Dear Tristan: Why do you want?

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about desires, and how we often choose to kill them, rather than nurturing them. Today I want to talk a bit more about one desire in particular that we humans often choose to nurture, but not in a particularly healthy way. Today I’d like to share my thoughts about ambition.

To introduce the topic of ambition, I’ll turn to a very accomplished, very famous man who died earlier this year, and whose life has already touched yours in some profound ways . . . the way your mom and I monitor you while you sleep, the way we communicate with each other about your needs when we’re in different parts of the house, even the way you and I were able to communicate face to face with each other from different parts of the country not long ago. This man, Steve Jobs, led the company that developed your mom’s computer, and the phones both of us use. He described ambition thus:

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?”

A lot of us have that sort of ambition . . . the ambition to leave our mark in some profound way. The knowledge that after we’re gone, someone . . . preferably lots of someones . . . will remember who we were.

But there’s another quote from Steve Jobs I’d like to share with you. He allowed a biographer very intimate access to the most private areas of his life . . . he gave interviews, shared stories, and talked with the biographer for hours on end. Shortly after his death, Sony bought the rights to his biography for a million dollars.

When asked why Jobs, a very private person, was indulging his biographer to such an extent, he said “Because I want my kids to know who I am.”

Jobs was a truly great man, a visionary who did indeed leave a dent – several in fact – in the universe. He transformed not one, but several companies – not one, but several industries.

But he needed to hire a guy to write the story of his life, so he wouldn’t be a complete stranger to his kids.

That is, too often, the price of ambition.

It’s striking to me how often great accomplishment comes at the price of a lousy set of relationships with one’s family. The biblical accounts of the prophet Samuel and King David are two examples that come to mind. The historical example of John Adams is another. All three men accomplished amazing things. Adams had a famously close relationship with his wife, but his relationship with his children suffered greatly because he spent so much time away from them.

As for myself, There was a time when I wanted to “put a dent in the universe” by leaving my mark on history. When I first went to college to study government, I had lofty ideas of becoming a politician and running for Congress someday.

And while that’s what I think Jobs meant by what he said . . . the kind of long-term impact that made his a household name . . . I don’t think it has to be.

Your mom was one of the ones who first taught me that. Back before we were married, I remember her telling me a story about a conversation with a mutual friend of ours. He’d asked her what she wanted to “do when she grew up” . . . what sort of impact she wanted her life to have.

She completely floored him with her answer. She said, “I want to be someone who loves well.”

Recounting that conversation with your mom was one of my first steps toward realizing one of the things I’ve been writing a lot about in these letters: That our actions – our accomplishments – do not define us . . . or at least they don’t have to. Someone who loves well may not become a household name . . . may not, to be frank, have time to do the sorts of things that make one a household name! Instead, they’re busy pouring their hearts and souls into their relationships.

And you know what? Even if nobody outside their family and their circle of friends knows who they are, they’ll still make a dent in the universe. Your mom has become the person she wanted to be . . . I know from personal experience, as do you, I think, that she is someone who truly loves well . . . perhaps better than anyone else I know. She has made choices that will result in her being less well-known than she otherwise might . . . but she has certainly made a dent in my universe, and in yours.

As for me, I still like the idea of writing a book or composing a big piece of music, or even running for office someday (if I can convince your mom, that is . . . she’s not terribly sold on the idea). My reasons, however have totally changed. I now think about doing those things beause I think they’d be fun . . . not because I need to do them in order to convince myself that my life is worth living. Instead, I think of them in the same category as going skydiving someday, or visiting certain exotic locations. They’re things I would greatly enjoy doing, but if I never do them, that’s ok too. They do not define me, either to myself or others.

In other words, my motivations have gone from being external (seeking fame and the attention of others) to being internal (seeking to do what I enjoy and believe to be meaningful. I no longer need to ask, as Jobs asked, “Otherwise, why else even be here?” Because like your mom, the most important things in my life now are not my accomplishments, but my relationships.

And I’m not talking about some cliche’d way in which I hope to make my mark on history by helping you grow up and do something great that makes you famous. Even if I never do anything noteworthy, and never have any impact on anybody who does anything noteworthy, it is enough to know that I nurtured my relationships. I would much rather write you these letters than write a best-selling book. I would much rather make up silly songs to sing you to sleep than write a famous hit single.

Because you’re more important. Because, like your mom, loving you is more important than accomplishing something for the sake of being noticed by others.

I think it’s important for you to know this about your mom and me . . . that along with each other, you and any siblings you have in the future will always be our top priority. It has meant a lot to both of us to know that all four of your grandparents made this same choice. Your Grandma Carol and your Grandma Pat, who you never had the chance to know, both decided to forgo a job or a career, and stay at home to take care of your mom, and me, and our siblings. Your Grandpa Barry and Papa Fred both made decisions in their careers that sacrificed advancement and prestige because they wanted to put their families first.

Your mom and I are incredibly grateful for their sacrifices. And their examples are part of the reason this is something so very important to us. Like them, you will always take priority over any job, career, hobby or ambition.

That’s not to say ambition is a bad thing in every case, or even that we should only do things we find pleasant (like spending time with you and your mom). There are certainly times when I do things I don’t find especially meaningful or fulfilling – take on jobs or tasks I don’t particularly want – in order to reach a bigger goal. But the goals are mine. I’m doing it for me . . . because those choices will help me reach something I do want, which is usually the ability to create a better life for the three of us to share.

That, I think, is healthy ambition . . . an ambition fueled by one’s own internal desire rather than out of a desire to earn notice and notoriety with others. An ambition that never loses sight of the fact that people are more important than things or achievements. An ambition aimed at making a “dent in the universe” by nurturing our relationships, rather than at the expense of those relationships as Jobs seems to have intended when he uttered the two quotes I wrote about earlier.

For myself, I have had people say, after a political discussion or debate, that I should run for office someday. I have had people say, after reading a sample of my writing, that I should try to get it published. And I must admit I enjoy hearing both.

But far more meaningful to me . . . more meaningful than just about anything I’ve ever been told by anyone, are the times your mom watches me with you and says, “You’re a good dad.”

That, I hope, is my dent in the universe.


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