The thought came to mind while writing about finding myself unexpectedly motivated to send a couple of specifically political posts to a specifically political person, to see what he thought of them. I started thinking about ambition, as it relates, and has related in the past, to me (though hopefully not just to me.)
These ponderings led to this: An in-depth exploration involving, as usual, a sampling of one person, concerning the subject of ambition, and its relationship to success. (I like to lay out where I’m going so that readers can go “Not interested” off the top, rather than reading the whole thing and then wondering, “Where do I go to get my time back?” You are entirely welcome.
And now we begin.
I know aspiring TV writers who taped shows they liked, studying them carefully to learn exactly how they were put together.
I know a writer who gave a spec script he wrote to his barber, requesting that he pass it along to a customer who created a series he admired and hoped, one day, to write for.
I know a young man who moved to Los Angeles with a desire to write for television, but with few connections and no prospects for employment.
I myself did none of those things. I watched a lot of TV, but I never analyzed what I was looking at. I never said anything to my barber, except “Not too short.” I came down here, assured of three guaranteed jobs.
Not till I was working professionally – and actually more than a decade after that – did I ever acknowledge I was a writer.
Too scared. What if it didn’t work out?
Who wants to live with that hanging over your head the rest of your life? Especially when the inquisiting’s coming from inside.
“Aren’t you the guy who wanted to be a television writer but never became one?”
“You know I am. You’re me.”
It wasn’t talent I felt I was lacking. I never even thought about that. (Not meaning I believed I had talent. The idea simply never came to mind.) My concern was with temperament, specifically, my alarming lack of incendiary self-propulsion. In those pre-professional days, I can recall myself saying, with more than a dollop of trepidation,
“I don’t have drive; I have ‘walk.’”
I was flattering myself. In reality, I exhibited virtually no forward movement whatsoever.
I had quit Law School after five weeks (“Man, this place is for grownups!”), I had gone to England, primarily to escape of the proverbial “Hot Seat” (“Fine, you don’t want to be a lawyer; what do you want to be?”) Then finally, exhausting my evasive maneuverings, there I was, an unformed mass of quivering clay, targeted aimlessly in no direction whatsoever.
Twenty-three, and counting. And entirely without a clue.
And then stuff happened. Starting with an offer from an editor to write a weekly column for our local newspaper. This rescuing opportunity propelled me towards a career in which I would ultimately find a home.
I had tons of help, beginning with that editor. I received supportive encouragement – the editor’s boss, sent her a note, later passed on to me, saying,
“He writes well.”
A subsequent “leg up” came from my brother and his partner at the time, Lorne Michaels, Lorne later bringing me down to Los Angeles to help write a show he was producing.
I also enjoyed enormous luck – I had turned down Lorne’s original offer because I was making more money in Toronto; then, just days after the show I was working on was cancelled, Lorne, whose project had been postponed, offered me the same job again, and I took it.)
I never had a striving, a resolve, an intention, a glimmering goal. (Thank you, Thesaurus. Traditionally, writers are considered lazy if they use the same word over again, sending me soliciting alternatives for “drive.”)
What I did have, I like to tell myself in the story I like to tell myself, was an easily detectable natural ability.
Imagine a seven-foot High Schooler who, for reasons of their own, had avoided basketball tryouts. The coach spots him in the hall, and goes, “I’ve got a feeling about you. Drop by the gym, and we’ll see what you can do.”
That was me – a non self-starting comedic seven-footer. (And people like Lorne Michaels, famous for his ability to spot talent, gave that perceived ability an appropriate outlet.)
Driving ambition is a valuable propellant. I possessed almost none of it, and I still wound up where I – always secretly – wanted to go.
It is not a “deal-breaker” to be lacking in incendiary self-propulsion. Is what I’m saying to people out there who might somehow find that encouraging to know.
And if I’ve mentioned it before,
Consider it a reminder.