Cultural Differences: On Ambition


Note: This is also an old post, but a follow-up to the patriotic mentality

I’ve written before about one aspect in which the Italian culture is significantly at odds, almost the direct opposite of US culture, and today I realized that there is another aspect that I had not fully formulated in my mind, though I have been aware of it all my life. It still falls squarely into that good old Italian pessimism that I have written about, but it is an interesting parallel manifestation of it. I am talking about the ways that both regard ambition.

Ambition is something that is greatly admired in the United States, and something that I noticed very much when I was applying for college. Apart from the obvious historical cultural background: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and defeating all the odds, taking huge risks to become immensely successful even when you were working multiple dead-end jobs to get there, there is an incredible focus put on ambition in your career. I didn’t want to go to the United States for college for financial reasons as well, beginning my working life with a huge debt on my shoulders seemed ridiculous to me if I could avoid it (and I didn’t even know what kind of a nosedive the global economy was about to take as I entered the workforce either), but primarily I had personal reasons for not wanting to move there. The US is just so far away from the rest of the world that I much preferred the idea of staying in Europe. When I left Ireland also for personal reasons despite the fact that I was trading an excellent chance of getting a PhD for a very small one, the reaction of my American family was largely the same. I was perhaps not ridiculed, but very nearly, for putting personal reasons anywhere near my career on my list of priorities. The idea was that, unless I wanted to be a sucker, career had to become a very distant first on my list, who cares where I lived or if the weather was miserable or whatever else. You do what you have to do to succeed and become the best. Of course, Italy is the complete opposite.

While every Italian completely understood my reasons for leaving Dublin (and even expressed shock that I managed to stay to finish my degree), they are the least ambitious and most pessimistic bunch I have ever known. All of them told my family “tell her not to come back to this shithole! She’ll never get a PhD here! There’s no point in even trying if she doesn’t have Italian professors as friends, don’t you know how it works here?!” The fact that I was offered a PhD in all three places I applied doesn’t sway them one little bit: “Oh she got in? Wow, she must be some kind of super genius or really really lucky, because that never happens”. Well no shit it never happens if you sit on your ass and don’t even bother applying! I’m not saying that this is the golden land of opportunity, very far from it, but the mentality is irritating beyond measure. And for the record no, I’m not a super genius, far from it actually, but I showed enthusiasm for my work and that I really wanted to be here, and that made a huge difference.

This also goes for anyone who shows the slightest bit of ambition regarding their future plans. I’ve had people look at me with a raised eyebrow, saying “what, you think you’re getting into academia? Pfft please, no one makes it that far (the fact that the very existence of professors contradicts this argument eludes them completely). Or, if they’re talking about their own plans: “I don’t want to sound ambitious or anything, you know, but I was thinking about….” I get immensely frustrated, what the fuck is wrong with being ambitious?! It’s not like I’m saying that I KNOW I’m going to be immensely successful, but I’m not going to lie down and die for fear of failing. If I wind up being a waitress for the rest of my life at least I know I gave my dream a shot, even though it didn’t pan out, and I wont have to die with that regret on my conscience. However, for some reason, in Italy ambition is in some ways related to not being modest, being arrogant, which is the main reaction you get if you express the slightest bit of ambition in public.

As usual, I think both approaches are flawed, as they represent both extreme sides. On the one hand I am a human being, not a robot. If I’m not happy in the place that I’m living, or my partner is not happy, my life will suffer in a way that earning a bit more is not going to make up for. Happiness comes in many forms, not just how high you climb up a career ladder or how much money you make. I could give a damn if others think that I could be doing more or earning more, I made my decision based on what was best for me, not best for my career alone. Some people don’t distinguish between the two and validate themselves entirely based on their career and that’s OK too, but I’m not one of them and most people are not.

On the other hand you have an attitude that is very much akin to living in fear. Although its a resignation more than a fear that leads Italians to talk and behave in this way, the results are largely the same: their full potential is not being realized, and the best people for positions are either leaving the country or not bothering to try. The result? Only people who think they have a better shot, because of connections and not necessarily the most qualified, even bother showing up to the job interviews. While it does happen that interviews are set up as a formality to officially give the job to a friend, not bothering to show up for any because you automatically assume they’re all the same only exacerbates the problem.

My conclusions are always the same in these little rants: borrow a little from each other and find a middle ground, there’s no need to be so damned apocalyptic about everything all the time!

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