Ambition and the Iceberg

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December 7, 2009
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Margo Howard

The process of an iceberg breaking off from a glacier is called “calving.” I guess this makes me a calf, because I definitely did not stay with my parents on their metaphorical ice sheet of accomplishment. Both of them were energetic, highly motivated, and ambitious. They each had enormous drive to succeed — and they did. I, on the other hand, always regarded myself as an appreciator, an observer, rather than a doer.  As a young person, I had nothing in mind for my future self. Well, marriage, of course, but certainly not a career. I always knew that temperamentally I was not one of the worker bees.

Whereas some people would not know how or why they were so different from their parental models, upon reflection I knew exactly. For one thing, I was an only child — and a girl, at that. I was also born in 1940, so that my coming of age was just on the cusp of the women’s movement. Certainly no one in my family ever said, “Think about what you’re going to do, honey.” I viewed college as a social occasion and didn’t much care if I graduated — forget about graduate school. With a little maturity under my belt and four years of analysis, I was able to understand the dynamic underlying my lack of ambition.

Do not underestimate the effect of being a beloved only child in a privileged home where both parents saw to it that my confidence level was perhaps dangerously high. I was, quite simply, comfortable; comfortable in my skin and comfortable with the life I had. There was nothing I needed to prove, and I certainly didn’t have the “neurotic motor” that was driving both my parents. I thought long and hard about this “neurotic motor” theory when I wrote a memoir of our family, published in 1982. I needed to think about why the workaholic examples before me simply did not register; why it was almost as though I were inoculated against trying to accomplish something.

“The neurotic motor,” which I believe to be my own concept, seemed the perfect explanation not only for my parents, but for most high achievers. This “motor” supplied the incentive and the will to be outstanding. My father’s neurotic motor, for example, was to stop being the poor kid on the streets of Detroit. Unable even to finish high school because of his father’s death and the family’s financial need, he hustled and became a great salesman. His ultimate success was to be among the first business geniuses to combine discounting and franchising. The result was that he was the founder of Budget Rent A Car.

My mother’s neurotic motor was to forge an identity for herself apart from her identical twin sister. Though she became wildly famous and influential as “Ann Landers,” she could never quite ditch the twin act because her doppelganger followed her into the advice business as “Dear Abby.”

I had nothing to prove; I was missing the neurotic motor. This is not to say that I am without neuroses, just that the desire to become a high achiever was never part of my script. My parents never pushed me to follow in their footsteps and, in fact, were supportive of my choices, both as a mother and homemaker and, later, when I wandered into a career.

The fact that I did ultimately become a syndicated columnist and author was totally accidental and, if it hadn’t been handed to me, I’m not sure it would ever have occurred to me that I could do something and get paid for it. I have the late Gene Siskel to thank for dragging me to meet his boss, the feature editor of the Chicago Tribune, where Siskel was then a very young movie critic, fresh out of Yale. His unusual thinking was that I was such a facile talker that maybe I could write. This is often a mistaken idea, but in my case, it was not. And, interestingly, both my mother’s writing and my own have been said to sound as though we were talking.

Honesty demands that I admit I have basically arranged things so that mine is a toy career. I have never knocked myself out. Even now, I would rather read than write. I would rather travel than be tied to a rigid schedule. While it is said that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, the iceberg that separates from the glacier can sometimes drift quite a distance.

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Margo Howard is the daughter of Eppie Lederer, who wrote as “Ann Landers” for 47 years. A native of Chicago, she wrote a column of social commentary, “Margo,” which was syndicated throughout the country in the 1970s. She has written for The New Republic, The Nation, People, TV Guide, and Good Housekeeping, and she was a columnist for Boston Magazine and Newsday in New York. Her advice column, “Dear Prudence,” appeared on Slate.com, as well as in 200 newspapers. Her current online home is www.wowowow.com. Howard has three adult children and lives in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband, Ron Weintraub.

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