I have been one of those annoying over-achievers for as long as I can remember. During parent-teacher meetings at school, my friends avoided me like the plague to prevent their parents from finding out my near-perfect scores. And I would avoid taking time off from school even if a plague did hit me.
Once, when I was in the fifth grade, I underwent a minor dental surgery at the army hospital next to my school on the same day as my Math semester exam. The numbness in my mouth had not even worn off fully and I was back at school solving integers. I scored a 14 on 20 in that paper. The lowest point of my life. Or so my sweet, dumb brain would have me believe.
The second lowest point of my life? Finding out I scored 93 percent in my board examinations and bursting into irrational tears because it meant I could not get into my dream university and had to accept the second-best option. My parents were befuddled that day. I am sure they wondered if all those soaked almonds they forced me to eat throughout my childhood had overfed my brain more than necessary.
I was too young to fully grasp what the ‘over-achiever’ tag everyone kept throwing at me meant. I did not see back then how the ‘over’ added a negative connotation to what should have been a rewarding quality in any child.
As I came of age, however, the quality persisted and flourished. And a new word was added to my lexicon: ambitious.
As I got older and wiser, I started to see how the word ‘ambition’ too could be held against a woman, when deemed convenient by patriarchy. But I owned it. I was ambitious about a lot of things and that was that. I was ferociously ambitious about my journalistic dreams. I was ambitious about the things I wanted to accomplish by a certain age. I was ambitious about where all I wanted to live and what languages I wanted to learn. I created goalposts and kept moving them forward just as I neared them.
I used to look forward to writing my new-year bucket list goals on my flight back to Hong Kong after spending the holidays in India, which became an annual ritual for six years. Some years I wanted to write more and win recognition for my stories. Some years I wanted to do writing, podcasting, documentary filmmaking and everything else within the scope of journalism. Other years, I just wanted to tame that gnawing inner turmoil and volunteer in far-flung places. I kept dreaming. I kept hustling.
I moved to Hong Kong in my early 20s and persevered even during my lowest lows because I had ambitions. I uprooted my life, once again, by moving to New York right after I turned 30, because my ambitions outgrew the city I had come to call home for almost seven years. And no tenaciously ambitious person would say no to moving to the city that gives wings to the entire world’s ambitions, right?
So much of life and its meandering ways do not make sense. But being zealous about life goals at least gives you the perception of control.
2020 robbed us of that control. The pandemic took away our meticulously curated lives and forced us to confront a simpler, scarier alternative. It took a toll on us physically, emotionally and mentally, turning us into duller versions of ourselves.
And somewhere along the way, the pandemic also took away my ambitions. Or at least the hyper-version of ambition my sweet, dumb brain had me chasing all my life.
Someone I recently met asked me about my big, unmet ambition at 31. I rattled off my answer in a jiffy. If my idealism hadn’t withered away the way it had after years of working in the news business, I would move to Turkey in an instant to start covering human rights and conflict.
I came back home that evening and thought long and hard about my answer. I wasn’t lying or being needlessly grandiose. I have harbored this ambition for so long that every single person in my life is privy to it. Why the ambition has remained unmet is a different matter entirely, but that does not dilute its substance. But that night I realized I had parroted a rehearsed answer that no longer resonated with me. Somewhere along the way, the pandemic had shifted my goalposts entirely, raising more questions than answers about what I seek from life.
I love what I do, and journalism is my calling. There is no greater joy than seeing scattered thoughts from wide-ranging conversations come together to form a cohesive, informed piece of writing.
Yet, suddenly my current vision of the future does not include getting adrenalin rushes from chasing scoops in a foreign, hostile lands. I am not sure I see myself hustling and striving to one day work at the biggest name in the business. I am not sure I want to be jet-setting to a new country every time I want a new challenge in life.
As our pace of life has slowed down over the past year, so have my ambitions and aspirations. No more marathons. Just long, purposeful walks.
I did not write any grand bucket-list goals when I was flying back from India this January. Today, my current vision of the future includes deliberate, thoughtful writing and reporting and not market-moving breaking news. Writing that book I have always wanted to write. Owning a cozy bookstore café somewhere in the mountains.
Suddenly, my sweet, dumb brain only wants to chase stillness.
The pandemic has taken away my ambition as I knew it. But what if in doing so it is pushing me towards something I needed all along? Has the pandemic taken away your ambition too?