It’s Time to Replace Ambition with Adaptation

The pandemic and climate crises make working ourselves to the bone in service of our own ambition seem a little silly. Let’s change that.

Illustration: Ana Galvañ

Earlier in the summer, while picking up trash on a beach near where I live, I had a revelation: Engaging in this rather mundane activity was the most useful I had felt in a while. The idea was both unsettling and freeing at the same time.

We’ve all been spending more time lately on activities that feel immediately useful: cooking meals, moving our bodies, making and mending things, growing gardens, and — like me with the beach rubbish — serving as stewards of the places where we live.

But while the litter-picking was initially a way to fill my time during the long pandemic summer, it also got me thinking about the very notion of how I spend my time. In February, right before the world fell apart, I was diagnosed with burnout. I had been working too hard, and despite taking some time off, I didn’t have a strong sense of how I was going to avoid repeating the cycle again in the future.

Then the pandemic added another layer of context. As our attention collectively went to our more elemental needs in lockdown, I wondered about the point of spending my days nestled behind a screen, furiously making myself look ever more successful and important to other people nestled behind their own screens. Where was I headed?

Ambition means different things to different people, but in the capitalist framework I am talking about, I think its defining feature is its linear trajectory. Think of all the highly driven and ambitious people you know working long after their basic needs are met: Are they ever “done” or satisfied with where they’ve ended up and ready to call it quits on achieving? Of course not. Ambition is an unquenchable thirst.

Facing a world that seems to get worse by the hour, an urgent climate emergency that is certain to dismantle our global supply chains in a way that makes Covid-19 look quaint, and a new understanding of how to live at a slower pace, we have to ask: Does following our personal and narrowly defined ambition, at the cost of all other skills and possibly our own health, make much sense anymore?

It might seem depressing to give up on ambition, like a form of resignation. Ambition seems, after all, a uniquely human trait — one that lies at the core of innovation, creativity, and discovery. But what if it wasn’t ambition that is the defining trait of our species? What if all along, the trait that made humans so different was the far less destructive quality of adaptation?

Ambition has failed us

Since the Industrial Revolution launched a large subset of humanity into the illusion that we could conquer nature for our own purposes, linear ambition has been a kind of survival strategy. In recent decades, that’s certainly been true for privileged, knowledge-economy workers like me: We’re always trying to keep up in a world of work that seems to constantly get faster and expect more of us, leaving us too burned out and apathetic to deal with anything that doesn’t directly affect us or our families.

As survival goes, it’s a pretty shaky strategy. As the early days of lockdown showed us, spreadsheets and Google Analytics aren’t what anyone needs in a crisis. Many of us engaged in what late anthropologist David Graeber once famously termed “bullshit jobs” and are entirely dependent on that cohort of people we began calling “essential workers” in 2020.

It’s a label that gained recognition far too late. Essential workers are rarely celebrated, even though the people who pick our fruit and look after our kids and care for our elderly parents are arguably more responsible for our survival than ourselves. Our career-focused ambition has allowed for a sense of removal from our actual survival and a denial of the humanity of a huge subset of people who help us stay alive.

Indeed, many of us are living in a disconnect: working in service of ourselves and our own narrowly defined, future-facing goals without seeing that the future on the horizon is one where many of those goals simply won’t be possible anymore thanks to the climate emergency.

And that cognitive dissonance, says psychologist and climate activist Margaret Klein Salamon, requires a lot of mental work to maintain — work that could instead be put toward confronting the existential challenge we face.

“When you avoid the truth [of environmental collapse,] you put the energy that could be used towards preventing the climate emergency towards safeguarding the fiction you’ve created yourself,” Salamon writes in her book Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself With Climate Truth. “But it is an incredible relief to let go of your defenses, your vigilance, your effort to safeguard and deny. … It may be hard to believe, but fully integrating climate truth into your life will make you lighter, less encumbered, and more capable of facilitating change.”

We’ve already started adapting

Adaptation may look different for different people, but I think it starts with facing this disconnect head-on: Our individualized, highly specialized career ambition is no longer a suitable match for the world we’re living in. Hastened by the pandemic, many knowledge-economy workers are, as British broadcaster and journalist Bidisha wrote in the Guardian, facing our own “professional obsolescence.”

But embracing adaptation as an alternative is not saying that we can’t be creative or innovative or willing to work hard — on the contrary, we must be all those things. But it calls us to shift those skills elsewhere, beyond our personal interests and egos to communal and societal challenges that are collective. It also calls us to redefine what it means to live a “successful” life.

The good news is that we as humans are uniquely equipped to do this, says aboriginal scholar Tyson Yunkaporta, who is a member of the Apalech clan from Western Cape York in Australia. Taking an indigenous perspective, he said in an interview with the Rebel Wisdom podcast, allows us to see “the most important gift is reclaiming the adaptive capacity of our species. It is our unique gift … to be able to adapt to massive changes and massive traumas. Acceptance is part of our human knowledge systems — any knowledge system that is still human and not domesticated.”

It’s already happening, albeit belatedly, in some contexts. You can see it in California, where state officials are finally engaging with indigenous leaders on traditional methods of fire suppression after years of trying to fight (and in the process worsening) the state’s naturally occurring wildfires. You can see it in people who used to spend one-third of their lives in airports now realizing that it is, by every metric, a pathologically unsustainable and totally absurd way to live — both for a person and the planet. You can see it in the surge in demand for land allotments in the U.K., perhaps a manifestation of the “urgent biophilia” that emerges each time humans face catastrophe, and in the growing number of young Lebanese farmers who are meeting the country’s chronic instability by producing food on abandoned land.

What adaptation might look like for you

On a personal level, this shift could take many forms. Maybe it means you focus on building social capital in your community rather than a LinkedIn or Instagram following. That you downsize or move to a cheaper place and acquire less stuff so you can work less, produce more, and rely less on globalized supply chains. Maybe it means re-skilling and re-networking yourself (in an offline sense) so you have more to offer your immediate community and vice versa. Maybe you channel your penchant for spreadsheets or publicity or social media into the climate movement, an urgent local environmental cause, or advocating for universal basic income.

This requires an emotional and spiritual depth and fortitude that our culture does not encourage us to cultivate. We don’t even have a language for acknowledging that we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation that money and hard work and ingenuity can’t solve.

And yet, we cannot outachieve or outrun our sense that something is very off. Salamon — who founded The Climate Mobilization, a group advocating for a World-War-II-scale mobilization to fight climate change — says the first step is feeling the grief for what we’re losing.

“What people need to grieve is the world they thought they were living in, the future they thought they had,” Salamon said in a phone interview. “The process of grieving is very tied up in the process of reckoning.” And that grief and reckoning, she added, leads to “a process of adapting to a new reality.”

Taking the time and space to adjust to these seismic shifts may require changing your entire life, what you thought you wanted, and who you thought you were. And when you do it, it also means you will feel compelled to act.

For those of us who can — those of us who right now have the headspace, the financial security, the resources — modeling and facilitating this kind of acceptance and shift from ambition to adaptation may have a multiplier effect. “True cultural change doesn’t happen unilaterally,” Yunkaporta writes in his paradigm-bending book, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. “Cultural innovations occur in deep relationships between land, spirit, and groups of people.”

The change is not going to come from our leaders or normal political means but from us.

There’s a certain personal relief, I think, in admitting that your ambition is no longer that useful. Because it’s hard to have a foot in both worlds: to do the daily emotional work of trying to reconcile the horrific things going on around you with the self-interested and superficial things you want for yourself in the future. Instead, you can start thinking about how to apply your own efforts, talents, and creativity to the world’s existential peril rather than pretend the future will be fine as you power through yet another brutal workweek.

Somewhere in there lies the sweet spot where our human capacity for adaptation itself becomes ambitious. Where we begin to embody our role not as atomized professionals trying to survive in a cutthroat economy but as what Yunkaporta calls “custodians” of our land, communities, and indeed our own futures.

Writing about how to create a meaningful life in a chaotic world. Formerly a lifestyle and business reporter. Find me: @rojospinks.

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