Is it too soon to write an obituary for ambition? Sarah Lang aims to find out in the second instalment of our series, What Working Women REALLY Want
At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culture, why perpetual striving might not make us happier, working-mum guilt, letting go of perfectionism, battling burnout, juggling work with the mental load and SO many more.
Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want because, for instance, we’ve internalised social pressure to climb the corporate ladder or earn a certain income. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? And are there more things we could ask our employers for?
Kirsty*, a 41-year-old from Auckland, has been an extremely ambitious person as far back as she can remember. “My parents always pushed me to excel academically and I did. I wanted to become a lawyer and scale the legal profession to the top.”
She got A+s in her courses at law school. As a graduate, she was hired by a large law firm. She got promoted several times. She got married. She had a baby. She began juggling full-time work with motherhood (with help from daycare) and running the household.
Then the pandemic hit. As the months passed, Kirsty thought that maybe, just maybe, her family would escape getting Covid. But then they caught it late last year. Kirsty was really sick for about four weeks. “Despite feeling like crap physically, I did a lot of binge-watching TV and reading novels.” She spent more time with her husband and daughter, who is now seven. “And then, as I was preparing to go back to work, I started thinking about how long I’d be at this job, and when I’d move to another firm, as my plan had been to join a bigger company and climb the rungs there.” Suddenly, though, she realised she didn’t want to.
“I just realised that I was happy where I was in my job and my career – and that I didn’t want to climb the ladder anymore or at least not anytime soon. It wasn’t burnout, long Covid, depression, anxiety or anything like that. I felt fine in myself. I just felt less ambitious, in the usual sense of promotions, pay rises etc. I just wanted to enjoy and be good at my job, to have enough time with my family, to finish work on time. All of that was my new ambition!”
A dropping-off of ambition has been in the subtext, but not the forefront, of discussions about how many of us have been reprioritising what we want and value in our lives, since Covid disrupted things. Many people have had it driven home that their family and their health are far more important than their job or climbing the career ladder.
Last year I wrote a story about ‘leaning out,‘ so to speak. Some women I spoke to were saying no to a ‘hustle culture’ that sees you always pushing yourself to show that you’re a go-getter. Were we, instead, pushing back against a work culture that glorified overwork?
Amil is impressive. She’s a journalist, broadcaster and producer who has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Vice, and the Washington Post, so yeah, she’s been killing it professionally. Yet she’s saying goodbye to ambition?
She writes that: “I have abandoned the notion of ambition to chase the absolute middle of the road: mediocrity. This, unsurprisingly, comes after the past two years – two years filled with intense pandemic parenting coupled with working full-time. I want to ‘just be, man,’ and won’t let concerns like success or climbing the corporate ladder stand in my way. The new dream is simply no goals, just vibes.
“There’s a renewed focus on relationships, community, and the slow beat of life outside the gaslight-gatekeep-girlboss ethos. 2022 may be the year my ambition truly dies, and to that I say, ‘Good riddance, bitch’.”
Fair enough. #Girlboss loses a bit of gloss, if it goes hand in hand with overwork.
Meanwhile, The Wall St Journal published a story called ‘Your Coworkers Are Less Ambitious; Bosses Adjust to the New Order’. Its report depicts the ways in which ambition is waning, and how more employees are drawing a line between their work and personal lives.
Is ambition dead?
Is ambition really dead? Is it dying? I actually don’t think so. I think what’s happening is that more of us are rejecting the ‘standard helping’ of ambition – promotions, more money, etc – and we’re redefining and reinventing our ambitions. For some, ambition has become a different shape. There is a difference between external (e.g. job title, wealth, status) and intrinsic ambitions (e.g. more time for family, relationships, health, travel, or creativity).
So maybe one ambition is to not to have to spend as much time at work! However, redefining ambition isn’t the same as quiet quitting; it’s doesn’t mean you’re trying to only the very basics at work. You may want to do a great job, but not be chasing promotions or not be as focused on your performance review as you once were.
Sandi*, an Allied Health clinician and mother in her 40s, says “I frame it less as ‘death of my ambitions’ and more as realising how the prescribed capitalist ‘milestones’ f**k over everyone. Covid forced me to refocus on what’s important: my family, home and local community and environment.”
As Annette* puts it: “I don’t think ambition is dying. I see it as reprioritising, which tends to result in changing ambitions. To be ‘ambitious’ is not simply to wish to achieve in prescriptive way like income, status. Anyone with a big dream can be considered ambitious. And living ‘slower’ or ‘lightly’ on the planet can be ambitious, depending on the cultural/social/financial pressures around you. Having the ambition of living a satisfying life may be just as challenging, in different ways, to harbouring corporate ambition, for example. To me, redrawing the lines about what we should ‘want’ to achieve is definitely a feminist issue. We have done too much of embracing white male ideas of achievement. It’s time to question what meaningful lives look like from other perspectives.”
Perhaps realigning our ambition could be an ambition in itself.