Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Driven and Committed, Need Not Apply

Driven: determined; ambitious; motivated; impelled; compulsive; goaded; involuntary.

Committed: pledged; sworn; bespoken; affianced; attached; loving; wrapped up; bound.

There is a point at which derived meanings become less synonymous with the original terms, where the ambitiously driven are no longer afforded prestige. What we value as most virtuous becomes obsession, to be admonished instead of rewarded.

Sometimes I consider the people I am acquainted with who are overtly ambitious, those who will stamp on heads to ascend mere inches. Yet it has occurred to me that this level of drive toward personal success could be condemned as some kind of involuntary compulsion. That said, I don't expect it to be included in DSM-V.

A very small part of me retains envious admiration for such individuals, for on occasion I have attempted to set myself on a blinkered route towards some end goal, planning out how I will thwart those who step in my way, packed ropes and hooks and carabinas for surmounting the impossible obstacles that may block the road to my destiny. The problem, as I see it, is that it is only on occasion and it turns out it's not my destiny after all.

If this implies I am not proud of my achievements, then it becomes all the more clear that it is a lie, a prophecy of false idols. If we wash our hands once, it is because they are dirty; we wash them six times in quick succession and we enter the domain of the obsessively, compulsively disordered. The distinction between being driven and compelled is as fine as that of commitment versus addiction. At some point choice ceased to have meaning. Perhaps pity rather than admiration is an appropriate response.

I spent half an hour or so talking to a total stranger last night - a freedom that comes courtesy of instant and essentially anonymous messaging. Taken at face (or text) value, here was a young man engaged in a desperate battle: on one side his brother's and his own mental health, on the other academic achievement. Not knowing how much truth there was to his account, or anything more about him than that stated above, I offered forth the generic, unbranded motivational remarks I reserve for students I don't know. We must keep trying to achieve what we want, for ourselves and not others, although sometimes it's difficult to establish whether we should hold on or let go.

Ridicule me if you will, but I absolutely believe this about drive and commitment: all of us have one thing that we must do. Whether we excel in that thing is irrelevant. I had the noteable misfortune of catching Simon Cowell in full swing a couple of days ago, before him a man who couldn't sing at all. Maybe he understood this for himself, or was convinced that Cowell was lying. It doesn't matter either way, for in his eyes was the glint of ambition and it denied the truth. This was something he had to do.

To students I have often declared that we are all good at something, a statement that may need re-qualifying. We all believe we are good at something, even if that belief only visits us from time to time. Often it takes a while to work out what it is that we must do and because we are compelled to do it, well, practice makes perfect, allegedly. Very few of us are granted a fully-fledged gift outright by the deity of our choosing, but in time (and with measured doses of drive and commitment) we improve. There is no option not to.

Way back at the start of my mammouth sick leave my GP offered me the following words of wisdom: it is acceptable to be off with stress for a month, maybe six weeks, but no longer than that. From this I gather that the four months it has taken for me to reach as near to full recovery as I'm going to get is unacceptable. To whom? Employers? Society at large? When he said it, I registered the thought that I didn't care. I would resign and give up material well-being for good if it guaranteed I'd retain my sanity.

Within this there is the implicit assumption that my commitment to my career is such that somehow I can shake off the difficulties and 'pull myself together'. This is the kind of magic the government believe in too, when they tell us that we must reskill ourselves as frequently as is required in an ever-changing employment market. Good grief! It took me long enough to happen upon one conventional career that pays a decent wage and do the necessary to get into it.

Certainly being absent for almost half of the academic year does not bode well when it comes to seeking alternative employment, be that in teaching or elsewhere. I imagined last September that once I did 'pull myself together' I would be more concerned about this and still I simply can not manufacture sufficient motivation for venturing further into hell, even if there are places where they've managed to install thermostats or air-conditioning and 'it's not so bad'.

I haven't given up on a career in teaching. It is an intent that I have always lacked, although I'm told I am a good teacher, an asset to the school. If I am supposed to be motivated by these kind words, then my apologies for feeling only sadness that they couldn't make my time there more tolerable. If they had I could have continued indefinitely, believing that it was the thing I must do.

The lesson that is learned from all of this is that we do not fail simply because we give up, for it indicates we do not suffer from OCD, manifest in those driven by blind ambition. Going after that one thing we want most is all well and good, encourageable even. Latching on to anything else is to chase our own tails, hardly a desirable behaviour, in dogs or humans.

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