Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ambition and Sacrifice

In the gym yesterday, I picked up the January issue of Esquire entitled "10 Years of Wisdom...What I've learned." It featured stories and anecdotes from celebrities on different topics like Regret, Parenting, NYC, Pain, etc. There was a small section on Ambition, and I found a quote by James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA) to be especially interesting -

"If I had been married earlier in life, I wouldn't have seen the double helix. I would have been taking care of the kids on Saturday. On the other hand, I was lonely a lot of the time." - James Watson

What struck me about the quote was that it perfectly captured the trade-off that many overachievers struggle with; should we sacrifice family or relationships for the chance to achieve something great or noteworthy? In Watson's case, his ambition resulted in one of the most significant breakthroughs in biology, but it came with a price (loneliness).

But I think what was most interesting is what the quote didn't say - did he make the choice to focus on his work consciously ahead of time, or was he just always working and therefore "never had time for a wife" (as Billy Joel would put it). It's also unclear whether he would make the same choice again. Did he regret the path he took? Would he have been happier in life if he had been taking care of the kids on Saturday?

In the quote, he offered wisdom but no suggestions for the younger generation of driven individuals. Many of us are left wondering "Was it worth the sacrifice?" or "Is it rewarding enough to knowingly choose ambition, while we still have a choice?"

Maybe, as a well-trained scientist, Watson felt he shouldn't draw conclusions about "the path not taken," rather only offer his experience and wisdom. Since many of us are at the fork in the road right now, what do you think? Is it worth making the sacrifices in favor of ambition or success? What sacrifices are ok? What trade-offs are you having to think about right now?

1 comment:

foo said...

I think this is totally where I am right now. It seems to boil down to: can I be happy just making "average" accomplishments in my work? And thinking about what internal vs external measures of success are important to me.

As an aside, James Watson is not a very nice person. I wonder if that came from years of loneliness.