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Who Am I Without My Ambition?
An honest look at how I got through a mild career panic this year. Plus: Three lessons I've learned.
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Towards the end of last year, I went through a mild career (and existential, really) panic. After years of working at my “dream job,” the one I built as an entrepreneur after years of gulping down the “hustle hard and turn your passion into a job” doctrine of millennial girlboss culture, I felt a sudden stagnation. I was bored by the repetitiveness of my daily tasks at work, I wasn’t learning anything new, and crucially, I felt no sense of upward progress, whatever that meant. I watched as my peers landed shiny new titles as VPs at impressive-sounding companies, and I wondered if the absence of these markers of external validation in my own life meant that I was getting left behind. More worrisome was that I had let things get to this point. Was I settling and giving up?
Contributing further to my malaise was the simple fact that my identity was too tied up in my work. What should have been left at the door as “just work stuff” when I came home (or, er, closed my laptop) would be instead dragged into all corners of my life. When things went sideways with partners, projects, or whatever, I’d stay up all night and fret, wondering if I was good enough. I’d show up to dinner in a glum mood. My negative self-talk was out of control. Clearly, I was a lot of fun to be around!
Looking back, this all reads to me as silly and borderline superficial, to fixate on myself and let work affect me so much. Yet, I have compassion for my past self. When work becomes your identity, all boundaries and sense of self come crashing down at the slightest wobble.
There was also the issue with my ambition: Even as things felt stagnant (or maybe because of it), I felt it slipping away.
Ambition often gets a bad reputation, but for me, it felt purposeful, even necessary. For as long as I could remember, ambition had been my saving grace, my most distinct character trait, my modus operandi. Growing up as the daughter of immigrants with modest means, ambition had been the one “meritocratic key” that unlocked upward mobility and crucially, financial security. Ambition was the thing that earned me an Ivy League degree, solid jobs, good salaries, and achievements galore. This had to count for something and was worth holding onto…right?
Given my history with ambition, it’s no wonder that I panicked when I felt a sense of complacency starting to settle in last year. Complacency was the opposite of ambition; it was new to me and I deemed it dangerous, a threat to my “earned” security and stability. Who would I be without my ambition? I didn’t want to find out.
My initial instinct to fix things was to find a new job — one that would motivate me enough but not subsume my identity again. I half-heartedly applied to a few things here and there, determined to get away from my discomfort. I convinced myself that my issue was my job itself: not only was it too close to my identity, too precious to my self-worth and ego, but it was now too amenable to (shudder) complacency.
Ultimately, my panicked job search last winter was short-lived and didn’t go anywhere. This was a big blessing in disguise: It forced me to take some time off (which I was so lucky/privileged to take) and dig deeper to uncouple ambition from my career. Through therapy, reading, chatting with friends, and a whole lot of introspection, I came to a few realizations below that are helping me reshape my thinking…
It’s okay to embrace “seasons of ambition”
I first came across the phrase “seasons of ambition” in this Work Appropriate podcast episode with Simone Stolzoff, author of The Good Enough Job. Embracing seasons of ambition means knowing that there may be periods in our lives when we feel motivated, inspired, and eager to strive and other periods that will feel slower, perhaps even stagnant. And that’s okay!
Unrelenting ambition is unsustainable. As someone wise once told me: Careers are long. There is time. A lack of growth for a while doesn’t spell out doom. I remind myself this any time I feel insecure about the cool things and titles my peers are doing on LinkedIn (and, er, avoiding LinkedIn in general), or wonder if I am making “enough.”
I want to believe that I can do it all: the high-powered job, the long hours, and being a present wife/friend/daughter/mom, etc. But the hard-to-accept reality, for me at least, is that I know I can’t sustain endless ambition. There must be ebbs and flows, some room for rest.
Work can just be that: work!
Work can just be work — but consider figuring out what you want out of it, first. It was helpful for me to sit down and literally write down what I most wanted out of work: some sense of financial security (though I admit I’m in constant mental battles with how much I want to earn, ought to earn, and all that — probably immigrant kid stuff!), up-leveling my skills, working with others I respect, and contributing towards specific and measurable outcomes.
This list of values helped me make some changes to my work so that I could view it as “just work:”
I began folding in other work for income in the form of consulting, scratching my itch for professional learning, and working with others. While I love the clients I work with, I find peace that at the end of the day, I can hang my hat and hold the work at arm’s length. It feels more like a job that I am good at and am paid for and less like my entire identity. And that’s healthy! This recent NYT op-ed states things a bit more plainly and describes a “job” as simply “an economic contract.” It may sound cold, but viewing some work as being simply a transaction can feel freeing.
I’ve depressurized this newsletter for myself (becoming Downtime and aiming to be reader-supported is a big part of that!). What brought me to start writing was a genuine love for creating, sharing, and connecting with readers. In the throes of girlboss culture, I got caught up in the pressure to grow and monetize the heck out of a business. Now, I feel much better about writing without letting it become a measuring stick for my self-worth.
I acknowledge my solutions won’t be relatable to all. I’m in a dual-income household, am self-employed, and feel financially secure for the most part. Some people don’t have the luxury of free time to even think about what “fulfillment” outside of work means, thanks to structural barriers. Others work in fields where a supposed “love for the work” is used to exploit and underpay (thinking of teachers and nonprofit employees, among others). No matter your work, I’d love to hear from you in the comments on how you’re dealing!
We can choose to be ambitious outside of work
That we can be ambitious outside of our jobs has been by far the most beautiful and hopeful realization of all. The pandemic has disillusioned most of us about the point of all this work ambition, its stability, and the blurry supposed economic rewards at the end of it. “There’s no such thing as job security anymore,” a colleague wisely told me over coffee last year as I wondered whether getting a 9-5 job would feel “safer” than freelancing. This shift — knowing that even work ambition can’t guarantee rewards or security — while dreary, can feel liberating as we aim to find meaning outside work.
As writer and author Rainesford Stauffer and writerdiscuss in this podcast episode (and in Stauffer’s new book!), it’s possible to be ambitious in other ways: in our communities, in our marriages and partnerships, in our parenting, in our creative practice, in our hobbies, and so on. (The hard part, I suspect, will be in how one actually gets there. It takes time and reflection to figure out how else you want to be ambitious, and this alone makes it a station of privilege.)
I’m still not sure if I’ve landed on the magic solution! I’m working through it all in real-time. But I do feel more content right now rather than complacent, no longer feel that I’m giving up or settling. I’m taking a step away from the endless grind I’ve been on. And that feels magical — to explore a more full life outside of work.
Coming up next for paid subscribers:
A roundup of books, podcasts, and articles I found helpful in decoupling ambition from my career.
I’m interviewing Rainesford Stauffer on her highly topical new book, All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive. TBD on publish date, but soon! I highly recommend the book.
💬 I’d love to hear your thoughts: Are you working through any big career/ambition questions right now? How are you choosing to define yourself outside of work? In what other areas are you, or do you hope, to be ambitious? Leave a comment (open to all until July), hit reply, or email me at email@example.com.
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