‘The world is hard on ambitious girls,’ says Amy March in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women — and in some ways, that’s as true in 2020 as it was in 1868.
Historically seen as a masculine domain, there can still be a tendency for women to use apologetic language to describe their ambition, or for society to talk about ambition and family/parenthood as opposing forces.
Further complicating the issue is our somewhat limiting definition of what it really means to be ambitious. There’s no doubt that we need more women at the helm of multinational organisations of every description. But it’s also true that not every woman necessarily desires this, nor of course that those who aspire to anything less than CEO are demonstrating a ‘lack’ ambition.
By its nature, ambition has come to be seen as a desire to rise to the very top, and this focus on the ‘end result’ can be something of a fallacy, and may even mask a more authentic ambition that, once realised, has the power to make us happier. Setting and working towards goals is a wonderful thing, but as author of The Long Win, Catherine Bishop says, ambition can also be a destructive thing if it doesn’t reflect our real desires.
‘Athletes win gold and still feel empty and unfulfilled; business leaders reach the top of their game but feel burnt out and struggle to motivate their employees; pupils with armfuls of A grades find themselves ill-equipped for the workplace; politicians fight to win elections but seem unable to tackle the global issues of our time,’ says Bishop.
With so many loaded stereotypes and preconceptions surrounding female ambition, it’s little wonder that women shy from being louder and prouder about theirs. A 2020 study by American Express, for example, found that just 31% of women take satisfaction in defining themselves as “ambitious”.
Are your current goals limiting, rather than driving you, threatening your wellbeing rather than nudging you out of your comfort zone, or weighing you down rather than inspiring or exciting you? It could be that your ambitions are rooted in a sense of ‘should’, rather than what it is you truly desire. Recognise that your own ambitions might not reflect society’s expectations of what that term means, and resolve to create your own definition, just for you. These five simple steps are starting points for the thinking you’ll need to do to understand your career goals and how you can move closer towards them.
Get absolute clarity about what success looks like
‘Get clear about what matters,’ says Bishop. ‘What’s your ‘why’? What does success for you look like and how does it connect to your longer-term purpose?’
It might be about making megabucks by the time you’re 26, or achieving a specific job grade by a certain date. But it doesn’t necessarily have to relate to salary or responsibility. It could be about achieving optimum work-life balance, or building a portfolio career that gives you the variety you crave, or getting to a point where you can take your foot off the gas for a year or two so that you can finally take that night class you’ve always wanted to do. What matters is that you’re really clear what it is, and, most importantly, why you want it.
How will you learn and grow?
Since childhood, we’re taught that success is determined by the end result — the success of our education is measured by a series of exam results and qualification grades; later, at work, we focus on performance reviews, salary rises, promotional prospects. While there are all legitimate markets of success, they ignore the personal growth that comes from the journey, the friends and connections we make along the way, what we discover about ourselves and how our thoughts and decisions evolve as our experiences unfold.
By taking this broader view of success, we also come to view failure differently — as something that can push us further along on our journey, rather than as a dead end or a hurdle to overcome. And that frees us up to think much more expansively about what we want.
Once you’ve defined your ambition, consider where the personal growth comes from within it. Bagging that huge promotion might bring external success markers and financial incentives, but that MA in international politics might speak far more to your sense of development. On the flipside, taking on another high-profile project might earn you credibility among your peers, but maybe you’ve already paid your dues and it’s winning a promotion and becoming more visible with your seniors that you should be investing your energy into.
Prioritise your relationships
When we think about what or who we want to be, there can be a creeping tendency to compare ourselves with others, which can lead to distortions in what we say we want and what we actually desire. But, says Bishop, ‘If we invest in relationships and human connections, then we open up the possibility of greater cooperation and collaboration.’ This, of course, is vital for coping with the complex personal or social challenges and opportunities that we face and is more likely to help us achieve our ambitions. The people who know us best are far more likely to support us as we carve out our own journeys.
Autonomy and flexibility
‘It’s so important as humans to feel like we are in control of how we spend our time and what we do,’ says career and life coach Emily Button-Lynham. ‘Striving towards autonomy and creating flexibility about how and when we work, enables us to fit our careers around our other priorities in life such as families, socialising and hobbies.’
Studies have shown that psychological autonomy and ‘self-organisation’ positively impact wellbeing and work-life balance. Striving to rise to the top of a multinational might well be the right fit for you, but CEOs have to report into boards and shareholders, and that ‘freedom’ you crave in your middle management role might mean that an entrepreneurial life is better suited to you. By the same token, you might feel that ‘department head’ is the place you want to drive for so that you can really make a difference, but maybe your innate desire to lead means you should be aiming to push through that layer.
‘Having a clear purpose allows us to understand better why we are doing what we are doing and the value we are bringing into the world,’ says Button-Lynham. ‘[It] not only helps us navigate uncertainty and times of crisis better, it is also proven, in one study by McKinsey, to help us live longer and healthier lives.’
This could mean really stepping outside of the trajectory. Coach Lisa Johnson says, ‘Consider the bigger picture and what impact you could make by the work you do. When it’s more about the impact than the process, you can get much more excited about it.’
Look at what you want your life to look like and design your plan with that view at its centre. ‘Work backwards and very consciously set out to create a life you love — then do your research,’ says Johnson. ‘If you’re going to dramatically change direction actually take time to look at it from the inside out and see if you’re still passionate about it when you have a fuller picture.’