Friday, March 5

A Distinct Lack Of Ambition

Our wonderful English teacher Mr Adams once handed us a classtime assignment, something about us having to write about how we imagined our adult lives to be. While everyone around me talked about being doctors and architects, driving in fast cars and living in fancy houses, mine was pretty staid: I wanted a terraced three bedroom house in a suburb with a four door hatchback parked on the street outside and a 9-5, Monday-Friday desk job.

Mr Adams, as awesome as he was, rejected my submission. Apparently the work was an exercise in creativity, ambition and imagination and mine didn't quite have enough of any of that. I argued that for me it fulfilled the set criteria, that it was precisely what I wanted and what would make me happy, but after realising that wasn't the point I relented and rewrote my piece, this time writing about yachts and mansions made out of gold. As an aside, I think that was when I learned how important it was to answer the question that was being posed, rather than the one I wanted to, a realisation that put me in good stead academically for years to come.

Back to the point though: looking at my home it was clear where I had gotten this simplistic attitude from. Like most other immigrant or partially immigrant families back then, mine as a whole wasn't an extremely ambitious one; having a good, stable job and owning a home was more than others managed to accomplish, particularly since it was my father who had come to this country to marry rather than the other way around (assuming we're sticking to traditional roles, I figure it's harder for a immigrant husband to establish himself than a wife). We weren't really known for anything in particular and weren't at the forefront of society or community. We did participate - my mum used to come on school trips and mix with the other mothers, and we were regulars at the local mosque and stuff, but nothing more than that.

We didn't go out much, and when we did it was as a family to the houses of other families. Our hobbies consisted of watching TV and movies together, while regular holidays were mainly to the exotic land of Pakistan (although we did go to Paris once). We drove various Nissans and hadn't even heard of Mercedes or other brands (I suspect the biggest brand in our house at the time was Sky TV). We didn't read poetry or appreciate art or create music; culture largely consisted of following the Top 40 each Sunday and, sometimes, Eastenders.

But we were happy and comfortable. Moreover we knew we were, which might explain why we didn't really need much else.

This ability to know what made us happy was pivotal in any family decision we made. So for example my father would decline quite big career changing opportunities if it meant displacing or him having to be away from his family. He didn't need more money or status since what he already had was enough for his family (and I'm not talking about the poverty line here, we were lucky enough to have anything we wanted; we just didn't want much). On the other hand my mum raised and fed us while making sure our house was clean and homely - her way of enabling her family as my dad enabled his. It was hardly thrilling or exciting and perhaps not even challenging for either of them, but they made their personal goals about other people rather than themselves. For some reason it was enough.

And it really was. Despite not having any impressive achievements to list on their personal CVs, I did see how we as a family were much happier than quite a few of the others around us. We never seemed to have any of those personal or dark problems other families had (with debt or family politics or even crime), we were never preoccupied with chasing money or status or careers and had no need or desire to go on exotic holidays to Turkey (we enjoyed Pakistan way too much). It was amazingly boring yet we were more content with our lot than others seemed to be with theirs.

I guess it was this attitude that disassociated the concepts of ambition and success, something that was aptly demonstrated in that particular piece of English work I did. But for me it didn't end there: just take my education for example. For my parents it was never about us kids getting straight As or going to prestigious grammar schools but more about us being happy while studying. I picked a degree which provided the fastest route to financial security for the wife I was yet to find and the kids I was yet to have - IT offered high pay for little effort, unlike subjects like medicine or law which required long hours or a long term commitment, things I found as obstacles to my real goals of family and home building. I had never even touched a PC to program it before university, so Computing was hardly a deep rooted passion for me.

Even now we each ensure that we have these boring yet sensible things in place: health, savings, qualifications, credibility and even a decent credit rating - all things which we see as contributors to well-being and stability. Even when I quit an (at the time) extremely stable job in finance, it was to start a business that would at a minimum contribute to my CV. My change of career was more to do with leveraging my current situation than chasing a dream of success or fame; I've always maintained that as much as I'm enjoying what I'm currently doing I would immediately drop it for a job - any job - if my position happens to change. Decisions like not taking a graduate job at an investment bank, declining places at grammar schools or quitting my hedge fund were easy to make and instantly rewarding for me, while others looked on as if I was crazy for taking such massive risks.

That wasn't to say that we don't appreciate success and status. I'm sure my parents would have bragged about me being a doctor as much as any other parent would, and I wouldn't say no to being able to drive a sports car around or flying first class. But we as a family realised that these things alone wouldn't make us happy. The same goes for things like travel and socialising; rather than necessities which I think are obligatory I see them as luxurious bonuses which can easily be discarded with little effect on my happiness.

Without this impetus to visibly succeed we were also never bothered about proving ourselves and were completely secure in who we were. Self-worth was thus established via internal and hidden processes that we decided rather than external and visible ones quantified by those around us. The upside of this was that it was easy for us to find maximum happiness without relying on anyone or anything else while the drawback was that we might not have yet reached our full potential according to society. Yet paradoxically despite that material successes did come: I did get good grades and jobs, we did travel and enjoy a decent standard of living. I mean hey, make no mistake here: I fully acknowledge all of our achievements and experiences and am grateful that we were blessed with each and every one of them, even if we didn't require them.

I guess some could (and do) say that we as a family aimed quite low - whether that's true or not I don't know, but we're not currently driving any fancy German cars - but I will say that judging by where we are now we succeeded in achieving what we really want in a way very few the more typically ambitious people do. Of course on the flip side I could just be taking for granted the relative success that we have found ourselves in, be it due to luck or hard work or whatever. Maybe we've just simply not had the same obstacles that others have had and have therefore not had to tackle them?

But it's not really about the lack of ambition or drive but more that the priority for my parents, and in turn us, their children, wasn't to be a director or PhD or someone who had seen the world or written books on Islamic philosophy (heck, I have a blog for that), but to ensure the happiness of those around them in the best way that they could manage; anything else would be a rare, but appreciated, bonus. Of course this in itself doesn't preclude an exciting and ambitious life, although looking around now I don't see many who manage to have both fully, even if they claim to. In fact sometimes I struggle to understand the price some people pay, be it willingly or not, to achieve what they think they want to: friends, family, homes and ironically even their happiness all take a backseat for something they think instead will make them content, but rarely does. This isn't about aiming low in order to increase the chance of succeeding in everything you plan, but more about not requiring ever more in order to be happy, and not feeling incomplete when you find out that, as a human, you can't do or have everything.

So I'd say that my family and I are as ambitious as the rest, but just in a different way and with different goals. Perhaps we don't take a happy family and warm home for granted and see that it takes effort; as much effort and focus (if not more) than a job would. I saw this in the sweat of my parents are they lived out their boring and domestic life how much hard work it is, be it the rat race for my dad or domestic chores for my mum or even us kids having to study hard. But just like with a career it was this hard work which brought with it the same reward others seemed to only get from work. In that sense I'd say that we are quite lucky.

Amusingly I have been challenged a few times on this attitude of mine; at best I'm being lazy and at worst selfish as I'm not fulfilling my (possibly Islamic) duty to contribute to the world and make it a better place. With respect to laziness, personally I just think I'm lucky in that I don't really need much to feel happy and fulfilled. To develop or evolve are a means to an end for me, and not goals in themselves. In fact I'd say its the less sexy things which take priority over the quite modern concepts of personal fulfilment and enjoyment. I'd even say that an explicit die-hard chase for success indicates that one may not realise that all we attain actually comes from God, and not ourselves, in the first place. And although it's not in the scope of this post to determine whether a desire is worldly or not, I do personally think that a lot of things typically pursued with ambition are short term goals; and that includes careers.

As for contributions, well my input to the world may not be as explicit as others but that doesn't mean that it's not there. I just don't seem to have that overwhelming need to explicitly add value or contribute - the extent of my political involvement ends at voting (something we as a family have always done). In fact I'd say in the long run living a personal and self-involved yet righteous and happy life is a much more effective way to add value to and better society than becoming a Member of Parliament or even starting the more grassroot projects like a local charity.

That's not to say I see ambition as a bad thing. In fact I'm quite impressed by the drive some people have to establish businesses or projects, or those who become really good at an extra-curricular hobby or pasttime - but only provided it doesn't get in the way of what's important. I'm not sure I can claim to have such a drive, and I always struggle to list stuff under "hobbies and interests" mainly because I usually don't have more than a passing or incidental interest in the things I happen to do.

It's also important to note that it's not just about chasing money either. In fact it's sometimes the lack of a financial incentive which fools some into thinking their ambition is well placed. That's not to say it necessarily isn't, but I would suggest that more noble passions like volunteering, studying, art and culture or even religion can be a distraction to what's really important to someone. Why can't we enjoy a night in watching X-Factor just as much as a night out at the theatre? Why do we only feel intellectually validated only after we've attended a well marketed class or talk? Why do we need to drag our babies and young children to Egypt when they would just as much (or even more so) enjoy a trip to the seaside? Why are exotic Rumi quotes the only way we're able to express how we feel to others on our Facebook statuses or Twitter feeds? Why do we need fancy clothes in order to look good? Why does food at a restaurant only taste good if we've paid over 20 quid for it? It quite depresses me that I've not been to a Pizza Hut in years solely because no one thinks it's cool enough to want to go with me. Like Pizza Express is any more classy.

Why do some things hold more of a perceived value just because we're told they do?

But why does such a topic deserve such a lengthy post? Well in my case it seems to be this lack of ambition which most contributes to the conclusion of incompatibility myself and a potential rishta settle on. It's not that anyone has incorrect or wrong priorities, but I feel what drives someone has to match or at least be understood and supported by a partner for a marriage to be successful. And if a potential rishta lists being a partner or having her own business or even travelling the world as life goals with not even a single mention of a family or how it would be a part of them, well let's just say it becomes a bit of a barrier - partly because it's not what I want, but mostly because I wouldn't be sure enough of being able to provide her with what she says she needs to keep her happy.

Unfortunately (for me, not them) the vast majority of women I meet demonstrate this attitude, while seeing what I explicitly say I want as a silent inevitability or even triviality. You see, I wasn't the only one who was berated by a teacher for not aiming high. Girls who said that they just wanted babies and take care of a home and family were being told at school (and ironically sometimes even at home by peers who didn't appreciate the beauty and strength of their own simple way of living) that this was nowhere near high enough an aim; that these things would all come in time anyway and so existing efforts would be better directed elsewhere instead. This advice (as well as those to their guy counterparts) sometimes had the double whammy of making some strive for these other, grander, things in life, as well as later making them feel like discontent failures if they weren't achieved.

Judging by the people I meet I will say that my family and I are in a pretty tiny minority especially when you consider the Asian Muslim community as a whole. I won't even attempt to explain it but I do sometimes wonder why we don't have the incessant need to achieve and possibly even prove ourselves that our peers do. And even when I find that I can't answer that question I'm always thankful that, for us, happiness and contentment has always been so easily and boringly attainable.

Originally drafted 1st of July 2009