If you find yourself in Washington DC with some time on your hands I highly recommend the National Museum of the Native American, found on the Mall. The exhibitions are really interesting but you should go for the meso-American food served in the cafe – unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else.
I’ve visited there twice to date, on one of those occasions I found myself in the gift shop looking at a selection of dreamcatchers. Knowing I wanted one, I was torn between the small, medium and large – there was only a $2 price gradient – erring towards the small because I didn’t see what additional benefit a larger dreamcatcher would bring me.
“Wait a minute…” I suddenly thought to myself, “What size are the dreams you’re wishing to catch?!”
So I went and bought the biggest.
Ambition is something I’ve always had. My self-esteem ebbs and fluctuates, but in a professional context I’ve never seen the harm in taking a risk. Maybe I’m just bad at assessing my own limitations – that is sometimes clearly the case – maybe I’m a bit arrogant. I used to do a lot of bouldering (low-level rock climbing without safety equipment or partner) and found that the moments where I was hanging off the gym wall, unsure of whether I was about to fall or right myself, were the moments I felt most alive. Maybe I just enjoy taking risks.
This week I found myself in a situation where I came to question how my level of ambition matched reality. I had been invited to interview for a hospitality assistant manager position at a local hotel and was waiting in the lounge. I’d been told that the previous interview was running late; from where I was sitting I could identify them in another room. From a distance I identified the interviewee as a woman in her 40s, wearing a nice shirt and sporting a sharp haircut. The scene was relaxed: I saw her hand gestures, laughter and evidence of a free-flowing dialogue.
I don’t have a chance against applicants like that.
Look at me, a recent graduate with comparatively little to offer in the way of managerial experience, up against individuals with decades of the stuff. Me, quite heavily introverted, for whom the type of effortless exchange on display required *a lot* of effort and stamina. Me, for whom “workplace makeup” was a strange new world (enough to make it clear that I was wearing the stuff, was what I decided). In 5-10 minutes it would be my turn, and I’d suddenly realised what I was up against.
What does one do in a situation like that?
What does one do when a simple hand-hold on a rock face throws you completely off balance, when you find yourself in a precarious position with several feet of drop below?
Well, you have to keep very calm. ‘Cause when you panic, falling becomes a certainty. When you’re calm, it remains an option.
It became clear to both the interviewer and myself about halfway through the interview that I wasn’t in the running for the advertised position. However, I’d shown enough potential to be considered for a lower-level position in the company with the option of promotion later. We then had a useful chat about career paths in the hospitality industry. If I hadn’t over-reached in such a manner, I wouldn’t have had the interview, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the endorsement for the alternative job.
Ambition is certainly what drove me to re-apply to the US Grad Schools – I think the first attempt can be attributed rather to naivety about the competition and the market.
After the first application cycle I bumped into an individual who I’d been keeping abreast of developments. When I joined their conversation, this person told them that my choice of schools had “been a *little* ambitious…” …before naming all the Ivies I’d applied to. I diplomatically conceded the point, but internally was still thinking to myself “Well, there is no point in me having *mediocre* ambitions…”
Second time around and I still applied to several Ivies but added in more realistic, less competitive programs. Once I knew I was going to re-attempt the grad school applications I approached a large number of Ivy League professors at my schools of interest and visited the full range of universities. The mysticism of the Ivy League was rubbed off, and its faculty humanised in the process. I came away from the experience realising that there wasn’t that great a gap between the elite American universities and the less well known research-intensive institutions. I think I’ve managed to reconcile my ambitious streak with (a) my abilities (b) the full set of opportunities open to me: if I work hard at a good university, then the outcome won’t be much different from if I’d been studying at a brand-name institution. Also, I’ve now networked with a number professors at a various universities. Even if I wasn’t admitted to my first choice PhD program…I’ve still got a lot to show for my “failed” attempt.
I know I must be careful not to let high levels of ambition segue into arrogance. Or blind me to the decent, more suited opportunities.
But I have many dreams that I wish to catch. And when I aim for the biggest I leave the widest scope for catching the smaller ones.