On ambition

I recently read this essay by Elisa Albert, in which she discusses the pressures of ambition and her own frustrations with it. Whilst acknowledging the benefits of hard work, Albert criticises the self-serving nature of ‘Lean In’ culture that is more concerned with achievement than with purpose or human connection. In contrast, Albert is impressed by:

‘Eye contact. Self-possession. Loyalty. Boundaries. Good posture. Moderation. Restraint. Laugh lines. Gardening. Activism. Originality. Kindness. Self-awareness. Simple food, prepared with love. Style. Hope. Lust. Grace. Aging. Humility. Nurturance. Learning from mistakes. Moving on. Letting go. Forms of practice, in other words. Constant, ongoing work. No endpoint in sight. Not goal-oriented, not gendered. Idiosyncratic and pretty much impossible to monetize.’

Over the past few years, I’ve grown to appreciate these kind of qualities over qualifications or titles. To an extent, figuring this out required pushing my limits. In my second year as an undergraduate, I simultaneously took modules across three disciplines, worked part-time recruiting students for a graduate scheme, visited schools as a Student Ambassador, volunteered as Publicity Officer for a local branch of the charity I now work for and completed a communications internship.

I wanted to do those things, but, processing a break up, a job rejection and the uncertainty of illness, I also wanted to be seen as the kind of person who could successfully manage them all. It was exciting and exhausting. When I reached the end of that year, I realised that my mental and physical health would have been better if I hadn’t taken on quite so much.

It can be difficult when genuine enthusiasm for work gets mixed up with the pursuit of external validation. Twenty year old me really required more sleep, more hugs and more time with friends, not another to do list. Respecting our own needs and energy levels doesn’t mean that we are less able or important, even if doing so means not working on something outwardly impressive.

I don’t regret putting myself forward for any of those opportunities. They were great experiences that built a foundation for my career so far. However, I’m now better at prioritising. When deciding what to take on, I evaluate whether I have the time for it, what it would add to my experience, who I would be connecting with, whether it pays / helps people (or both), and whether I will enjoy it. I’m not under an illusion that work will always, or should always, be more like play, but I like to be invested and see the wider value in it.

Although I still hold myself to high standards and I find managing multiple part-time roles / projects rewarding, my ambition is less intense and more compassionate. I believe in advocating for our own abilities, but I admire humble aptitude. I am driven, but not by a need to be the best, to gain the highest follower count, or to develop the most outstanding LinkedIn profile. I want to find meaning in my professional and creative work, but also through relationships, self care and culture.

My idea of a full life is a relatively quiet one that doesn’t involve working relentlessly. (Pausing here to acknowledge my middle class privilege. I know that some people have to work very long hours for low pay.) Whilst your preferred balance may look different, it’s worth considering your motivations and values when opportunities do arise. ‘Will I find this enjoyable, challenging and satisfying?’ is a better question than ‘Will people think I’m better if I do this?’

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