambitions. Just this. This is enough.

That doesn’t mean I won’t do anything this year. I’ll continue to grow in my job, keep going to Korean class, keep exploring Seoul and Korea. I’ll do the paperwork to get myself a residency visa. I may try to get in better shape or lose some weight.

But this doesn’t have to be my leap year. This is my year to Be Here Now.


Originally published at Josh Philip Ross.

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