Tag Archives: ambition

Chasing Rings

11 Oct

No, this post isn’t about the practice of athletes joining certain teams that increase their odds of winning championships. Instead, it stems from a C.S. Lewis lecture that has new life thanks to the efforts of a few luminaries in the American semi-conservative intelligentsia. David Brooks writes about it here, and Rod Dreher has a couple of blog posts on it; both drew their thoughts from Alan Jacobs’ modestly titled new bookHow to Think.

Lewis’s lecture to some Cambridge students in 1944 (read the whole thing) was an education on the banality of evil long before Hannah Arendt minted the phrase. His point was that most of the bad decisions made by the talented, well-reared Cambridge students before him would not be out of sheer malice or evil. Instead, it would come out of an earnest desire to prove oneself in certain circles, to move ever upward into vaunted inner rings. Whether those rings involve high school cliques or local political factions or artist collectives or something akin to high society, they are the unofficial circles that people use to measure their status. Exclusion from inner rings leads to alienation; entering them leads only to momentary satisfaction. Per Lewis, it’s impossible to make it.

The hunger for the inner ring, for acceptance and the comfort of doing the same things as others, drives so many decisions in life. This is especially pervasive in a society that likes to think it is a meritocracy: all people who prove their worth in some form or another are worthy of admission into inner rings, with no inherent barriers based on birth or status. When anything is (allegedly) possible, there are rings galore that we might want to enter. It is also probably more likely to afflict people who spend much of their time on quests for knowledge, and who might like that other people will pay attention to the things they say or write.

Lewis has some ideas for how to resist the siren call of the inner ring. He tells the Cambridge students that they should aim to be “sound craftsmen” who do what they need to do in their work not to climb the ladder, but to be excellent in the task before them, and so earn the respect of other craftspeople who do things right. He counsels them to spend time with people one likes so that rings emerge naturally, without any of the self-conscious exclusion of the inner ring. The guilty truth is that, for many of these Cambridge students, those people are generally going to be people who are fairly intelligent and ambitious themselves. But those traits are not prerequisites, but instead byproducts that lead us to take certain leaps and be in the same place at the same time. And rather than pulling up the ladder to anyone else who might join, this sort of circle is always open to new entrants.

Another trait that will keep a circle open is the ability to level of its members to level with themselves, both individually and with regard to the group as a whole. Dreher is at his best in posts such as this one on the inner ring, in which his writing unfolds in a sprawling fit of self-reflection that exactingly examines his own participation in certain rings. I find that I’m willing to forgive a lot of disagreements with, or errors in the lives of, certain people if they are able to articulate a level of honest, raw self-reflection and criticism. That sincerity speaks more volumes about their character as political actors (using that term broadly) than the stances they take. I want the people in my own closest circles to be capable of that sort of reflection, so that we all thereby do all we can to avoid the risk of falling into closed inner rings.

While I’d like to think I’ve generally resisted the need to belong to certain circles in the way Dreher had it, I do certainly recognize that desire in many phases of my life. Lewis also correctly notes that such resistance can be the source of its own form of conceit, and here I try to stay especially aware of any self-righteousness over my decision not to pursue certain career choices, many of which stemmed from an evolving but meticulous view on how to live a good life. Inner rings can be just as restricting in a corner of northern Minnesota, too, and while I haven’t found any that are too frustrating in one year back here, I also have a sense for how easily they could appear or throw things off. Roots are important, but for a tree to grow upward, it must grow outward, adding a new ring each year. It may not always be a speedy growth, but it can’t ever stop.

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Breaking Radio Silence

10 Dec

This blog has been far too quiet in recent weeks, so here is a post for the sake of a post. The end of a semester in graduate school, coupled with some hockey duties clogging up the normal times for free writing, will do that.

In one of my final class meetings today, an instructor gave us all printed copies of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote, which I wrote about on this blog in March 2014. At the time of that post, I was still coming out of the self-reflective shell I’d encased myself in during my return to Duluth. It’s certainly more tentative than my approach to life these days, and now sets up a more admirable ideal. The quote (which I’ve seen associated with East hockey in the past) will now go up on a wall in my room.

The friend from Phoenix mentioned in that post came to visit me in Minneapolis this past weekend, and my roommate and I (all of us Georgetown alums) had a grand time showing off our state, which our friend termed ‘the last bastion of the American Dream, if it ever truly existed.’ We mused long into the night on matters great and small, and I confided my own goal, which is to perpetuate that dream, such as I can. Of course I remain a critic on a certain level, and will feel comfortable retreating into a little Minnesotan fortress if it all goes wrong. But there is a goal here, and one around which to build a public life. The weekend renewed that push outward, one I explored last fall when I made the trip south for a visit to Phoenix.

My aversion to  the arena wasn’t out of timidity, per se, nor  was it the product of Minnesota stoicism. I had questions I needed to answer, and that required  lengthy retreat from the public realm. It did its job, but left me a bit rusty, and some things take practice anyway. I could make a lovely intellectual case for TR’s hunger, but living it out was a different story. The step forward has to seize upon convictions, and embrace power when it presents itself. So whether we aim to blend great dreams with reality or merely push through the last few weeks of a long, grinding semester: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

Standing on the Rim

7 Oct

No picture of the Grand Canyon can do it justice. It can be a fantastic shot, capturing all the color and the vastness and perhaps even the entire panorama. But the power of the Canyon lies in what we can’t see: it stretches for miles beyond sight even from the best of the vistas, and there are only occasional glimpses of the bottom. The more the mind ponders its reach, the greater the awe. It’s not an uncommon sense in Arizona, where so many things are big beyond belief. The canyons, mountains, and heat trigger such opposed emotions: a sense of power and triumph, as we stand at the rim of the Canyon or the peak of a mountain and proclaim this dominion as our own; a sense of smallness and frailty, as we teeter on the edge of the abyss and realize just how small we really are. A paradox? No; they are inseparable, twin sides of the peak of ambition.

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My trip to Arizona this past weekend was, by some absurdity, the first trip of any great distance that this travel-lover has taken in a couple of years. It was officially a business trip, a mission as part of my life as a secret operative who manipulates Arizona politics from somewhere up in the woods of northern Minnesota. For the most part, though, it was a chance to explore freely, to reunite with the kid who taught me the meaning of charisma, and to finally meet my partners on a campaign that successfully launched an exciting young woman into a position on the Phoenix Union High School District Board.

It began with a road trip up to the Grand Canyon, a drive that surprised with the sheer variety of the Arizona landscape. Yes, the area around Phoenix is a desert, and there are the expected mountains. But a short drive up I-17 leaves one suddenly out on an open mesa, and the region around Flagstaff has pine forests and stretches of prairie that look like they belong in Wyoming or thereabouts. On the way north we swung through Sedona, a beauty of a town nestled in between red rock cliffs, though the booming tourist trade has likely taken some toll on the New Agey vibe. Beyond Sedona was one of the most delightful drives I’ve ever done, one that whips through a narrow river valley filled with pines and plunges down a winding road that eventually switches its way back up to a view over the stunning (though not quite Grand) canyon below.

After a long day on the Arizona Autobahn, we came to the Canyon, which lived up to its billing. The trail along the South Rim gives a tour of the Canyon’s history over the past two billion years, showing the geological history and pointing out the little peaks and buttes, all named for pagan gods. Even that panoply of deities couldn’t quite fill the chasm, and in only two places could we see the muddy waters of the Colorado down at the bottom. Someday I hope to return and seek out that path that leads down to it; the allure of those slopes is too hard to pass up.

My enjoyment was sullied by one little observation that left me feeling a bit of shame on behalf of my country.  Somehow, four out of every five tourists on the path were not Americans. They were almost all Europeans, with French and Germans being the most obvious, along with some Portuguese and Spaniards and some Poles who struggled to take our picture. The Americans were nowhere to be seen beyond the overlook at the parking lot. Are we really that incapable of walking down a flat, paved path? Has the genuine experience of drinking in the landscape and feeling something deeper really been replaced by the dull routine of snapping a picture and checking off a box that says ‘I’ve been here’? There is so much more to see, and it takes embarrassingly little effort to see it.

Phoenix itself is unlike any city I’ve ever seen, a sprawling grid of near-endless suburbia. There is so much space; to borrow my travel partner’s simile, it’s as if someone poured the development across the flat plane, and it has spread like water as far as it could. The downtown is similarly spread out, and it’s hard to find any sort of node or center of action. A Friday night street festival, however, did bring out a stunningly diverse crowd, and there were certainly pockets of wealth and poverty, from the mind-boggling array of tennis courts and private pools below Camelback Mountain to the parts on the west side that might as well have been lifted out of Mexico.

Whatever one thinks of its development patterns, Phoneix still seems like a city on the leading edge of American culture. When I call the U.S. an adolescent nation, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. (Well, not entirely.) It has its downsides, clearly, but there’s a life to it, too. There is a sense in which Arizona is still the frontier. There is so much space that it still has that feeling, even if most people go home to their perfect little subdivisions. There’s a love for guns and a boom in nondenominational Evangelical churches, tapping into a strain of religious belief that again looks to cut off the past and build something new. A majority of residents are transplants. History doesn’t mean a whole lot here, but there’s an awful lot of belief in the future. Phoenicians, one senses, are not a resigned folk, as us northern Minnesotans can be; their schools may be much worse off on the whole, but at least in some circles there is an energy dedicated to attacking problems that I haven’t always seen in the north. Phoenix’s dreams for the future will rest on its ability to take this energy and harness it and build things that last in place of the investment in the immediate that now predominates. That will take time, and a recognition of limits that are hard to see, but it will come, sooner or later.

Saturday brought a delicious authentic Mexican meal, a campaign victory party in the most eclectic club I’ve ever seen, and a hike up a mountain for good measure. What began as a leisurely hike escalated quickly, with sharp inclines difficult (but possible!) to scale without the railing, and constant reminders that mountains are always taller than one thinks. It was 95 degrees and cloudless, yet I couldn’t help myself from setting a brisk pace, barreling up and down the mountain to see it in all its glory. Flat Phoenix unfolded like a carpet below, and I was back on the edge as I’d been at the Canyon, once again in awe of the expanse of it all.

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One might think that all of this vastness lends itself to broad thinking, but in reality, the deep thought needed no such catalyst. Instead, it came from a reunion of three Georgetown friends, back together to wrestle with questions great and small, keeping our little salon going until 4 AM, tearing into each other without a hint of malice as we probe at the foundations of our thought. Unsettling to those not a part of it, perhaps, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We need to know.

There’s a common experience to Georgetown grads—especially for those of us who have taken somewhat less traveled paths after graduation—that we struggle to share with anyone else. We’re floating between two worlds, too aware and proud of our roots to cut them off, but too consumed by that chase and the things we’ve learned along the way to ever go entirely home. Call it the burden of ambition: how do we harness that restlessness, that frenetic energy that feeds on itself and makes us who we are? Even the numerous Hoyas who have gone straight for the halls of power—consulting, banking, law school—are often self-aware enough that they are fighting similar wars, trying to stay grounded while immersing themselves in worlds that will let them reach those dreams.

As most know, my position at the end of the day is on the side of the roots: it is my way of making sense of the world’s madness, and of resolving those older issues that need resolution. I know that going home saved my sanity, and it has also done wonders for my Arizona friend, whose relentless drive in certain areas threatened to derail his promise. Still, it was hard not to feel that twinge of allure when back in with that Georgetown energy, and, being a Hoya, I’m not going to run and hide from that, or worry that it’ll mess up my little narrative: it’s an important part of me too, and the story is still writing itself. It makes me think, it pushes me, and I live for those moments when we sit there and argue about it all, lurching toward something approaching understanding, at once both earnest yet able to laugh about it all.

As for my friends who are ready to go back to the climb, I have nothing but encouragement: it would be folly to cut off that drive. It’s exhilarating, and the view from the top can’t be matched. But the mountain is always higher than it seems, and that it’s a mistake to run too far ahead of the people carrying the water bottles. A few breaks along the way do wonders (and Minnesota will always welcome those who look to take one). After every climb comes a descent, and it has to be measured, taken carefully; it is all too easy to go plunging to a dramatic death. But it’s worth the risk. Once again: the trouble is not in the climb, but in the refusal to look back along the way we’ve come.

Red and Grey Till the Day I Die

4 Jun

The Duluth East Class of 2014 made its plodding way across the DECC stage tonight, the students’ last names butchered one last time before they are released out into the world. Six years out from my own graduation, despite a new building and a maze of budgetary travails, my love affair with that school burns as much as it ever has.

East’s strengths are nothing otherworldly. Like any school it has its cliques, both exclusionary to those on the outside and giving rise to tunnel vision for those on the inside. Teenagers still do normal teenage things, and East couldn’t save a number of them from some truly damaging situations. (Anyone who expects a school to be the primary line of defense against these things has a rather disordered view of how these things come about.) Some will no doubt look back on their time there and remember the requisite high school awkwardness and ignorance, blaming the school for those bad memories. No doubt East can do better, as any school can.

East is also fairly homogenous, and many of its comforts stem from the good fortune of being situated on the wealthy, old money side of a town that values education. And that dominant culture can indeed be problematic for those who don’t naturally slide into it: witness Duluth’s brutal achievement gap, along with some of the concerns about diversity voiced in this recent video. (I could mount a nuanced critique of all of this if I wanted, but I’ll save that for another day and say simply that East has its issues. The school supports the troublesome Robert Putnam study that says that, traditionally, a relative lack of diversity correlates with social cohesion.)

And yet, even as it produces plenty of kids who are entrenched in that comfortable majority, East manages to be more than a factory of bourgeois culture. There’s enough questioning of that culture, both from the children of the east side elite free to ask Big Questions and the salt of the earth folks who don’t quite see the point of the whole rat race. (Interactions with the latter are one of the real merits of public education, reminding us relatively pampered kids that there are entirely different worlds out there that we can’t ignore.) It manages to blend the dominant culture necessary for success (under its standard American middle class definition) with allowances for some individual dalliance. There are people actively fighting the isolation felt by those who don’t quite fit in. When I was a Hound, the cliques came down without too much trouble, and the best of the teachers really were transformative. When I went off to college and talked about my high school experience with college friends—some of whom attended some of the country’s most “prestigious” high schools—I still came away with the sense that there was something different about East. Without trying very hard, it put out kids who were ready for most anything to come after, from elite colleges to the local schools to the armed forces to jobs straight out of school. It breeds that success with minimal pretension or self-satisfied claims of greatness, and does not cater to vogue tests or metrics of success while doing so. It doesn’t need to sell itself. As a school, it simply works, and anything that works that well ought to be preserved.

All else held steady, East allows its students to age at their own pace. Sure, some will be living lives of hedonism as freshmen, and most will make gradual forays down that path as the years go by. But it was possible to live another way and not suffer any serious social repercussions if one so chose. Any East alum from my generation will recognize the phrase from the daily announcements—and I do hope they still use it, much as it all drove us all to roll our eyes at the time—“make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” The message sank in. East grads were subject to the same social pressures as kids all across the country, but we Hounds always seemed to have an intimate awareness of our own agency. And for those of us who were a bit too aware of our own uniqueness, it helped bring us back to reality.

In some ways, East does its job too well. I know plenty of my classmates left with everything they needed to succeed anywhere; as a result, East is now just some source of distant nostalgia, with many of its brightest farmed out far beyond Duluth. It’s something to remember, fondly but not worthy of a second thought; something to acknowledge from afar, but not something worth repeated return visits or donations to its foundation. I was very close to heading down that same path, and the painfully earnest quotes from some old high school diaries prove it. I had to go away to realize how lucky I was.

My fervor is that of a convert. When I wandered into its doors as a freshman, I scoffed at all of the “school spirit” pageantry, and was content with fairly insular group of friends. Sure, I had some public school pride after touring Marshall and coming away unimpressed, but East was just a means to an end, four years to get over with as quickly as possible so that I could get out and do what I really thought I wanted to do. By the last day of senior year, I was crying buckets as I walked out its doors, leaving behind the first place I’d genuinely called home.  I’d decided I might as well befriend everyone, branching out enough to try to be that kid who went to every single grad party. I didn’t always fit seamlessly into its culture, but I found that level of comfort necessary for asking bigger questions and pushing my limits. East fed my relentless ambition and got me into Georgetown, but at the same time, the education I got there was complex enough that I was unconsciously starting to question everything about my world while at the same time acknowledging that it had made me who I was. The searching, probing, and frustration of the next five years makes no sense without East at its starting point, and in the end, that journey led a kid who’d been so eager to study international affairs straight back to the east side of Duluth.

Was I a sellout? I suppose I was, after a fashion. I neglected an old friend or two in my rush to climb the ladder, and at times spread myself far too thin. I abandoned a few morals, which left an overly uptight kid with no lack of inner conflict. I’m now more likely to spend a cold winter night watching an amateur hockey game than I am to be tracking election polls in South America. The long journey that began and ended with East led me to back away from earlier grandiose dreams of saving the world and settle for living fully within my own world. And yet I couldn’t be happier. I still ask those big questions and follow those world affairs, but I no longer let them consume me. Everything has its proper place.

Things started falling into place over the second half of my senior year. From academics to extracurriculars to following the exploits of the hockey team, I was at home. As Stuff happened in life beyond school, I began to understand the real power of a community, and what a support it can provide—a lesson doubly important for a kid who was consumed by the solitary pursuit of success. I am forever indebted. In a dream world I’d settle down here and raise a few more little Hounds while working for the betterment of Duluth, but I’m not sure quite what life will throw at me yet, and it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. No matter what, East’s presence will endure. As I wrote in a good-bye note some time after graduation:

No reason it has to be an abrupt good bye to East—because what is East, really? Some reified, odd concept—in a way, it’s the building, but building didn’t make any memories for us. Of course it’s the people, but they’re not static either—some will change, some will drift away, some will die. All we’re left with is a pile of memories. Little snapshots frozen in time, immutable, unforgettable. How can we miss something we never let go of? We can’t. And so long as we let life change with us, and hold on to what we can, we can always go back.

To all of my fellow Hounds who made those memories possible, no matter how large of a role they played: thanks again.