For anyone whose self-worth is under strain
Whew, I love this. So much to chew on!
Someone recently asked me how I would recognize if I was well, and one of the things I said was that I would be less driven and more curious. I'm realizing that's how I'm reframing things that might be ambition/ambitious - I'm investing in being interested to learn more and try more because I am deeply curious about things, rather than because I'm driven to accomplish something to plug a hole in my personal/mental/emotional/workplace dam.
Reading this brings me back to a moment I think about often: at my ten-year reunion, a friend asked our table, "What are you most proud of from the last decade?" And as everyone else went around saying, "I started a business!" "I went to dental school!" etc., I was sitting there paralyzed because I couldn't think of a single thing I'd done that I actually felt worthy of being *proud* of. Everything that came to mind came with justifications as to why I hadn't done this thing better, why my career wasn't further on, why I hadn't gotten a more prestigious graduate degree, etc. I'd never before realized that I wasn't actually taking pride in any of these things; it was always, "Well, what's supposed to be next?" Since then I've been trying to be more cognizant of recognizing when I'm doing something because I'm "supposed to" or because I actually want to, and reframing the things I take on as accomplishments rather than just seeing the cracks.
Something that is occurring to me as I read this excellent interview is the way ambition is coded when it’s ambition in marginalized groups. For context, I work at a community college, and was a professor for years (now I help faculty teach more humanely and equitably). There was, and in many places still is, a push to develop students’ “grit,” which folks outside of education probably still remember. So I’m reading this interview I started thinking about the ways we code/describe ambition depending on who is doing it, or who we want to exhibit That behavior.
Side note: I’ve always been wary of the way these initiatives have failed to accurately see, and therefore give credit for, the reality of most of the students in the system. I hate the discussions of grit for the most part because they failed to acknowledge the barriers and difficulties so many students had already overcome before even the first day of class.
as someone with OCD and Ambition I feel this all so so so hard. I'm now in a phase of trying really hard not to be ambitious, like I am gonna be the best in the world at not being ambitious - wait--
Really resonates — took me a few minutes to remember seeing Rainesford Stauffer on PBS’s Brief But Spectacular segment a while back. Enjoyed the longer discussion here. This topic is so huge, and I love that she leaves room noting: “all this is truly so personal.”
My perspective is a generation older, but I see the effects in my own GenZ kids too. I agree — asking why you’re doing or wanting something is so important. And also agree: the collaborative process needs more attention than an individual’s self-ambition. I can’t think of any important thing I’ve done alone.
The unfairness of how ambition is rewarded on a societal level is another issue. I’m the only sibling in my family who went to college and saw this unfairness grow during the 90s. The metrics seemed arbitrary, exclusionary, and unnecessary. Like why are caring for people and fixing or building essential things less valued than a high test score? Many more examples are possible along this line.
I’m listening to this book now and it’s hitting me hard. It took me until this past winter (age 42!) to realize how much time, energy and mental space I have devoted to people-pleasing - in my recent job when I wasn’t successful at it, people weren’t pleased, and I fell apart. I’m heading into a new adventure with much-altered expectations, a new blueprint for how to interact with people, and a much healthier view of work’s ultimate place in my life. Oh, and I also, like the author, had no major expectations placed on my by my parents, but perhaps being a middle child and a child of divorce predisposed me to this tendency? Lots more to unpack still!
I'm very grateful to my parents and other adults in my childhood for not pushing ambition on me. I've never been an ambitious person, which is good because I've ended up having to spend most of my life so far trying to survive. I guess I'm stuck on the lower rungs of the hierarchy of needs and "significance" feels irrelevant for me. I've recently realized I have a long term goal for the first time though. I'd like to be able to live in a home with just me and my wife, no roommates. I'm not sure if I'll be able to get there, it seems impossible right now when I can barely afford rent splitting it 5 ways but that's the point of a long term goal, isn't it? something to change your life for? this is all new to me
This resonated with me so much. Last year, on the heels of turning 50, I did somewhat of a life audit: Was I satisfied or was I striving for something that didn’t mean much to me anymore in my career. The answer was the latter. Sometimes people underestimate the feeling of satisfaction. It’s a close cousin of happiness, but with much less weight. I wanted the second half of my life to be more satisfying, so I decided to start my own business, which gives me leeway to do volunteer work. It’s enriching. I also decided to get an MBA for myself. I have 3 classes left, and I’ve enjoyed learning. If you can keep learning at age 50, and stay curious, it’s a gift.
"And then there’s the ways ambition itself gets used. It can be uplifting and aspirational, or exploitative and destructive. It can be considered a privilege in terms of who has the time and resources to think about their motivation or aspirations. But it’s also presented as an individual solution to structural crises: with such a threadbare social safety net, the resources people need to live safe, fulfilled lives are presented as things we’re supposed to earn. That’s horrifying."
This, this, this!!!!! Such a key point for how people frame ambition. Can't wait to read the whole book. Thank you for an excellent Q and A.
This is fascinating because one of the things I think I missed in my 'Being A Human' welcome package was any kind of Ambition, _and_ any kind of caring how people saw that or thought of it. Whoops. It seems to to be this very universal thing, though.
But what really got me here was that "Everyone _deserves_" quote. I have spent literal years saying, all the time, that "deserving isn't a thing", but I think what that quote just crystallized for me is that I believe that to be a truth not because deserving isn't a thing that exists, period, but that _everyone_ deserves (which makes it functionally meaningless the way it tends to get used). So thank you for that!
My beloved improv teacher, David Razowsky, often says "Replace ambition with gratitude." That echoed through my heart while reading this.
It’s fascinating to read your perspectives on ambition, achievement, and success, Anne, because you’re in the position most of us on Substack can only dream of. This article shows that people with careers many of us are aspiring to have share the same thoughts and struggles.
I’m not sure if I have OCD, but I am hyper-disciplined and have put my dream of becoming a professional writer before everything else in my life. It’s been difficult for me to do anything for others or partake in activities that bring immediate enjoyment until I’ve spent at least five hours writing, three hours teaching to pay some bills, two hours working out, and four hours of networking. Then it’s usually time to sleep and start the cycle again.
But it’s changing. This idea of contributing, healing, and caring as ambition is something I’ve realized unintentionally by moving to Spain.
I was taught to hate myself as a foreigner in small-town Canada. I ate the wrong food, wore the wrong clothes, watched the wrong movies, and thought the wrong way. They say Canada is a mosaic of diverse cultures, but this isn’t true in many of the small towns. And whereas being different and standing out is beneficial in the big cities, the scars from childhood remain.
I made sure to be in the top 10% in all my classes throughout high school and university, joined sports teams, volunteered, and networked with the upper class, but it got me nowhere. Aside from several incredible friends, Canada rejected who I was and then who I tried to become. I will forever be connected to the soul of the old-growth forests, the breath of the Pacific, and the spirit of the mountains, but the culture made me feel like a failure.
In Spain, people don’t care what I do, what I eat (unless it’s ketchup on a tortilla or chorizo in a paella), what I wear (only swim shorts), or what I’m trying to achieve. Here, people care about who I am and how I treat them. Here, life isn’t about how we define success and achievement in North America.
Love this conversation as it's an ongoing live subject for me since being disabled by autoimmune disease. Trying to have a kid was/is ambitious between infertility and disability. It's ambitious to want to be part of a close-knit neighborhood when so much conspires against that.
AND I've also come back around to realizing that wanting to be a writer--or at least wanting to be read--is also ambitious in a more traditional sense, and that's okay, too, and I just really hope/mostly believe that it doesn't have to depend upon the kind of hustle that's not accessible to me.
Such a beautiful post. It's so difficult to admit our misguided ambitions that most of us have and the way they have impacted our lives. I've also stepped away from academia, so I guess especially in this context (at least in the way academia is in its current state) is what I'm thinking about. But maybe we have to make these mistakes to really SEE and to grow. Your weekend mornings are exactly what I feel I have recently achieved! Although as we are in an apartment with a toddler, I don't open the windows haha. We live 'internationally' -- that is, not just immigrants, but knowing we will move again soon and we're trying to find a way to be more settled down in a place so we can do things like "adopt pets" and build that kind of community we lacked when we had a kid and really could have used a bit more help. Those who did help were so lovely but also did not have a big support network so we were all struggling a bit together.
So excited for Rainesford's interview on my podcast to drop next week! (What Fresh Hell: Laughing in the Face of Motherhood) :)