This weekend I was reading The Inner Voice, the autobiography of opera singer Renée Fleming. In the book, she explains her view that ambition should not be about rising to the top. Ambition, to Fleming, is an “inner motivator.”
It’s less about seeing how high up I can vault than about seeing how deeply I can explore my potential. How can I find a truer interpretation of a role? How much more depth and light and emotion can I find in my own voice? How much can I feel when I’m singing a piece, and how much can I in turn make the audience feel? Ambition for me is about the willingness to work, the ability to mine my own soul fearlessly. At the end of my career, I want to know in my heart that I did everything I was capable of doing, that I succeeded in singing in a way that not even I had imagined was possible.
As I read Fleming’s words, I couldn’t help but recall my last blog post on Bill Belichick. Belichick’s ambition, in Fleming’s terms, is not driven by the need to develop one’s gifts; his ambition is driven by a need “to step on other people to make sure you’re the first one to get through the door.”
A few years ago, in a radio interview, Fleming told the host of her long hours of practice and her belief that she didn’t have exceptional ability. She explained:
The most important talent that exists in all of us is our instrument; whatever sound there is that makes us all unique is the crucial thing that separates the men from the boys. But it is the part of which we have no control over, so it’s not what I think about everyday. I’m not aware of how my voice sounds so much as I’m steeped in the process of making the notes on the page come to life.
Fleming’s views on both ambition and ability reflect her deep understanding that her accomplishments arise out of a process of personal surrender to forces greater than her self. It is her “inner motivator” that allows these forces to live in her. Wisely, she pays less attention to the outcome and more attention to her practice. She observed philosophically in her interview that her gifts were ephemeral: “On any given night, what we do is a gift, and it can all go away due to unforeseen possibilities.”
Fleming is not unique. We have all been given a gift of genius; our business is to discover it, practice it, and share it. We can only share that for which we have respect. And we can only respect our gifts if we understand, as Fleming does, that our gifts truly are gifts—we did not create them.
The energy that animates Fleming’s gifts, and our gifts, has been called by many names. I prefer Wholeness, since that word conveys that each of us is a part of something greater than our self. It is this energy of Wholeness that animates Renée Fleming’s “instrument,” and it is this energy that animates our own. We receive this gift as long as our intentionality—our inner motivation—is authentic.
When we behave with ruthless ambition, like a Belichick, our gift is sure to flee. There are other ways our gifts flee too. Our gifts flee when we forget to be grateful for them. We forget to be grateful when we think we must run our life off our own personal willpower. I know that this delusional belief—this belief that I am separate from Wholeness that animates my gifts—has caused me grief.
We also block our gifts by our thinking. The ways we do this are endless. We may believe we need a new material possession. We may ruminate that our house is too small. We rehearse an imaginary conversation that may or not be necessary. We may hold on to a past grievance. We may think that our circumstances have to change before we can use our gifts.
All of these are just thoughts. Our problem starts when we think that because we had a thought, we have to take the thought seriously. We think we have to act on the thought or resist the thought. What if we just let go of the thought?
It is our gratitude and respect for our gifts that help us want to live our career with the kind of ambition that Fleming describes. As Fleming explains, practicing our gifts is a journey of lifetime; and that journey is endlessly fulfilling.