As probably every TWN member knows, being an ambitious woman is not a bad thing. It is important for us as women to have healthy relationships with our own ambition(s), and to feel comfortable embracing them whenever society tells us that we aren’t supposed to have them. This, however, isn’t the only consideration. It can also be easy to fall into believing that we want what society tells us we want–having a certain type of job, owning certain things, or making a certain amount of money–when we ourselves don’t actually, deep down, want those things. Recognizing when this is happening is just as important as embracing ambition because you can start to feel stressed or unfulfilled if you’re barking up the wrong tree. As college students, we have a great opportunity to take a step back and decide what our desires truly are and set our life goals based on those dreams.
A Goalcast article by Maya Khamala lays out a good way to ensure your relationship with ambition stays healthy. In her particular article, she makes a distinction between ambitions and aspirations. Following Merriam Webster’s definitions, she defines an aspiration as “‘a strong desire to achieve something high or great’” and ambition as “‘an ardent desire for rank, status, or power.’”
TWN does not use this definition of ambition, but it can be easy for the boundaries between awesome, helpful kinds of ambition that help you make your dreams/aspirations a reality and the more externally motivated kind that Khamala discusses. She lists several signs of “toxic” ambition to watch out for. Some of the ones that stand out the most include:
1. “The destination seems more important than the journey.” This definitely makes sense if you’re in a profession or hobby for only the success and not so much the joy of what you are doing.
2. “You’re anxious or depressed.” I have experienced several clashes between my goals and my true aspirations on several occasions, and I definitely get anxious every time. When you’re doing something because of the rewards associated with achieving them, for example fitting in socially, any type of failure can be extremely daunting.
3. “You avoid interactions that won’t further your goals.” By this, Khamala means not taking the time to create genuine relationships with the people around you, and treating them more like “known quantities” that can either help you get what you want or can’t. This piece of advice connects strongly with what it means to network: it works a lot better if you just try to get to know the person, instead of trying to get them to recommend you somewhere you want to work.
I have certainly fallen victim to doing something that didn’t fit with my real goals, so I am really aware of the strain that it causes when you try to live a life you don’t actually want that much. One of my most salient examples of this is when I tried out competitive latin/ballroom dancing. Originally, I only got into it because I wanted to develop skills for another dance, but I began training really intensely (and attending very expensive competitions) because I turned out to be really good at it and I enjoyed people’s praise. I did like latin, but I liked the feeling of success more than I did the actual dances. If I had gone all the way into it, it would have been for the wrong reasons, and I know it all would have come crashing down at some point.
On a broader scale than dance, it can be especially easy to fall into one of these difficult situations if your culture values specific types of professions that don’t fit with your personality. For example, it is awesome to go into finance or become a doctor, but what if you’re really into coffee? Maybe you would actually be happier working at a coffee shop than spending lots of money to do a job that’s not actually very fulfilling. One thing that’s been surprisingly cool about the pandemic is that lots of people have taken a break from environments that pressured them to be certain ways, and now people are quitting their jobs and freeing themselves up to do things they might really love.
The cool thing is that we are actually allowed to be ambitious and able to decide what to be ambitious about–to have a healthy relationship with ambition. When dealing with a crisis of toxic ambition, it’s clarifying to step back and ask what your actual aspirations are, what you actually want to get out of life, It’s also probably a good idea to keep asking that question since your passions will most likely change. Khamala concludes her article with a great rule to live by: “that which is done out of love is always more successful in the long term than that which is done out of fear–be it fear or loss, fear of failure, or fear of lack.”