What Does Getting Ahead Really Mean?

Vanity Fair book jacketThis paper, first given at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, includes a discussion of the most ambitious characters in English literature: Becky Sharp, from Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

When someone speaks about getting ahead, we assume it means the person is interested in advancing him- or herself in order to be successful in a particular field. A question people don’t often ask is: “ahead of WHAT?” The two possible answers stand for the two opposing purposes Aesthetic Realism explains we all have. The first is: ahead of other people. We’re ambitious to have an advantage over others so we can feel we’re superior. This purpose, which is a form of contempt, makes a person disintegrated and ashamed. The second answer stands for a beautiful goal: to get ahead of who and where we are now. We’re ambitious to become better people, to grow, to learn, to see more meaning in reality. There is no limit to how ambitious we should be about this purpose, or to how much we can respect ourselves for having it.

Youthful mix-up about getting ahead
As a child, I was interested in knowledge—especially about anything related to language. Getting lists of new vocabulary words from my teachers, I excitedly learned their meanings and spellings. My father challenged me to spell and define complex words, and when I got them right, which I usually did, he’d give me a nickel. I got real pleasure seeing the often surprising way English words are spelled; but I also liked the fact that I was seen as very smart and that my piggy bank was filling up.

The fight in me between using language to respect reality and using it to gain an advantage also took another form. My parents sometimes spoke to each other in Yiddish when they didn’t want my sister and me to understand. Though I never let on, I got the gist of many conver­sations, and was proud of my linguistic accomplish­ment, but also felt I had a secret tool showing my superiority.

I felt I was born in the wrong country, and definitely into the wrong family who lived in Brooklyn in an ordinary apartment; this outraged my sense of what I thought I deserved. I felt it was demeaning to have to put up with arguments about money, nagging, or demands to clean my room. If only I’d been born in an elegant European city, or in Tokyo, I thought—or, at the very least, if my parents were world travelers—I’d be able to have some distinction. In this belittling of my parents and background, I had what Aesthetic Realism describes as the “victory [of depreciating] anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess…gives a certain triumph to the individual.” Though I had this triumph of contempt, I paid for it by feeling like an outsider wherever I went.

In my teens I felt like a flop in social life. I wanted approval—especially from boys—and was jealous of popular girls, like Nancy, who was very pretty; Terri, who had beautiful long hair, and Renee, who was slim and whom all the boys liked. They had what it took to get ahead, I thought bitterly, and I didn’t. Meanwhile, I acted as if all that social maneuvering were beneath me, and I was made for better things; I had what those silly, superficial girls didn’t: brains.

Being smart was the one way I felt I’d get ahead. My best friend, seeing that I was peeved when she sometimes got higher grades than mine, said indignantly, “But I worked for it! I studied!” I felt bad, but also inwardly triumphant; after all, I knew I’d do so much better than others if I felt it was worth it for my precious self to put in the effort. In his lecture on Mind and Ambition Mr. Siegel explained. “We have to show people we are better than they are because this is the one way we know of being sure of ourselves.” Years later I was to learn: self-confidence based on contempt for other people doesn’t hold up. And so, because I was using knowledge to glorify myself, and against the real purpose of education—to like and be fair to reality—I was deeply ashamed. I’m grateful that through studying Aesthetic Realism, my purpose has changed, enabling me to use knowledge to have a strengthening effect on young people for the past 28 years as a high school English teacher.

Men, body, and the confusion about getting ahead
At 17, I was a volunteer English tutor to foreign businessmen—many of them from Japan—with whom I spent time after our lessons. I decided I wanted to study Japanese on my own, and enjoyed learning about Japanese grammar and pronunciation. But I was also ambitious to distinguish myself from my classmates by learning an “exotic” language, and going out with men from various countries who made me feel important and bought me presents. “Who needs high school boys?,” I thought. “I’ve moved on to bigger and better things. I’m dating sophisticated foreign men.”

But I was in turmoil. I didn’t respect these men—or later, others—and I didn’t respect myself. My Aesthetic Realism consultants once asked me to name a man I truly respected. I said: “Patrick Henry.” They asked: “If you met Patrick Henry, what would you encourage—his love of liberty or something else?” The answer was “something else.”

Cons: So, what did you try to bring out in men?
LR:   I think their weakness. I’ve wanted to see them fall….I don’t think I’ve really appealed to their minds too much.”

And they asked: “Was it the greatest victory and the greatest defeat all at once?” It was; it made me feel agitated and empty, and hopeless about ever finding real love. In fact, I spent so much time feeling I was misseen and unappreciated by men, it was almost a career with me—and I never understood why.

Through what I was learning, I came to see that what I’d been looking for wasn’t love at all, but a bad power based on superiority and contempt. Seeing this, I became ambitious to have a different purpose! This enabled me to love and respect a man, jazz pianist and music teacher Alan Shapiro—to feel more myself as I’m affected by who he is and how he sees the world, and to learn about myself from his keen, kind, humorous observations of me. I’m grateful that we’re able to study together in classes taught by Ellen Reiss, learning about the world, art, our lives and marriage, and so much more. Eli Siegel once said to me in a class: “Aesthetic Realism has a phrase: the miracle of exactitude. The idea is to see a person exactly as he is.” That is a proud goal I have: to see who my husband truly is, and to bring out greater strength in him. This, I see now, is really getting ahead in love!

The desire to get ahead in a 19th century novel
The pivotal character in William Makepeace Thackeray’s great satirical novel Vanity Fair is a young woman Mr. Siegel once called “that resplendently decisive creature, Rebecca Sharp.” She uses the strategies a woman in our time might use to get ahead—feigning interest to gain someone’s favor, manipu­lating people, lying without compunction—and get ahead she does, going from a poor, orphaned governess to a denizen of fashionable society received at the Royal Court. What she does to get there can’t be praised, but she does it with such energy, style and good nature, we’re captivated by her. In a 1963 lecture, Mr. Siegel said:

[Becky Sharp] wasn’t very pious, she was very much interested in comfort and property and praise, [but her] selfishness has something artistic about it….[She] was selfish in such a graceful way that even selfishness can be a little beautiful.

Becky feels—as I had with much less justification—that “all the world had used her ill.” Her mother was a French opera dancer; after she died, and her artist father couldn’t support them, she had to use her wits to get ahead: “Many a tradesman had she coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more. She…never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.”

We meet Becky at 17, as she’s leaving Miss Pinkerton’s academy, where she taught French. Resenting her lowly position, and rightly critical that money and status seem more important than intelligence and talent, she says: “I am a thousand times cleverer and more charming than that creature, for all her wealth….I am as well bred as the Earl’s grand-daughter, for all her fine pedigree; and yet every one passes me by here.” She feels entitled to the benefits of wealth, and strategizes about how to get ahead.

She spends time at the home of her only friend at Miss Pinkerton’s: Amelia Sedley, whose wealthy brother Joseph has just returned from India. “If Mr. Joseph Sedley is rich and unmarried,” Becky thinks, “why should I not marry him? I have only a fortnight,…but there is no harm in trying.” And she determined within herself to make this laudable attempt….“I must be very quiet,” thought Rebecca, “and very much interested about India.”

Though she flatters Jos and charms him with her lovely singing voice and beautiful piano-playing, her plan fails. But she’s undeterred in her pursuit of a respectable position in society.

Thackeray has the artist’s aesthetic purpose. “When satire shows the cheap and the ugly,” said Mr. Siegel, “it is on the side of beauty because, essentially, it is based on the desire to make reality more beautiful.” Satire shows a hope that humanity truly get ahead; we see this in Thackeray’s keen, eloquent prose, as he objects to such despicable qualities as vanity, insincerity, snobbishness, coldness—having them walk the floor with style. Becky sees through and mocks the self-aggrandizing ways of British high society, even as she’s driven to be of it. Though we might not like her if we met her, we do like how Thackeray gives form to this critical purpose through the lively and aptly-named Becky Sharp.

Aside from marriage, her only option—as with other poor girls at the time—is to become a governess. She thinks a connection with the titled family of her employer, Sir Pitt Crawley, might further her ambitions, and when she learns that Sir Pitt’s son Rawdon, a dashing but irresponsible military man, is expected to inherit his aunt’s substantial fortune, she determines to capture him. They’re secretly married, but again Becky’s plan fails. His aunt is furious and vows to disinherit Rawdon. Becky, confident she’ll be able to regain Miss Crawley’s favor, takes charge.

How she sees Rawdon, and men in general, is hardly admirable. She feels, as many women do, that men are foolish boys who need them, and whom they can manage. She thinks: “‘If he had but a little more brains,…I might make something of him.’”

Like Becky, I assumed I knew better than anyone—especially men—how to get things done. When my husband and I were dating, Ellen Reiss asked me in a class: “Does Mr. Shapiro act as though he wants to be managed by you?” I said emphatically “No!”—and described how I was very careful not to manage as we planned a Thanksgiving dinner at his home, but he felt I was trying to take over anyway. Ms. Reiss asked: “Do you think a woman has to be so careful if her motive is good?” I saw the answer was no. Ms. Reiss explained that many women believe the way to succeed in love is through clever­ness, not through good will. And she asked this beautiful question: “Is it possible to feel, ‘He wants something from me, and I love it’?” I’m grateful to have this feeling more each year.

Becky wants Rawdon Crawley’s devotion, and wants to use him to get ahead. He doesn’t see who she is, including how she uses not only her wits but also her feminine power to get what she wants. They meet Becky’s friend Amelia who’s just married a man in Rawdon’s regiment: the vain, careless George Osborne. He doesn’t love Amelia, who’s foolishly devoted to him, and married her only because his friend Dobbin, who also loves Amelia, insists he keep his long-standing promise. Throughout the novel, Thackeray contrasts the keen-witted, energetically critical and assertive Becky and the meek, excessively naïve Amelia, who—though she seems devoted—is deeply self-centered, lying to herself about who George is, so that she can convince herself he adores her.

George flirts with Becky, and she takes advantage of this—using her charm to conspire with Rawdon to win money at cards from George, whom she mockingly calls “Cupid.”

She brought his cigar and lighted it for him; she knew the effect of that manoeuvre, having [earlier] practiced it…upon Rawdon….[George] thought her…brisk, arch,…delightful. It is very likely that this worthy couple never absolutely conspired…together in so many words: the one to cajole the young gentleman, whilst the other won his money at cards: but they understood each other perfectly well.

They travel to Brussels as the army prepares for what would be the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars, at Waterloo, and Becky has a chance to be of the bustling Brussels social life while awaiting the call to arms. Thackeray writes that at a ball,

[Her] debut was…brilliant….Her face was radiant; her dress perfection….Fifty would-be partners thronged round…and pressed to have the honour to dance with her….In a fortnight,…[she] had got up the genteel jargon so well, that a native could not speak it better; and it was only from her French being so good, that you could know she was not a born woman of fashion.

At this ball, George slips her a note asking her to run away with him. That night, the army leaves for the front, and soon after, George is killed. Wholly unconcerned about the effects of the war, Becky and Rawdon travel to Paris, and her social victories continue. But how she sees getting ahead is changing:

She was growing tired of this idle social life: opera-boxes and…dinners palled upon her:…she could not live upon knick-knacks, laced handkerchiefs, and kid gloves. She felt the fri­vol­­ity of pleasure and longed for more substantial benefits.

It’s not my purpose here to describe all of what Becky goes through in her quest to get ahead. There is a good deal more in this great novel. Meanwhile, Thackeray writes: “Becky has often spoken in subsequent years of [that] season of her life, when she moved among the very greatest circles of the London fashion. Her success excited, elated, and then bored her.” “True ambition,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is the ability to get to a point which represents you.” Becky has done everything in her power to get ahead, but Thackeray shows: her victory is an empty one because it doesn’t satisfy her deepest purpose. “‘I wish I were out of it,’ she said to herself. ‘I would rather be a parson’s wife and teach a Sunday school than this.’”

Ultimately, her blatant exploitation of people backfires. She’s managed to get a rich man to shower her with jewels and money. When Rawdon discovers this, he leaves; her reputation is ruined. She becomes “a vagabond upon this earth,” going from city to city across Europe, seeking a home where people don’t know of her deception and manipulation. We find her living in Germany in a run-down hotel, among peddlers, performers, and students.

Here she meets again her old friend Amelia Sedley Osborne. Seeing how Amelia, still in mourning after 15 years for the undeserving George’s death, is throwing away a chance of happiness in refusing Dobbin’s proposal, Becky, with her inimitable ability to cut through fakery, has one of her finest moments. Though some readers have seen her as cruel, learned that in a class Mr. Siegel said definitely Becky is deeply kind because she wants Amelia to see the truth about George, not blindly fool herself—and as I’ve looked at the novel, I see this as true. When Amelia says she couldn’t forget George, Becky says intensely:

“Couldn’t forget him!,…that selfish humbug, that low-bred…dandy, …who had neither wit, nor manners, nor heart….Why, the man was weary of you, and would have jilted you, but that Dobbin forced him to keep his word. He owned it to me. He never cared for you…and made love to me the week after he married you.”

She then shows Amelia George’s note asking her to run away with him. And Amelia, though her vanity is hurt, is ultimately grateful, free now to marry Dobbin.

Through the honesty I’ve met in studying Aesthetic Realism, I’ve changed deeply about how I see getting ahead. Where once I was inwardly competitive, driven to be superior, and cold to other what people deserve, I now feel more myself and happier in trying to have a good effect on others—including my husband, my friends, my students, and people I might meet tomorrow. Aesthetic Realism, because it explains what everyone is most ambitious to do—to like ourselves through being fair to the rich, various world—enables people to get ahead in a way that makes for true pride!


The change in my life is representative of what can happen when a woman learns about herself in Aesthetic Realism consultations. To learn about consultations, which are given in person and via Skype, click here.

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