There’s No Such Thing as Getting Ahead

8 minute read
Stauffer is the author of All the Gold Stars. She's a freelance writer and Kentuckian

The most behind I’ve ever felt was hitting send on the proposal—the long pitch—for my second book in an airport, weeping so hard my mask was wet. I’d booked a last-minute, one-way ticket home when it dawned on me that I wasn’t sure where else to go—with all my duffles dropped off at baggage claim and the future I’d imagined gone before I could even fully move out of the apartment I’d shared with someone who didn’t want that anymore.

Hitting send on the proposal I’d been fiddling with in some form for nearly a year should’ve felt like a triumph. But that kind of ambition—getting ahead, knowing what you want, and going after it—felt like the opposite of what was happening now, as I took a pack of travel Kleenex from a kind stranger. I met the deadline because I couldn’t let this fall apart, too.

At the time, sending that email seemed like a last-gasp effort toward staying “on track,” whatever that means, when “what’s next” had lost all meaning. But even as I sent it, there wasn’t a rush of relief or pride. It happened in a haze, a kind of sinister autopilot where doing something meant I had something to cling to. In the days after, I felt myself revert to my same-old self, who always felt she was lagging behind in school, in her career, in life milestones, and in comparison to the person she wanted to be.

Read More: Ambition Is Out. Why So Many People Are Choosing Balance

Keeping up with where I wanted to be always felt like a race, a deep personal desire mixed with the sensation I was running out of time, no matter how early I started, no matter how hard I sprinted. It wasn’t until I dug deeper into ambition’s relationship with time that I discovered being behind is a myth—one that had been running my life, convincing me that, if I just tried a little harder, I could outrun the sensation that I was failing at everything I brushed against.

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“Do your work early!” was a mantra I recall hearing from teachers, dance coaches, and random adults offering a passing word of wisdom growing up—the suggestion being that if you work hard at the beginning, you’ll reap rewards at the end. It didn’t take long into young adulthood to clock—literally—that time spent committed to a task or meticulously crafted plans didn’t always translate to relief or rewards. But, that didn’t stop me from trying, in ways both minuscule and defining. When I was younger and my passion was dance, I figured out around age 10 that I was never going to be the one who did the most pirouettes or was objectively the best, but I could be the one who showed up early and stayed late. Later, after dropping out of college and returning online, I was determined to take a full course load while handling a full-time job to protect financial aid and pay rent, but also, in part, to ensure I “caught up.”

I’d written books but wasn’t a full-time writer; I’d picked myself up after my personal life and health imploded. But now that I was upright, I didn’t know how to step forward. In fact, secretly, I thought I should’ve been more on track by now, even when the track simply wasn’t there anymore. “One foot in front of the other,” I’d tell myself. “Just keep going”—toward the future I yearned for, to see the plans I’d made become real, to imagined security in thinking I could stop. But that path had come to a dead end, and I felt what I wanted my life to rush past me.

Of course, the sensation of feeling behind wouldn’t exist without templates for what is considered “ahead.” All around us are ideas of the “right” timeline on which to do anything: to graduate college (always, and in a consecutive four years), to find our calling (which better be what we majored in), to get married, to start saving for retirement (always five years earlier than whenever you actually started), to have children (and number of years between children)—an ever-expanding list that spans the professional and personal.

Then, there’s layered assumptions: That the earlier you choose your path, the more you must have wanted it. That if you really wanted something (a job, or a relationship, or a house) you would’ve prioritized sooner.

I wasn’t alone in the sensation that time and ambition were linked. “The need to maximize time was kind of the original ambition,” Dawna I. Ballard, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin told me. It sits at the intersection of industrial capitalism, where time is money, and the Protestant work ethic, where time is worth, she explained. The larger system we exist in shapes so much of time, as well as how and when different parts of life unfold. When we fall “behind,” it gets positioned as a moral failing when in reality, Ballard added, it is personal experiences bumping up against “cultural norms that valorize speed.”

And those so-called norms leave out so many experiences of timelines and ambition. Journalist and educator Katie Walsh (who also fact-checked what would eventually become the book) wrote about the concept of “crip time”: The idea that disabled people experience time differently than able-bodied people, as well as labor, noting that “that your worth cannot be determined by the schedule on which you operate.” Queer time, used to describe “ideas outside of heterotemporality,” offers different means of moving through time and life events than those ascribed to stereotypical “adult” milestones. (In fact, achieving so-called markers of adulthood has always been somewhat tied to circumstances like economic standing. Fixation on certain timelines often skim over how many people move though time differently, or are impacted by systemic crises, offering individual achievement as a solution to structural failings.)

The idea that we’re running behind unless we’re always running toward the next best thing and our next best self doesn’t just bypass the million ways our time is shaped and spent. It limits our ambition.

We discover new things, people, and places we love. We meet new versions of ourselves, who often come with new needs or new goals. Without pausing to notice when one track is gone and a new one appears, we lose out. We miss opportunities to celebrate milestones or accomplishments that might not fit a social script of achievement but are significant to us. We miss sitting with ourselves when we fall apart, the urge to patch over grief or heartbreak or feeling lost with more churning forward. We miss–I was missing–this, the right now. The only moment we’re ever guaranteed.

Time is a guideline that can help us coordinate behavior, or provide some direction, Ballard said. “However, when we use it as a context-free standard by which to judge our worth or well-being, it pushes our very lives—and the unexpected grief and growth, joy, and loss that it means to be human—into the margins,” she explained.

I’m past the version of myself when I sat in an airport and fell apart, when I submitted a book proposal for fear of falling behind my own self-set deadline. But over the course of reporting on ambition, I heard about how everything from grief, to love, to family, to venturing out on your own, to a diagnosis, to a failure changed ambition and made it new.

Looking back, I see that in myself, too. I didn’t reclaim feeling behind—or my sense of ambition—by pursuing a professional goal to patch over personal loss. Instead, I let myself hold still in the pain; to feel it, to realize my wants for my future didn’t change, but my path forward did.

Maybe sending that email from the airport was about staying on track then. But now, it’s hard to see it as anything other than letting ambition change the shape of my life. That choosing to step forward when the future is smudged and uncertain was choosing a different kind of ambition. It’s not a race I’m running, trying to catch up to where I thought I’d end up. Now, my ambition is to walk slowly—back to myself.

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