Though a large, imposing figure with a fierce scowl that could make President Putin nervous, my father looms in my childhood memory as a steady, fairly unflappable man. Like all of us he gets irritated and can get quite angry, but his ire usually mounts over time as the result of several events that build like a crescendo into a fiery burst that, once he’s expressed it, disappears almost immediately.
I can count on one hand the number of times I heard him raise his voice to my mother, but one instance stands out as significant in which he was venting to her about a colleague. It was the first time I fully understood the word, “initiative,” the definition of which I deduced by his short diatribe. He was bemoaning the tendency of a particular co-worker to “squash the initiative” of fellow co-workers with her officiousness. I’ve rarely known him to get so angry, and my young 10-year-old self so strongly internalized his favor for this thing called initiative that I still have trouble working on anything that I haven’t in some way initiated.
From the resume-writing business I ran in college promoted with bulletin board flyers to the women’s magazine I started in my early 30s, the two Portland farmers’ market I helped launch and my most recent venture, I really do my best work when I’m creating something from the seed of an idea.
Did my father’s 1979 rant about a fellow phone company manager make me into an entrepreneur? I don’t know, maybe. If nothing else it instilled in me the strongly held value that taking initiative is a good thing while waiting for things to happen, less so. Has this always served me well? No. But more often than not, I think it has. (I inherited my dad’s scowl, by the way, and it also serves me well in some instances and not others.)
What strikes me as significant when I think deeply about initiative is that my reverence for this trait has influenced my personal relationships. The women and men I consider close friends are all people who tend to start with nothing yet make amazing things happen, whether it’s remodeling two large kitchens after taking them down to the studs (my husband), running an acupuncture business out of her backyard studio (my friend Kate), serving as the leader of the ragtag of volunteer group that evolved into the board of the incredible Montavilla Farmers Market (my friend Jon), or at age of 26 convincing an obstinate curmudgeon to sell her his building in the business district in which she wanted to move her flower shop (my friend Angie).
Though the words initiative and ambition are often used interchangeably, I think initiative actually gives life to ambition, infusing it with purpose and personal values. Ambition is the engine, and initiative the fuel. Without initiative, ambition becomes aimless and reckless — a vulgar play for approval, recognition and status symbols. A worthier form of ambition is defined by a sincere, thoughtful initiation of steps to lead to an overarching goal rooted in a deeper place within us.
If we start a business just to make loads of money, that’s ambition without initiative. If we start one to build a life that works for us and our families, that’s ambition with initiative. Ambition runs for president to hear the crowd roar his name and blame the country’s problems on minorities and immigrants — that’s ambition without initiative. Initiative runs for president in order to solve the country’s problems by first asking, “What are the deeply complex, underlying reasons these problems exist and how do we roll up our sleeves and get started?”
It’s hard to deny that we need ambition to function as a society. It motivates people to defy the odds makers, move up the socioeconomic ladder, and break down barriers to success. My dad, in fact, accomplished this, working up the ranks of Ma Bell without the benefit of a college degree. Married at age 21 and the father of four children at age 32, he likely initiated his ambition to provide for his family. Like a flower, ambition blooms when it is well tended and planted in the right spot.