On my birthday, my then-girlfriend and I watched the second 2012 presidential debate like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Admittedly, this was an unusual way to celebrate, but we had an unusual relationship. (We were the kind of couple that half-seriously discussed playing a Gucci Mane song for our first dance as husband and wife.)
In the midst of consuming every Twitter comedian's 140-character take on the debate, I came across a link that referenced an article I wrote. As I began to read it aloud, my girlfriend sat beside me to listen.
"Can you just marry me right now?" she asked when I finished, both proud of my work and legitimately turned on.
But over the course of a year, our relationship deteriorated, and we were both to blame. The biggest factor in its eventual demise was on me. My career obsession, my ambition, eventually drove a deep wedge between us.
From an early age, we’re taught about the advantages of success. Do well in high school so you can get into a good college. Do well in college so you can get a good job. Excel at your job so you can get promoted, buy a lot of nice stuff, and start a nuclear family of champions. Ambition is often what separates the good from the mediocre and the exceptional from the great. People are undeniably drawn towards those who want the best from life.
At various points in my youth, my mother told me that "women like achievers," but I had already arrived at this truth by myself. I noticed the premium placed on accomplished men throughout my life. My mom married my father who was, above all, a go-getter. In school, the forward-thinking girls gravitated towards the guys most likely to succeed. When rapper Amil says, "Ambition makes me so horny" in Jay Z's "Can I Get A…," she isn't just interested in all the things a successful man could buy her with his money—she's turned on by his drive and desire to earn it in the first place.
All my female friends have said they think men with goals are sexy. Ambitious men plan for the future. Ambitious men provide comfort and security. Ambitious men engage in more interesting conversations because they have the means to go places, and see what the world has to offer. Above all, ambitious men motivate their partners to be their best selves.
But relationships fall apart quickly when an ambitious man's focus shifts from his significant other, and onto other goals he can't share with her.
Throughout most of acclaimed AMC drama Breaking Bad, protagonist Walter White cites the desperate need to support his family as the reason for his transformation from emasculated science teacher to prolific meth distributor. But in the show's series finale, Walter finally concedes what the audience knew all along: He did it for himself. He was making up for lost time, pursuing the life he believed he deserved, and felt "alive" as a result. The dark side of ambition is that it breeds tunnel vision, and having blinders on alienates the people who are most important to us.
Everyone has the right to pursue happiness and fulfillment, but when that desire drastically reduces a significant other’s role in your life—leaving you alone in the process—something’s clearly wrong. In the end, Walter had nothing left but infamy.
I graduated from college during the recession, and got a traumatizing taste of corporate America shortly afterwards. One year in, I knew that pushing paper through an archaic version of Windows and silently cursing people who sent emails with read receipts wasn't for me. I tried to avoid complaining because I knew others who were fresh out of law school, but still struggling to find work. Writing, a passion I abandoned just before leaving undergrad, became my escape from the gouge-your-eyes-out monotony. And just as I began settling into my quarter-life crisis, I started getting paid to write. Unbeknownst to me, however, this was the beginning of the end of my relationship.
When we were in our early "Are We or Aren't We?" phase, my girlfriend would ask me why I worked at an office I loathed like a drone? So, I accumulated bylines by writing my ass off in my free time, and eventually found myself staring at a fork in the road. Once I decided to pursue writing exclusively, everything changed.
It marked the first time in my post-graduate existence that I woke up every day, and did something that mattered to me. Writing was no longer a diversion—it was my everything. And this quest to excel, this all-encompassing need to be heard, left my girlfriend holding the short end of the stick. While I obsessed over page views and who was retweeting my work, she went ignored.
While I obsessed over page views and who was retweeting my work, she went ignored.
Every time I checked off an accomplishment, I felt the need to exceed it. This determination to outdo myself slowly consumed me. I was convinced that being a prolific writer would open doors from which we’d both benefit, but failed to realize how self-absorbed I’d become in the process. All my accolades have an asterisk next to them because the harder I pushed myself, the further I pushed her away. I tried to justify the neglect by insisting that I was working towards an ideal, but my explanation grew less appealing to her over time.
One year after watching the presidential debate on my birthday, she and I found ourselves in my apartment again. At this point, we were in the "It’s Over and We’re Just Together for Comfort" phase. While I hid behind the glow of my laptop screen, she occupied herself with Instagram.
She broke the silence by saying something I brushed off at the time, but haunts me to this day: "When I think back on our relationship, I’ll just see you in front of a computer."
"It paid off," I said after a pause.
We then returned to ignoring each other.
The notion that time heals all wounds is a saccharine lie; some experiences are supposed to scar. Distance from your mistakes only gives you space to reflect on how you erred and how you can avoid doing it again. Over the years, my now ex-girlfriend and I have both come clean about the ways we failed each other. I, for one, apologized for fetishizing success.
Although I think all lessons are good lessons, this one is still a jagged pill to swallow. I got everything I thought I wanted—my beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy—at the expense of the one with whom I really wanted to share it.
At the end of the day, all I got was a hollow victory.