Ambitious people are uniquely unpopular these days, equally loathed by left and right.
For the left, an ambitious person personifies selfishness, narcissism, and personal and corporate greed; for the right, an ambitious person is an elitist, a poseur, and an obviously tricky character who probably went to an Ivy League college.
Now the Times’
David Brooks, from the center—the Times
hired him to be a conservative columnist, but in post-Bush years he’s made a beeline for the middle—takes on the ambitious.
His target is Sandra Bullock
and his lesson comes from the harsh irony of her winning the Oscar and then having her marriage publicly explode. “Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?” asks Brooks, paraphrasing the biblical set-up—what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul—and calling it his own.
Brooks’ point, derived from the unseen hand of social science data, is that success doesn’t make people happy, only a good marriage does.
That’s a puzzling notion because half of all marriages fail, many because one spouse or the other has not been ambitious enough. But Brooks is not really talking about marriage, as he is about a certain way of life. The proper way. The good way. The go-along way. The middle class way. Ambition necessarily challenges that conformity. Ambition is disruptive.
Brooks also may be equating ambition with sex—which he has particular feelings about. “Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide,” Brooks once wrote
. In other words, he seems temperamentally partial to a life of quiet desperation over a life of trying to satisfy yourself.
This is all pretty basic, of course. In boom times, ambitious people are our heroes, living out everybody else’s fantasies. When the boom dies, ambitious people are to blame for the bad times. (As obviously, it is the ambitious who will bring back the boom times, which will lift them and everybody else up again.)
One thing that seems clear now is that if you are ambitious the best strategy is to position yourself against ambitious people. The more ambitious you are the more virtuous you want to appear. The more you seek stature and status and dough the more it pays to disdain people who are more vulgar and obvious than you in the desire for stature and status and dough.
David Brooks, for instance, is a very crafty player in the punditry business. He protects his niche—gentle counter-intuitiveness—with great deftness. Wherever the mainstream liberal culture is, he’s off it by a calculated 15 or 20 degrees.
You might reliably watch his column, and invest accordingly, when—I’d guess early next year—he finds social science data about the psychological health of mavericks and risk takers.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.