A woman I worked for once called me “ambitious.” Not in the way that gets foiled in gold and pressed onto a sweatshirt. No, I knew what she meant. She thought I was threatening, ruthless, and untrustworthy. That the constant benchmarks I sought were draped in spite for those around me. She said it like she’d said it before to the other women in our group. They treated me like a runaway train: move out of her way, or her ambition will turn you into roadkill.
It hurt, but I understood it. Being a woman in our profession, this was all some of us knew.
I studied to become (and then became) a lawyer during the Great Recession. Jobs were so scarce we couldn’t even tell our friends when we found one, because even they might try to take it. We were kind of like Rose escaping a sinking Titanic on that one floating door: it debatably had room for two people, but would you take the chance and reach out your hand? For a while, economic conditions did not improve much, so as baby lawyers, we tolerated too much. We endured disrespect (to put it mildly) out of fear we’d lose even the jobs we didn’t want. Besides, it was much easier to turn on one another.
That economic landscape supported the traditional narrative around most high-achieving women in Baby Boomer’s Corporate America. I should say, “woman,” though, because there could only be one. One woman in the boardroom, clawing higher and higher in her Hugo Boss suit and nude pantyhose, pounding on the ceiling until it shattered just for her. And when it did, it would be the crowning achievement of her life. It had to be, because she gave it everything she had. She gave it everything she’d never have. She gave it everything.
This was the only working woman I thought existed. Or maybe, this was the only version of a woman brought to my workplace. Either way, she is all I saw.
I shared in her version of ambition, one that tethered her self-worth directly to her job. Titles and paychecks were like character traits, talking points used to gloss over my resentment over the inauthentic professional choices I had to make back then. I needed to live within that corporate construct – it felt like constant validation. If I wasn’t happy, at least I was working hard.
Still, I think back to one conversation with a female colleague. She was young mom with her second child on the way, who I criticized often to her face and behind her back. I laughed and told her I couldn’t imagine a life where I’d always leave the office before 7pm. She told me she’d feel sorry for me if I feel that way forever.
And I don’t. Thank goodness. Everything changed with the birth of my first daughter, but not just for the reasons you’d think.
My then-secret dream was to write, like I did in journalism school but sold myself out of before even getting started. On maternity leave, my husband and I had an idea for a book. We spent our already sleepless nights drafting it. Then, we sold it. Energized and inspired by the process, I took a new day job – one I found quite easy – so I could reinvest my time into the book. Ironically, years into my legal career, it felt like I had finally a reached one truthful, honest goal.
Becoming a mother, of course, changed my perception of ambition, too. I’ve dug deep to overcome postpartum depression and survive the worst of the pandemic with two small kids. I’ve sleep trained, potty trained, and retired pacifiers. I’ve learned how to cook with one hand stirring, the other on a toddler, while on speakerphone. I volunteer at school when I don’t have time. None of this comes easy, but parents push through. We go above the bare minimum, motivated by love and our desire to give them something better than just survival. Parenting is so often ambitious, too.
When I began achieving goals that had nothing to do with my job, I realized that “success,” and the ambition it takes to achieve it, appears nothing like what I thought it would. I had been looking through someone else’s lens, searching for benchmarks others would approve of, and none of it ever satisfied me. Life can be much more dynamic than I expected.
Ambition is not a program – it is personal.
This ambition looks and feels different; it’s not our parent’s, too often siloed and too often labeled. This version rewards you along the way, because you are putting effort into things that enrich and satisfy you. It’s not tied to just one job, but rather, a personal pursuit where the conquests are your own. Your ambition today might secure you a huge professional win. Tomorrow, it might mean PR’ing on your Peloton, or reaching out your hand to a friend. Your ambition is not for others to label. It can be what you want it to be, because it’s yours.
Upon reaching this conclusion, my doors opened wider. I unlocked my ambition to accomplish so many more things. I started running. And making art. And community leading. And writing more often. Yes, I am still a lawyer but with a healthier self-image that credits my wins outside of work, because they matter. I’d argue, they matter more.
The ironic thing is, decentralizing your ambition can actually make you a better colleague, too. When you seek fulfillment outside of work, the positive net effects can trickle back into it. You might become more collaborative, more supportive. And when you reach your next professional milestone, it won’t be in spite of anyone, and it won’t appear to be, either. I wish that one boss knew this was the woman she could be speaking to. However, she was a product of her own environment, an ecosystem built in the past. More of us need to break free from that, so we can use our drive to champion each other. I wish she knew me now.
I am an ambitious woman, in ways I knew I would be, and in others I’d never expected. Lots of people, organizations, and causes have seen what my best looks like, but what excites me the most is thinking who will next.
The little things
My husband and I went away to a spa during the first week in November. I think it was the first time I moved about without a phone in more than two years. Even though we jumped right back into the pre-holiday chaos when we arrived home, I am still feeling very grateful for the chance to breathe. And pause. Doing nothing is a gift.
Happy Adele Day to everyone listening. I don’t have a therapist at the moment, so please check in on me this weekend. Thanks.