Last year, I said no to a big break. Someone I used to work with, and liked a great deal, wanted to me to join her growing consulting company as a part owner. It was an amazing offer. If I ever wanted to start a new company and grow it, this was a fantastic opportunity. The possibility was exciting; I felt tingles in my toes and stomach. I imagined my life as business owner: I would manage people and bring in interesting, new business. I would join a gym and have networking lunches.
But more than exciting, it was nerve-wracking. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to leave my current job, nor invest all of my time and energy in a fledgling company. My mind whirled constantly for days with dreams and nightmares about what my life would look like if I said yes. Yes, it might be incredibly stimulating. But it would also overrun my life.
I said no. In my gut, it felt like the right decision. I felt relieved afterward, but also absolutely terrible.
I felt unambitious.
Ambition is such a loaded word in our culture. We generally use it to mean that you are striving for professional and financial success, and perhaps fame or prestige. It might mean appearing in a list of “30 Influential People under 30,” winning a notable prize, having an important position at an influential company, or gracing the cover of Time Magazine. Ambition is about accomplishment.
My understanding of ambition is heavy with societal and family expectations, that have been internalized, contorted and magnified in my own head. I grew up assuming that ambition meant getting ahead at work. It equated to promotions, increasing levels of responsibility, and taking on new and challenging work– with corresponding increases in title and salary. I daydream about big breaks and impressive accomplishments that land big TV and radio interviews. These things are not in keeping with my current career path, how I spend my time, nor really my actual values.
In my early twenties, when I happened upon a job that gave me a lot of responsibility, it felt good to me. I was moving ahead in my career, gaining experience, while others my age were in dead-end admin jobs, or ones they chose because they could surf in the morning. Of course, other peers were probably founding the next hot start-up, but my project management position was enough for me to feel like I was making it and heading in the right direction. It is only with years of hindsight I see that, while I was gaining valuable experience, I wasn’t heading in the right direction per se. Really, I hadn’t given it that much thought. It was simply an expected path, and one in keeping with my notions of ambition.
Saying no to the opportunity to own a company called into question what I wanted in my life and what success looked like. I had gone to college, worked, completed grad school. And I had always assumed that I was ambitious. In the midst this heavy, internal debate, I turned to the dictionary definition:
Ambition (amˈbiSHən/): a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.
It certainly would have taken strong a strong desire and hard work to grow a company, but it also took some determination to say no. There are a lot of things in my life that I work hard at with determination, most notably my relationships and creative pursuits. These don’t pay a salary, but I realized the dictionary didn’t mention career or pay. Along with ambition, I had been wrestling with its equally loaded sibling, Success. The two are certainly related in my head, with success closely tied to career ambitions and accomplishments.
After months of turning this over, I realized that maybe it’s quite simple: success is merely achieving your own ambitions.
The things in our lives that are worthy of determination and hard work are only those we determine ourselves are worth it; the things we feel a strong desire to do. Money is a poor metric for this. Perhaps the question of whether or not I am ambitious is the wrong question. Perhaps I only need to ask: what are my ambitions?
I want to do meaningful work, and I am determined to achieve things in my life and my career. But I can also be ambitious about being a good friend, daughter, sister. I can be ambitious about knowing myself and figuring out how I want to spend my time. It is ambitious just to show up and be present in the moment. I will never grace the cover of Time for this, but I may still be a success.
Image: Rene Magritte, “The Treachery of Images” (1928)