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If ambition is ruining your life, you need to read Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is the self-help guru I needed — and that America needs.

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Henry David Thoreau has a likability problem. With dismaying regularity, my students find him to be a scold, a killjoy, and a hypocrite. Those who appreciate what he has to offer are few and far between, most aligning themselves instead with the position Kathryn Schulz elaborates in her scathing takedown of Thoreau, “Pond Scum,” an essay I’ve taken to assigning alongside Walden ever since it ran in the New Yorker last October. It gets them talking.

I cannot deny that the Thoreau of Walden is a curmudgeon. But I believe there is something to be learned from the content of his character and the tone of his complaints as they are conveyed in that often-quoted, less-often-read masterpiece of American letters. Not only did Thoreau’s ideas influence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but his strong-willed and idiosyncratic take on relationships among individuals, their governments, and nature has left a mark on generations of less famous readers.

He left such a mark on me.

I had a conventional definition of success — and I was anxious that I wasn’t meeting it

I remember telling my friend Ben, not long after graduating from college, that I’d come to a realization: I wasn’t particularly ambitious. In response, Ben pointed out wryly that unambitious people don’t usually serve in the Peace Corps and then apply to PhD programs, citing two recent turns my life had taken. More than a decade later, in a classroom discussion about Thoreau and his take on success, I told my American literature students that I had wound up being less successful than my parents, my peers, or I had expected.

They were puzzled by my comment — and not a little critical of my petulance. “But Dr. Warren,” they said, “you’re an English professor.” It wouldn’t do to explain, in that moment, that a capital-p Professor I was not. Tracks, tenure and non, were beside the point. My job was teaching literature. At a university. In many of my students’ eyes, I’d won the lottery. How churlish of me to whine.

But whine I did. My notion of success was fairly conventional, and money played a not-insignificant role. How else to prove that the world thinks you’re worth something? I’m not talking about earning half a million dollars a year. No. Just (just!) having a meaningful career for which one is also well remunerated. My parents, two Foreign Service Officers, had that: meaning and money, public service and prestige. Why couldn’t I?

But I didn’t — the fact was that in my late 30s I found myself in a job where, even with a PhD from a top-20 program, my salary was lower than what many of my friends earned upon graduating from college in 1999. “Professors on food stamps,” went the tag lines in magazines like Salon; “Your College Professor Could Be on Public Assistance,” crowed NBC.

Friends and family would read those essays and then send me emails at once furious and sympathetic. Poor Kathryn. So underpaid, so undervalued. Yes, I had my doctorate, but I was not on the tenure track and was therefore subordinate in both compensation and esteem to all the assistant professors, associate professors, and professors with whom I shared a building, a mailroom, and a professional life.

Being an object of pity does not do wonders for one’s self-esteem. You start to wonder if you should aspire to something different, if loving a shit-pay job is equivalent to acquiescing to your own exploitation, if you should be more … ambitious.

When I pooh-poohed my own ambition, my friend Ben had pointed to my accomplishments and aspirations and called bullshit. Still, I stuck to my guns: Ambition was not really my thing. As the OED notes, ambition is and has been used to refer to “the ardent (in early usage, inordinate) desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, influence, distinction or other preferment.” The second definition, now obsolete, is instructive as well: “Ostentation, display of the outward tokens of position, as riches, dress; vain-glory, pomp.” And the third: “A strong or ardent desire of anything considered advantageous, honouring, or creditable.”

One thing the three definitions share? Ambition takes great stock of what others think. But interestingly, the drive that in early usage was considered to be “inordinate” (that Thomas Cromwell, he’s so ambitious) has come to be a requisite attribute of the smart, the successful, and the savvy.

I was tortured by the feeling that I ought to be doing more. Then I taught Thoreau.

For several years after earning my doctorate and securing a full-time position at the institution where my husband also taught, I was tortured by the feeling that I ought to be doing more. I ought to work up a book proposal (even though academic writing bores me), apply for tenure-track research jobs (even though I didn’t want a job where teaching would be secondary), and move on up the academic food chain (even though I had no desire to leave a city and a school I loved).

The compulsion of the ought wouldn’t let me go; some part of me felt I needed to be more ambitious, to “attain rank, influence, distinction or other preferment.” I was in this state of constant self-doubt and self-flagellation when I taught Walden for the first time, which is why it was so refreshing — so liberating — to hear someone spell out exactly why ambition is for the birds.

Where being ambitious requires caring deeply about what others think, Thoreau articulates why one shouldn’t care at all: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

We’ve heard this one before, I know; the drummer line gets repeated on refrigerator magnets and greeting cards and bookmarks. It’s like a Beatles song that you can no longer hear the brilliance of because it’s been turned into elevator music. But “Yesterday” is a great song, even if you’re tired of it, and the notion that success can be of different kinds should never fail to inspire — and to sanction one’s disregard for dominant notions of achievement.

Thoreau reminds us that ambition is a kind of desperation. To my longing ears and questioning heart, Thoreau’s words were a tonic, permission granted from the 19th century to my 21st-century self to live life as I wanted to, at my own pace and by my own standards.

Thoreau’s elevation of difference and nonconformity runs through all of Walden, even in its more dour sections. To wit, in one of his most famous statements, Thoreau asserts “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Where Kathryn Schulz takes this as a statement of “comprehensive arrogance,” I read it differently: as an utterance that comes from a place of deep regret.

Thoreau raged against the inclination people, then and now, have to “mak[e] [them]selves sick, that [they] may lay up something against a sick day” instead of appreciating the here and the now. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau asks. “We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.” His “we” there is important — Thoreau does not exempt himself from the critique he levels at others.

Henry David Thoreau.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If this exhortation to live in the moment and appreciate the bounty of one’s life sounds familiar, it may be because the same basic idea has gained purchase lately in the American embrace of mindfulness, a concept with origins in Buddhism that has gone mainstream. At its best, being mindful means paying attention, being present, and living without fear and judgment, with a kind, accepting heart. I can already hear some of my students objecting to the comparison, claiming that Thoreau is nothing if not judgmental.

But I am convinced that for all his finger wagging, Thoreau is the opposite of cynical. He writes to diagnose a problem of the spirit to which many succumb, and his writing is nothing if not an affirmation of the unique humanity of each of us. “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another?” he asks. “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Thoreau asks that we share his awe of empathy, not that we cordon ourselves off from others.

Though I’d read Walden as a grad student, upon reading it as a teacher, lines like these leaped out at me as though I were encountering them for the first time. I can only figure that while Thoreau hadn’t changed, I had. Reading him as an adult, carrying around the weight of others’ expectations, made his message newly relevant. Why was I making myself anxious because of the dictates of the “ought”? I had what I wanted — literature to read, students to converse with, ideas to pursue — right in front of me. Was I living in penury? Suffering some desperate need? Why was I determined to be starved when I wasn’t even hungry?

Such questions are relevant for anyone who has trouble getting away from market-based thinking — which is to say, most of us. We’ve been trained to find our worth in others’ eyes — in terms of the attention we attract (social media “likes” and the like); the renown, fame, and prestige we acquire, or don’t; and the salary we command.

In one of my favorite passages from Walden, Thoreau points to another path. He describes an Indian trying to peddle baskets and thus capitalize on his creative talent, only to find no takers. No one wanted to buy his baskets because “he had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them.”

Thoreau then draws an analogy between the Indian’s baskets and his literary creations: “I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.”

The conclusion Thoreau reaches is significant: creation, not marketing. Passion, not publicity. Impractical though the suggestion undoubtedly is, here Thoreau proposes something radical: One should try to circumvent the market. Find a way to pursue your passion for its own sake, for when the act of creation becomes dependent on there being a market for it, misspent energy and human waste is the result.

Thoreau’s message is echoed everywhere, from Walt Whitman to Marilynne Robinson

Once Walden got into my head, I heard its liberatory message whispering to me from every corner. In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman’s speaker scoffs at worldly success: “Have you outstript the rest? are you the President? / It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.”

In her essay “Facing Reality,” Marilynne Robinson channels Thoreau as she chides her materialistic fellow citizens, who embrace an ethos that she believes is “relentlessly this-worldly, very serious about material success, of all things.” Success, she reminds us, is an “object of derision in every wisdom literature ever penned.”

When, in his 2005 Kenyon commencement address that went viral, David Foster Wallace asks new graduates to remember that learning to think means “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience,” he too echoes Thoreau’s call for liberty — not freedom from obligations to others, nor freedom from community, but freedom from the walls of one’s own mind, cramped as it can be by the standards, ideologies, and expectations we inherit. There is a way out. As Thoreau puts it, turning perception itself into an art.

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day — that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

I’m not cured of ambition — but I’m working on it

Revisiting Thoreau brings another, hazy memory to mind. When we were sophomores in college my best friend and I went on a spring break service trip to southwest Virginia. The drive to the work site, through a valley lush with the florescence of early spring, was 13 miles long, and I cherished it, liking nothing more than to gaze out the window while music played on the van’s stereo. That window framed the countryside, bringing trees, hills, and flowers into striking compositions with telephone wires, windmills, and water towers.

“I think you like being in the car more than getting there!” my friend joked when I explained how gazing out the window transported me and lamented the end of the ride. That was when an acquaintance, overhearing our exchange, said something like this: “With an eye like that, she doesn’t need to arrive in order to be satisfied.”

Was that true then? Is it true now?

I’ll say this — I’m not cured of ambition, or of the desire to be noticed, to meet with success in the world’s eyes. Furthermore, I recognize that acceptance is the cousin of complacency, and that it can be hard to know where to draw the line. Do I love my job? Yes. Is the system of hiring in higher education, whereby nearly every rank of instructor can peer down on another who’d paid and treated worse than they are, terribly insidious? To be sure. At what point does satisfaction with one’s circumstances become collusion with the exploitation of others?

These are questions I’m working on — questions we should all work on. But I’ll say this. Thoreau returned me to my 19-year-old self, the girl who looked out the window in wonder. He reminded me that though we say “this is the only way,” “there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre.” It’s one thing to understand this message intellectually and quite another to absorb it bodily, fully, with all its implications and its promises of freedom. I’m still getting there.

Kathryn Hamilton Warren is the graduate coordinator and a senior lecturer in the English department at the University of Texas Arlington.

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