Sunday's New York Times included this quote from "The Secret Lives of Salvador Dali": "At the age of six, I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since."
Is ambition a key factor in getting ahead? It depends on what you want to get ahead to.
When I was starting out in advertising in Chicago, a new copywriter by the name of Earl joined us from the Leo Burnett agency. He asked me what I wanted to be. I said I wanted to be a good copywriter. He said he wanted to be a creative director. That changed everything for me. For the first time as a professional, I worried that I wasn't aiming high enough.
I eventually became a creative director myself, thanks to that little nudge from Earl. I've been wanting to be a copywriter again ever since.
There's a lot to be said for lack of ambition, if it means keeping your mind off the race and into simply perfecting your craft. Jerry Della Femina, in his book on advertising in the '60s, says advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. He was a copywriter at the time.
Where else can you make a good living playing all day with words and pictures and music, making little stick-figure drawings and reading research?
And you don't even need a computer! A pencil and a sheet of paper (or a pen and a napkin) will do just fine.
I've written Chevrolet commercials on a plane from the Midwest to L.A., and a 20-million-dollar General Motors corporate campaign on a milk train to Toronto. Both were more fun for me to do than soduku or crossword puzzles.
The whole thing comes down to attitude rather than ambition. Do you really want to spend thirty years becoming a $900,000 executive? That's fine if it's what you want, and you're willing to give what it takes. But a writer has to write. An artist has to do her art. Anything else, and that wee small voice inside gets cranky.
Tim Cook, the new c.e.o. of Apple, was paid $378 million in 2011, including Apple stock, according to the Times. That's about the price of 757,515 iPads.
If I were him I'd take the money and run, and get a job teaching students how to do things they love.