#1: Ambition, Baby
Remember in March and April 2020, when everyone had to begin every email with, “I hope you're doing as well as can be in these difficult times.” Why did we stop? Have times gotten more or less difficult since then?
I've found some measure of respite from the apocalyptic energy of the moment by indulging in crafts. I made this coffee table from a few apple crates I'd been using as shelves. As it turns out, staining wood is surprisingly therapeutic but also much more time-consuming than you would think.
Like so many during the pandemic, I destroyed my back sitting in my makeshift home office. That combined with spending over a year of my early thirties fully or semi-quarantined has made me feel especially old.
Still, my thirties have been an unexpected gift. We don’t talk enough about how great turning thirty is for your mental health. Thirty is when the doppler effect of time fully reveals itself. Imagine what you could do in the next thirty years. Imagine how quickly they'll pass you by. Turning thirty has altered my ambitions, necessarily, because I blew through all of the arbitrary deadlines a Boomer-influenced, network-television-only upbringing instilled in me. But also because thirty years is a long damn time if you're lucky and nothing at all if you're not. So why not slow down and try to enjoy it?
In trying to decide what to write for this first newsletter, I kept circling back to the idea of ambition. The word ambition is used a lot, especially in the U.S., where ambition is considered a very desirable trait.
These days we're bombarded with ambition. “Hustle culture” has everyone chasing their dream jobs, optimizing their workflow, building multiple “streams” of “passive” income, and optimizing every last ounce of their daily routines to achieve maximum productivity.
In his book, Ambition: from Vice to Virtue, William Casey King argues that ambition is at the heart of American identity. “American culture is a purgatory of longing. Ambition's measures are immeasurable. Our ardent desire for rank or power is continually quantified by titles, prizes, promotions, evaluations, hours billed, grades on paper, firsts, longests, mosts, bylines, batting averages, bank accounts, books published.”
I used to be ambitious, too. Very ambitious. As a Black girl growing up in a small Southern town, I had to be ambitious just to be seen. And I was. I wanted to be the best—at everything I tried. I wanted to find something, anything that could be my ticket out.
But law school changed this. After spending my first summer trying to dodge classmates who seemed to be on every corner in D.C., I couldn't bring myself to finish the Law Journal application, apply for a clinic, write cover letters for on-campus interviews with firms, or even research any public interest opportunities. By the time my second-year fall semester started, most of my friends had next summer's internships lined up and they were already eyeing jobs and fellowships. I never even bothered looking.
A significant portion of my de-motivation stemmed from the fact that I hate everything about the practice of law. The fact is, the law is tedious. On the difficulty/pleasure matrix, it falls somewhere around here:
In some ways, it's also a hopeless profession for those deeply concerned about justice, equity, building a better world. On the recent episode entitled “Welcome to Law School” one of the hosts of 5-4 Pod, a podcast that excoriates recent Supreme Court decisions, calls the law a profession “thoroughly steeped in amorality and faux intellectual brain rot.” Basically, it's either rich dudes suing rich dudes, or it's the government ruining poor people's lives. Every so often, a dog bites someone. Almost every Supreme Court ruling you think protects vulnerable people in this country has been practically obliterated by subsequent rulings, and all that's left is rhetorical progress without any material complement. What good law remains is largely inaccessible to the most vulnerable people, either because they don't have the resources to assert their claims; there's such an imbalance of power that the other side bullies them into accepting a settlement, if that; or they don't even know there's a legal remedy available.
Even the most virtuous of legal occupations are, with very few exceptions, soul-crushing, never-ending battles against corporations or the State. And don't even get me started on the non-profit industrial complex's labor standards.
The social life of law school itself is also dreadful. It is a “self-contained prestige gauntlet, and the only notable function of it is to churn out socio-political elites.” Imagine hundreds of students at the top law school in the country, the vast majority of whom are vying for a very limited number of coveted positions in corporate law, government, and prestigious non-profits (yes, even altruists believe in prestige hierarchies), all competing to one-up each other.
There I was, in the midst of a battle royale, with nothing to fight for, and no desire to do so. As far as I was concerned, I had achieved my ambitions: I got out of my small town, and I'd made it to one of the most prestigious institutions in the world; so what more did I have to prove? The social contract that I thought I was a party to is this: get good grades, get into a good school, don't get arrested, and you get to live the life you've always dreamed of.
We all arrived at Yale Law School burning more brightly than ever and turned anything that had the potential to be competitive into more fuel for that fire. It was clear to me by the end of 1L that it’s just the way the legal profession works. Everyone is after the next thing. The impulse to excel, surpass, and dominate can't be turned off. “You're off the treadmill,” they told us at orientation. They never mentioned we’d signed ourselves up for a marathon.
A Brief History of Ambition
Plutarch characterized ambition as a “malady of the soul.” Augustine describes worldly ambition as “the chief enemy of the good life.” But it seems that in America, ambition is not only a virtue, but a commandment, constitutive of our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” America, King states, has always been a country propelled by ambition: “It is the giant within, that which makes us go, the fuel of all achievement, greed's more comely cousin, the hope to each endeavor, the carrot and the stick."
But it wasn't always this way. It wasn't until the age of settler colonialism that ambition took on the virtuous mandate it has now. For most of Western history dating back to the Hellenistic age (336-146 BC), personal ambition was considered a vice.
This all changed when Christopher Columbus bumbled his way to the wrong side of the globe and every major power in Europe needed ambitious men with nothing to lose to plunder, pillage, enslave, exploit, and send a hefty bounty back to the Crown in order to fuel their forever wars.
Up until that point, personal ambition had been discouraged because it was a threat to the aristocratic order. But when monarchs realized they could harness that ambition to serve national interests, they quickly began selling titles and promising land, wealth, and slaves.
Ambitious men flocked to America to live like the lords they could never hope to be. They soon realized aristocracy was a ruse, and then, having overthrown the aristocratic hegemony, Jefferson, Washington, and the rest established their own, one that no longer feared ambitious men who would threaten the legitimacy of bloodline eligibility. They were those ambitious men. More importantly, they had land to steal and slaves to drive, and money to make. And so self-aggrandizement and ruthless avarice were transformed into noble qualities to be celebrated and emulated.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted that by doing away with the aristocratic caste system, America became a country where true ambition was no longer possible, at least for white men. Beyond transcending poverty, to live a life free from want, there wasn't any limit to how far any man could climb. One could only hope to accumulate more than the next person, a phenomenon Alain de Botton calls “status anxiety.” In the essay “What the Americans Are Often So Restless in the midst of Their Prosperity,” from Democracy in America, de Tocqueville observes that this phenomenon leads to a “strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance,” a disgust with their ordinary lives.
I've never felt more like a failure than I did the day I graduated from Yale Law School. That strange melancholy took hold of me. Not going for the next big thing made me feel diminished, extinguished.
And so, I spent years in an unmotivated stupor, grasping for a new ambition, and ashamed of my “menial” career choices. I tutored. I freelanced. I picked up a few odd jobs with political campaigns. But my sense of self-worth, one that had been built on excelling and achieving and climbing and competing, couldn't recover. For so long, I'd worn my achievements like armor, and now none of them mattered. And so, I retreated, much like the protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh, though without the trust fund and the barbituates, and the terrible personality.
In this one respect only, the pandemic has been a gift. It seems that everywhere, people are rethinking their ambitions and the value of striving for such external rewards when the world is on fire. Never have I ever found it so easy to ask for help and support, nor have I heard so many friends express the same need. It’s strange how much easier it is to admit that you’re struggling when there’s no fear of being in competition or being judged.
The pandemic also introduced me to Tricia Hersey, also known as The Nap Ministry, who has spent the last five years building a movement dedicated to “rest as the seed of Black liberation.” We don't need more ambition, Hersey argues. Ambition feeds the same capitalist machine that supports our current oppression:
“We exist in a culture that supports sleep deprivation; we have been brainwashed by capitalism to work at a machine-level pace, and to equate our worth with how much we can produce. The same engine that drove millions of enslaved people into the forced terror of brutal labor on plantations is the same engine driving grind culture today.” (Links to Playboy Magazine, FYI for those reading at work.)
Hersey, whose Twitter and Instagram accounts feature mantras like "rest is a form of reparations," "decolonize your rest," and "capitalism is not your friend," calls us to ask what we are grinding for? And it's a crucial question to answer. Is your ambition serving you and your community, or are you simply exhausting yourself for another master?
Hersey's movement represents a new kind of ambition—the road less traveled, so to speak. There are no gauntlets of prestige to guide you and no pre-determined metrics to mark your way.
It's also a much deeper ambition, one that requires deep self-reflection and wisdom about what will make your life truly meaningful to you and where you currently are on that path.
Ambition is an instinctive trait and—just as the scholars of old knew—when harnessed it can be a powerful force for change.
Let's not give our power away.
So, in a brief spurt of ambition, I have started this weekly newsletter, which will include an essay, some of my most recent writing, and a few things that have added meaning to my life in the past week and that I hope will add meaning to yours, too.
Why Soup Season?
The real answer is that I am very bad at naming things but was very committed to this deadline.
But my favorite answer is that I like soup. It’s warm and cozy, as I hope this newsletter will be. It’s endlessly versatile, economical, and easy to digest. The best soups are steeped in cultural and personal histories and require love, care, and lots of time. And, while many of the best ones require surprising precision and culinary expertise, sometimes you throw a bunch of things from your fridge and your cupboard together before they go bad and come out with a sumptuous masterpiece or at least something better than you ever thought it could be. And that’s the magic of soup.
So I hope you enjoy, subscribe, and change your email filter so this doesn’t go to spam or promotions. Also, let me know what you think by emailing me or commenting!
This Week’s Top Five
Michaela Coel's Emmy Acceptance Speech:
“Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you. In a world that entices us to browse the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible — for visibility, these days, seems to somehow equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear. From it, from us, for a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.”
One of the best Marvel movies I've seen in a while. It’s very fun, has an astonishing level of character development for a Marvel movie, and also Michelle Yeoh. I hate that there are so few roles in Hollywood for Asian actors that Michelle Yeoh has to be in like every movie but it’s such a delight when she is, amirite?
This bail fund, which is trying to get as many people as possible released from Rikers. If you haven't heard about the horrifying humanitarian crisis at Riker's, here's a primer. 11 people have died in custody this year. 85% of those at Rikers are being held pre-trial, and the vast majority are Black or Latino.
This surprisingly catchy tribute to a brilliant film. Also, Phoebe Bridgers!
This iconic, fifty-year-old album, which was the soundtrack to the writing of much of this newsletter, and which seems to thoroughly anticipate our current moment (or, nothing’s really changed, take your pick). Maggot Brain is a perfect album if there ever was one. Play it with a candle burning and you’ll see your future, etc.
This article from the Atlantic on how perceptions of remote work reflect an ever-growing income divide:
"Americans with the option to telework are much more likely to be highly educated; they’re also more likely to be upper-income workers, rather than low- or middle-income. And the professionals who telework tend to be concentrated in urban centers. That all might seem intuitive. But it’s difficult for most people to perceive that disparity, given the increasing socioeconomic segregation in the United States: Americans are more likely to live and work and pal around with others of similar educational backgrounds and job types than they used to be, the sociologists I spoke with told me. Online social networks, which in theory should help us burst out of our social bubbles, have instead tended to reinforce them."
Lily Loufburow’s haunting exploration of the Herman Cain Awards Reddit forum and the ugly schadenfreude behind celebrating the deaths of COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers.
“Nothing about the r/HermanCainAward, a dark record of a dark, dark time, is decent or kind or particularly fair. Even using Cain as the model is uncharitable; he was actually among the conservatives who didn’t deny that COVID was real. He advocated following CDC guidelines including social distancing and even masks on his radio show, despite not always adhering to those recommendations himself. I’m not sure that matters; no one could argue that a place where people gather to mock the dead is “moral,” or accuse it of hypocrisy, or of virtue signaling, or of coastal elitism. It is an anti-persuasive venue, a place that dispenses with rational appeals for people to behave better in favor of something much more primal and horrifying. And who knows? Maybe it’s persuading people specifically because it’s not trying to.”
This profile of Derek Bell, father of Critical Race Theory, aka the only thing that got me through law school. The prescience of Derek Bell’s short story “Space Traders”—especially during our government’s responses to the COVID-19, immigration, housing, healthcare, and climate crises—is telling, to say the least. That the controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory is precisely in line with Derek Bell and other founding scholars’ theories on American law, is also quite telling. Of course, burning books and persecuting Galileo didn’t make heliocentricism any less true, and I predict that one day, the same will be said for Critical Race Theory.
Well, that’s all for now. Have a fantastic weekend! Stream Montero.