Hannah McGill: There’s more to life than ambition

There are other things to focus on than Nicola Sturgeon's New Year message of 'ambition'
There are other things to focus on than Nicola Sturgeon's New Year message of 'ambition'
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I ONCE worked with someone who was very invested in business buzzwords.

At one stage in our unhappy colleaguedom, it fell to me to spend considerable time and brainpower going over with him what challenges we faced and how I thought our resources might be more effectively deployed. He responded by drawing two interlocking circles on a piece of paper and writing VISION in one and AMBITION in the other. Then he looked at me triumphantly, as if he’d actually expressed something of substance. And I looked back at him, as if he very much hadn’t…

I’ve wielded a grudge ever since against people who economise on thinking time by relying on pseudo-punchy terminology – and against those two words in particular, which are classic standbys not just for corporate robots but also for politicians who want to be seen to be Being Forceful whilst keeping what it is they’re actually saying usefully vague. So it’s in part a personal verbal bugbear that caused my heart to sink when I saw Nicola Sturgeon declare 2016 Scotland’s “year of ambition” in her New Year statement. I know it’s just part of Ms Sturgeon’s unenviable remit to come out with comforting platitudes – I’m pretty sure that used to just fall to the Queen – yet it’s been presented this year as a British tradition as long-cherished as turkey on the table and bloodshed on EastEnders.

Even if it is more than mere shiny sloganeering, “ambition” doesn’t strike me as the most inspiring focus Sturgeon could have picked. If a human being told you that their defining characteristic was “ambition”, would you feel like hanging out with them for the next year? Or would you suspect they might stab you in the neck at the first opportunity if it would advance their own interests?

A culture privileging “ambition” has given us preposterous corporate salaries topped with yet more preposterous bonuses; parents competing to have their toddlers educated at a safe distance from grubby poor people; and non-glitzy lines of work being undervalued and abandoned en masse. Everybody always thinks it’s absolutely wonderful when a lollipop lady gets a New Year’s Honour (congratulations, Janet Colquhoun of Airdrie), or when a centenarian declares that he or she got that way by living a quiet life and not submitting to undue stress – and yet the privileging of “ambition” still means that lives lived quietly and diligently, with an emphasis, say, on nurturing rather than outdoing, or on maximising contentment rather chasing profits, risk being seen as insufficiently visionary.

Vision. Ambition. No, they’re not bad things; no, you wouldn’t want to run a country without them. But when we still have such basic matters to attend to as adequate health and housing provision, the survival of public services and the responsible care of our most vulnerable, stability, support and understanding sound like better priorities than the hollow rattle of “ambition”. I’d like our collective New Year’s resolution to have something to do with the idea that you don’t have to be a winner in order to be kept safe and cared for.

Panic at rejoining the human race

THIS time of year makes more apparent than any other the vast social gulf between people who live to go out, and people who dread having to do so.

In my twenties, going out was a central focus of my life, and in my earlier thirties, it was part of my work – so I’ve done my time.

Now I have small children, and my goodness if I don’t delight in every invitation I can possibly turn down!

I admire and faintly envy those who have been out enjoying cold drinks and warm company through the festive season, but when you’ve been managing a double load of nappies, yoghurt spills and emotional crises since the early hours, the idea of venturing out into the night has all the appeal of a root canal. Less, in fact: you don’t have to stand up or think of things to talk about during a root canal.

It occurred to me recently that my twins are one day going to be grown-up enough that they’ll no longer provide an all-purpose excuse for me to not do things, and I felt raw panic.

Are there back-to-fun programmes to retrain the people who’ve forgotten how to socialise?

In the meantime, I can’t be alone in enjoying one aspect of the otherwise depressing January: the fact that no-one has any small talk left.

Rey is not a model actor

EVERYONE knows that merchandising is part of the modern blockbuster market. However, an absence has been noted in packs of action figures from the new Star Wars film: that of Rey, played in the film by Daisy Ridley. Seemingly the assumption that fans of the franchise are male, and play only with male toys, has survived the arrival of a key female character. The rubbish thing about this is that its sexism is self-fulfilling: the lack of Rey figures creates the conditions for her not to be embraced as a fan favourite, and for males to be restored to commanding narrative positions hereafter. «