Originally posted by Elaine on her Substack, manners & mystery.
Is it possible to pursue your ambition without being attached to the outcome? I want to believe so because it’s healthier—less precarious and emotionally taxing—but I’m pretty sure that the more ambitious you are about a project, the more attached you are to its success, and there’s really no way around this.
You could rationalize that accomplishing a certain outcome is desirable because of XYZ. And those reasons would drive you to work toward your goal. But reason alone is not enough to sustain an ambition through all the trials and obstacles along the way. Your desire to accomplish that goal has to extend beyond reason—must, in some ways, be irrational—in order to propel you forward. Otherwise, you would reasonably give up.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to publish a novel. As many who have walked this path can attest to, it is riddled with challenges. There are so many points at which you could throw your hands up: in the process of drafting an entire book, in the process of revising the monstrosity you drafted, in the process of getting feedback from beta readers and having to rewrite whole parts of it, in the process of pitching the book to agents and getting dozens of rejections. At any point, I could’ve rationalized to myself that while it would be personally fulfilling to publish a novel, it’s not worth the strife and uncertainty. It takes someone who’s maniacally attached to their goal to forge on.
When someone tells me they are working on a book but don’t have enough hours to write, I think to myself that they are not irrationally invested enough. Because if you are crazy about writing that book, you will 100% find the time and energy to write it. (Almost) everything else takes second place. (And this is why exercising self-compassion is so important for writers and artists.)
This is true for any creative project. I doubt we would have many of the innovations that we take for granted today if it weren’t for a bunch of people working tirelessly and irrationally hard toward a goal. Because if you think about it: the status quo isn’t bad. Before there was the iPhone, we had Nokias and Motorolas, and they could make calls and send messages and even entertain us with a game of Snake. They worked fine. No one could say for certain whether the iPhone would be better. There was a lot of skepticism when it first came out. Why would anyone want a phone that could do almost anything, including taking pictures? I like my Canon just fine, thanks.
I think it was Simone de Beauvoir who said that attachments are worth our effort even if we suffer. I’m skeptical of the wisdom of practicing non-attachment. Attachment to non-material goods is an incredibly powerful motivator. It’s primal and evolutionary. Our survival depended on it: mothers need to be attached to their babies in order to care for them. When someone is attached to you, they give you their time, attention, and care. Similarly, when you’re ambitious about a project, you pour your time, attention, and creative resources into it. You don’t know what you’ll get in return, but it doesn’t matter because you’re so emotionally invested, the act of giving itself is pleasurable.
There are times I feel a sense of looming disaster: the closer I am to achieving a goal, the closer I am to everything that could go wrong. A part of me thinks that if I weren’t so attached I might be better able to manage my expectations and be O.K. with a less-than-desirable outcome. But if I weren’t attached, I wouldn’t be this close to achieving my goal in the first place. So the task isn’t to become less attached to the outcome, it’s to recognize and anticipate the ways in which the outcome might not be what you envisioned and to mentally prepare yourself for surprise. That doesn’t always mean you’ll be disappointed.
Most of all, it’s about recognizing that the journey itself is the reward: to remind yourself that while attachment to an outcome keeps you going through hardship, you’re only doing this because you enjoy it. No matter what happens you’ll be O.K. because there was purpose and meaning every step of the way, and you had a lot of fun working on the project for however many months or years. No outcome, no matter how disappointing, can take away the excitement and joy you experienced.
Just like with heartbreak, we should take the time to mourn what could have been, but it helps to recognize that creativity is abundant, and if we allow it, there will always be something new to inspire us and drive us toward the next crazy goal.
Photo by Bridget Riley, Conversation, 1992