Ambition Versus Time

Image: A healthy fear of death

"Maybe it's time for me to leave Japan," my friend says. "I feel like maybe it's now or never."

He, like me, would like to be a standup comedian with more success than doing shows here and there in the cultural backwater of English comedy in Japan. He's considering going to LA, one of the comedy Meccas, because there's actual opportunity and reward there, if you can navigate all the significant challenges. As opposed to where we are now, where no matter how funny you are in front of an audience, ultimately, the most you'll really get out of it is the satisfaction of making a room full of people laugh. There are no agents in the crowd scouting to see if there's someone they can use, there are no auditions being held looking for breakout talents, the community isn't big enough to be an ecosystem that cultivates entrepreneurial entertainment projects.

But why now?

"I feel my body decaying," he says both truthfully and ironically. "I mean, I feel like any later than this, I might be too old to go for it."

He's younger than me by just a little bit, so if anything, I feel the same decay, and maybe a little more. The thing is, though, that I've felt the same decay all my life. "Decay" might be the wrong word. Something more like "already late". When I was twenty five it felt like I had already taken a few wrong turns at age twenty and maybe I had missed some key moments that were supposed to shape my life. At thirty, I looked back at twenty five and lamented how I missed the boat then, too. At thirty five, forty, and now, same deal.

It's taken me this long to realize that part of the reason I kept missing the boat at whatever milestone I look back at was precisely because I felt a constant pressure to have already done some essential groundwork to make whatever next opportunity immediately accessible. It always felt like I was not in the place I already wanted to be to even start on the path to my goals, so I had to make up for lost time by pushing harder. If I didn't, I'd be too old to do it.

Was I? Am I? How old is too old to aspire, and when did I cross the line?

Culture, by which I mean a sort of globalized capitalist culture that I don't quite know where the bounds are, exalts this idea that aspiration is bound with youth, and youth itself is a narrowly defined section of your life.

I watch a show called "Terrace House", it's a Japanese reality show that has three women and three men living in a house together. One of the stated rules of the show is that they have no one over thirty, though someone thirty one or so might slip in now and again. Much like "reality" shows from around the world, most of the circumstances are fabricated for viewing interest. But unlike most "reality" shows in places like America, it's not out to create histrionic conflict among the cast. It's very low key, the cast largely settle disputes by talking, and a lot of it is just people doing things like going to work, having dinner together, and living their lives. Terrace House celebrates the mundane.

I was wondering what it was that appealed to me about the show, beyond practicing Japanese, when my friend Lindsay pointed out that it's "lifestyle porn". It's an all encompassing term that includes what is probably the most popular aspect of this show's pornography, which is the vicarious way in which the viewer can see and access the experience of young people falling in and out of love and romance, and all the silly mistakes young people make along the way. Possibly all the show's romantic conflicts could be resolved by people just being more direct about how they feel.

For me, though, the most appealing part of the pornography of the show is how everyone is so aspirational. They all have big dreams, to become fashion designers, singers, pro surfers, chefs, business managers, hockey players, and whatever else. Whatever it is they want to do, even if it's just find romance, they want to get the most out of it, be the best, to experience it to the fullest so that it will shape their identity.

Yu, one of the show's presenters who provides commentary, one time joked about how the show would be that much more mundane if everyone on it was around forty. "Hi, I'm Yuusuke, I'm a tax consultant," she acted out. Comedically, it was the right joke at the moment, and my following analysis is my own thing, not anything she was trying to say. Actually, they also joked that maybe they'd like to see the over forty version of "Terrace House", precisely for how blunt it would be in contrast to the confused attempts to grasp certainty that young people grope in the dark for.

Anyway, if you look at the perception of what it means to become an adult that her comment is built on, it's a little weird, isn't it? It's not so much that being a tax consultant is the hallmark job of having given up on the joy of life, it's just that it seems so settled. That around forty, your job is stable, set. You, as a person, should be defined by now. Maybe it was your dream to become a tax consultant, and you love the work and what it provides for you, but whatever aspiration you had as a young adult should be solidified by forty.


I wouldn't mind being being solidified into something. It's just that it feels like the expectation to settle into an identity is more than the pressure to find the right identity to settle into. I'd love to be using my mortal time on this earth to be doing the things I feel I'm best at and having everyone know me for those things. But I haven't hit that sweet spot yet, and I'd like to keep trying.

It's not that anything or anyone is really stopping me, not actively. Social pressures and conformity have a way of existing without being present. No one has ever said to my face, "you're too old to be trying anymore." It's a perception I absorb indirectly, through comments like my friend saying he feels his window is closing, or Yu describing a show about middle aged people being focused on how settled they are. Recently I was looking at the application requirements for getting a permanent residency visa in Japan, where one of the routes to application involved a point system. That point system gets harder as you get older. The idea, I think, is not that the government gives a damn about the intersection between age and ambition. It's just that younger people can spend longer contributing to the social safety net, and are less likely to draw from it. Still, just because they aren't sending a message doesn't mean I won't receive it. You want to apply now? You should have applied twenty years ago. Then your life would already be what it is that you're trying to make it into.

I feel like I'm constantly trying to break out of an ethereal prison of social constraint. Half the time the effort I put into banging against the wall is driven by a panic that I will die alone and suffocating in a small room that I built out of constantly compounding mistakes. The other half of the time I try to convince myself that "age is just a number" and that sort of thing, my life is how I define it, and what I make of it, it doesn't have to be predetermined by anyone else's rules. Especially since no one is actively making the rules, they're just ensuing from general biases and assumptions that people absorb from no one and everyone.

Age is just a number. Yeah, but it's a number on a clock, and it's counting down, not up.

I'd like to say I have some clever insight on this that ultimately pushes me through in order to continue to make the effort to try and fulfill my ambitions. Unfortunately, the thing that keeps me going is not some key that unlocks a resource of positivity to make me pop up out of bed every morning like toast from a toaster. All I've been able able to muster as motivation is, "what else are you going to do? Just sit down and die?" As much as constantly aspiring feels like the symptom of a life that didn't amount to much, the alternative, to not make any attempt at all, seems so much worse.

To at least try to end on some kind of positive note, I do take some comfort in the idea that my ambitions are not as tied to my physical health or youth as they are for others. Ultimately, I want to tell stories, and that is something I can pretty much do at any age, in some form or another. If my dream was to be a professional hockey player, that window would have been decidedly closed a lot earlier in life.

And what if your ambition was something where there was a definite time where you pretty much had to stop because it's only available for a specific period of your life? Even if it succeeded, and you had the rest of your life ahead of you, are you supposed to just sit around thinking, "I was awesome once"?

Maybe I'd rather stay ambitious in any case.