July 9, 2021 • Ambition

You Have No Events Scheduled Today

I am not a person who uses Google Calendar. When I make plans or appointments I prefer to type them out into my iCalendar or, gasp, write them down by hand on an actual calendar. Something about these processes helps me commit the plans to memory in a way that Google Calendar does not. 

Because of this, when Google Calendar sends an email from Google Calendar early each morning summing up my activities for the day, the subject line almost always reads “you have no events scheduled today.” This is almost never true, as a glance at my iCal almost always assures me, but it is an excellent way to start the day.

There has been a rise of pieces, and soon to be upcoming books, about the loss of ambition. It is notable, I think, that most of this writing is coming from women. Even before the pandemic women were doing the lion’s share of the housework (despite what men may have felt they were doing) plus they were building careers. And it’s always worth mentioning, the self-maintenance required to appear in the world when you’re a woman is no small effort. Undoubtedly when cultural historians look back on the 2010s they will tie the rise of self-care and brief Western obsession with Korean face masks to women trying to just get some rest; an early indication that we were tired and getting tireder. I once read that one of the reasons women in predominantly Catholic countries attended church twice a day was not because of a surplus of piety, but because it was the only time they could be certain they’d be allowed to sit down and not be hounded by family members needing something. 

A lot of this reaction to and confusion around ambition is tied to the rise of Girl Boss culture, which prioritized (mostly white) women working in supercharged overdrive to prove they could compete with the men and not just succeed but exceed. The problem, as it turns out, is not that we need proof women are powerful, it’s that existing in a world that in every way is trying to undermine you, is a rigged game. Eventually the question becomes “why am I still pushing this boulder up the hill?” No self care regime is going to solve this problem. (This dilemma is not limited to women, of course. Choire Sicha, who recently left his post as the editor of the New York Times Styles section, says he quit because he was so burned out: “if you wake up in the morning and consider dying instead of going to work, you CLEARLY owe it to yourselves to do something else.”)

I think a more useful and certainly more enjoyable way to talk about the loss of ambition might be to reframe the definition of ambition. My ambition is currently to do as little as possible. My ambition is to be this ‘decadent young woman lying on a couch.’ This Ramon Casas painting that’s currently my desktop screensaver (it pairs wonderfully with my Google Calendar alert). What if we reframe decadence as the goal? As the measure of success. (In a perfect world I’d say we should reframe it as a human right, but this is America.) 

I don’t mean decadent as in how many gold bracelets can I pile onto my wrists (though, please pile away), I mean the decadence of free time. In the same way we have been taught in this country to prioritize big houses, and big cars as a measure of success, I would like to suggest we begin to prioritize free time. 

There is a documentary that aired at Film Forum last week called Free Time, by famed street photographer Manny Kirchheimer. It was filmed on the streets of New York in the late fifties. Even the trailer — peopled with people sitting on stoops, playing stickball, cooling off in fountains — feels decadent to modern eyes, though life in New York in the fifties was far from decadent for most people living here. Something about it reminded me of my own 1980’s childhood in the suburbs of Toronto when summer vacation mostly meant doing nothing beyond what we could come up with on our own. My memory of my mother during summer essentially boils down to the person who would call us in for PB&J at lunch and slather on suntan lotion. Beyond that, I think we were left to our own devices. In other words, free time without devices. From a 2021 vantage point, free time largely translates to life without social media.

All of these discussions are obviously enormously complicated by who gets to rest and when and why. Much of the so-called Girl Boss movement was equally fueled by the childcare provided by women who were leaving their own families to work for minimal pay and little job security. But as with everything, cultural narratives matter and if they are strong enough they can get codified into law. We have codified consumption as success and nearly everyone is suffering from that to varying degrees. What might it look like if we codified rest as success? 

As we move into July, I can feel my brain craving that emptiness. In the past, even getting close to a life approximating something like that required herculean amounts of self-control — deleting apps, placing boundaries on emails replies — combined with a lot of self-talk about how it was okay to check-out. The world never encourages women to check-out, when we do we are either spoiled, selfish or lucky. Post-COVID it is less of a struggle. Framing my desire to do nothing as a way to measure my own success has helped. I am more ambitious than I’ve ever been, for rest. Free time. Doing nothing. America runs on consumption, let us consider consuming more rest.