Redefining Ambition

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©Anna Ostanina via Canva.com

“Ambition” is a loaded word, especially for women and mothers. It certainly has been for me. In 2023, two significant things happened that are changing how I think about ambition. First, I chose “enough” as my word of the year, and then in May, I quit a job I loved. I’ve questioned whether I’m being ambitious enough–am I achieving my potential? What the heck does that even mean? I’ve been wrestling with these questions a lot and I’ve arrived in a place where I am redefining ambition. 

I spent a lot of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood trying to be as ambitious as possible. I think this is true for many millennials–I was told I could do and be anything. I chose the most academically challenging high school, did as many extracurriculars as possible, and believed I should attend the most prestigious university I could manage. I remember that when I chose elementary education as a career path, the consensus at my university and even among some family members was that I wasn’t being ambitious enough. 

Eventually, I transitioned to working at churches, which I was still doing at the beginning of 2023. The church is an environment in which there is almost constant debate about what women, in general, should aspire to, and specifically about whether there should be limits to the positions or levels of authority women in church leadership are “allowed” to hold. Even if you work in a church where that debate has been settled, it’s almost impossible to be a woman and not run into this debate about what we should want to achieve.

At this point, I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out what my “career” is. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a fancy title or be someone’s boss again. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to grad school or have fancy letters after my name. I graduated from college 13 years ago, but I’m still learning to stop defining my life that way.

Living in the age of social media hasn’t eased this tension at all. In fact, I feel it more. Now, it seems anyone can be an influencer. With enough hard work, anything can become an income-generating career path–parenting, organizing, shopping, crafting, reading, exercising, or even putting on your make-up. If you’re willing to put it on social media, anything is possible. On the one hand, yay for more career opportunities for women! On the other hand, “anything is possible” is exhausting.

When I chose “enough” as my word of the year, I wasn’t really thinking about ambition. But to be ambitious implies a constant desire for more, bigger, and better. The dictionary definition emphasizes that ambition is usually about distinction, power, status, fame, and money. 

The internet plays tricks on us–TikTok psychologists and Instagram poets remind us that none of that will bring true satisfaction or meaning to our lives, but scroll a little further down and we get bombarded by advertisements and gurus who insist that just one more Amazon purchase, one more class, or one more goal will make us who we want to be. 

But what if we redefined ambition? What if we aspired to more love, more fun, more joy, and more contentment? 

I recently read a post about burnout from Anne Helen Peterson. (Thanks to fellow Indy Moms writer Lauren Palmer for forwarding it to me!) In it, Peterson writes about the three different areas that contribute to burnout: societal problems, workplace culture, and individual problems. I’m not working in a traditional full-time job anymore, so workplace culture doesn’t apply a whole lot to me these days. I could talk about society’s problems all day, and I don’t want to diminish their importance, especially for marginalized groups. But the reality is that these days, my own individual thinking contributes A LOT to my feelings of burnout and discontent. Until I began trying to define ambition differently, I could not shake the feeling that I needed to be doing more, achieving more, and “contributing” to the world in some bigger or different way.

In another post, Peterson interviews and quotes author Rainesford Stauffer, who says: “To me, if we really break it down, a lot of ambition is where we put dedication, care, and passion. That could be how we’re of service to other people, how we show up as a friend, and how we invest in what we love, whether it’s a community or a hobby. I think contributing, healing, and caring are ambitious. I’ve found there is so much for me to be ambitious about, way beyond the context of accomplishment.”

I want to be more kind and more generous as I get older. I aspire to get enough rest and not fear big feelings. I want to spend more time on my hobbies and encourage others to do the same. I aim to enjoy the time I spend with my family without cramming it with one million activities. And I want to live in such a way that all of this becomes more possible for other people, too. 

Ultimately, I want to be a more loving person–I want to love God, myself, my friends, my family, my community, and the world in ever-increasing measure. That’s a definition of “ambition” I can get behind.

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