I have been thinking about drive because I’ve lost some. Not that I’ve ever been a very driven character. I know people who are. And when I read biographies of famous people I’m often struck by their obsessive qualities. Some of those qualities are obviously problematic. Norman Mailer was driven to write but also to attract attention and to take women to bed. Vincent Van Gogh was driven to paint but also to quarrel.
More positively, though, obsession and ambition create focus and motivate work. Some people are born with talent, but very few successful careers are built on just talent. You have to work at it. Driven people work at it long after other people have taken a break, gone out to dinner, or gone to bed. I have no doubt I would be a better writer if I were more driven.
I don’t think I have it in me. At any rate I’ve never wanted to be like that, never saw it as a good thing. My father-in-law, a successful surgeon, sometimes cited three factors that made a recipe for success: ambition, participation, and hard work. I wasn’t fond of the first of those. I saw ambition as selfish. It meant thinking too much about yourself and how you could advance yourself. It went with self-importance.
With the benefit of a few years I have revised my views. I now see that ambition does not have to be selfish. I have little doubt that Mother Teresa was driven. So for Augustine, Luther, Francis. The Bible word is “zeal.” Jesus had zeal. So did Paul.
I don’t know many people who would put themselves in that category, though. Can you make yourself zealous? Can you manufacture drive? To a limited extent, I think you can. You can determine that your goals demand a certain level of intensity, and you can bind yourself to that intensity. However, I think most driven people are born that way, or maybe made that way by a certain kind of ambitious parent. Driven people don’t usually choose to be obsessive, it’s just the way they see the world. They can’t help themselves.
Here’s where it gets a little subtler, though. We usually think of drive and ambition relating to the public world–to politics, business, the arts, to fame and achievement. But I know mothers who have little interest in the public world, yet will drive themselves to the limit as mothers. In fact, I myself never had to decide to pour myself into fatherhood. It was simply the most engrossing thing I knew, and nothing would stand in my way. I was more driven to fatherhood than I ever was to my writing, to judge by my willingness to go on when exhausted.
Something of the idea of “calling” comes into play here. Someone who finds a “calling” just naturally devotes himself to the work–whether it is gardening, bird watching, coaching basketball, or fixing cars. Nobody has to remind him or her to work at it. The hard thing is to get such people to stop.
As I review my own life, I see that I had such a calling to write. I loved it, I never got enough of it, I was ever eager to do more and I was zealous to write well. The same with parenting. Yes, other people were more driven than I. But it’s relative, and I suppose my ambitions in those areas would rank fairly high.
I’m now in my sixties, and I can feel quite clearly that I do not have the drive I once did. I’m pretty sure it’s related to hormones. But it’s also related to circumstances. My kids are grown and married. It feels as though I’ve found my level as a writer–I’m probably not going to be published in The New Yorker or win the National Book Award. If I were a more driven character this might drive me to ever-greater efforts to transcend, but instead it leaves me just content to keep doing what I do and love to do. I don’t have much ambition any more. And I miss it.
I miss it like a gap in my teeth that my tongue keeps finding. A force in myself that I relied on–I just had to write–isn’t really there any more. It’s as though you sat down to breakfast one morning and found you didn’t have much of a taste for food. You still eat. But it’s something you choose to do, not something that comes automatically.
My mother, who had lots of sayings we repeat fondly, used to say that when you are young, your great temptation is sex; when you are middle-aged, your great temptation is money; and when you are old, your great temptation is grumbling. I’m thinking that grumbling comes in because life isn’t providing built-in gusto for you; you miss it, and you tend to think someone or something must be to blame.
If God is behind the aging process, as I think he must be, then he pays us a great compliment, disguised as a challenge. We have reached the stage of maturity–or should have–when we must provide our own motivation. We don’t find ourselves seized by a vocation. We aren’t driven any more. Not the longing for sex, nor money, nor fame, nor achievement, nor love makes us live and breathe. We have to decide what is worth pursuing, and do it.