Defining Ambition and Success on Our Own Terms - Women's Foundation California
Photo: Christopher Campbell via Upsplash
In short—if the definitions of ambition and success are changing, I feel grateful. And relieved. Photo: Christopher Campbell via Unsplash.

As I read Kristin van Ogtrop’s article, Why Ambition Isn’t Working for Women, in last week’s Time magazine, I reflected on a number of things, just as I did when I read Anne-Marie Slaugher’s article in The Atlantic three years ago about Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.

I reflected on my own life. I reflected on my mother. I reflected on the narrow definitions of success for women.

I was not surprised to read Ms. van Ogtrop’s assertion that many companies are failing to see that ambition for women is about more than the job. I wasn’t surprised to read that women’s ambition diminished by 60 percent after two years in the workplace or that a third of the women surveyed feel they’re not ambitious enough. I was even less surprised to read that the perceptions of ambitious women are less than flattering, even though 90 percent of men and women in one survey said they were raised to believe that ambition was important.

So, if I was not surprised, what did I feel?

In short—if the definitions of ambition and success are changing, I feel grateful. And relieved.

A lot has changed in my life in the past three years since Ms. Slaughter’s article ran and Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In. I had my third son. My mother passed away. My 40th birthday came and went. Like the women surveyed, the definition of my own ambition and success has evolved over time and is—as it’s always been—defined in broad terms that transcend home and office.

My ambition looks different depending upon the day of the week. On Sundays I am proud if I’ve hit Trader Joes and Target, made baby food for the week, washed, folded and put away all seven loads of laundry, cleaned the house and spent quality time with my boys and my husband. I fall asleep early, bone tired.

On Wednesday I’m proud if I’ve actually written emails for real and not just in my head, completed a few tasks while sitting in back-to-back meetings and left by quarter to five so that I can be home for dinner with my family. Some nights I’m back online after the kids are in bed. I fall asleep late, bone tired.

What this tells me is that there is something much more than ambition. Ambition is almost too superficial a word; the word itself does not connote that we are engaged in anything fun, let alone enjoyable. It sounds exhausting and obligatory. Yet ambition has roots—deep ones—based in our values. Somewhere along the way, our deeply rooted values become less visible in a context much larger than ourselves.

Ms. van Ogtrop’s article and Ms. Slaughter’s new book Unfinished Business make clear that American corporate life is set up in a way that makes it very hard for women to feel successful both at home and at work. They ask: Does a corporate culture that devalues families also kill ambition? They also ask us: Toward what end does our ambition lead?

If ambition is the means and success the end, then the answer is plain to me. Strive to do our best. Be kind and generous. But most important, define these things for ourselves. Certainly, society offers judgment about our drive or lack thereof and places value on our contributions. It assigns status to some and stigma to others. But using others’ definitions of success, failure and ambition can leave us feeling empty and worthless.

The article also had me asking myself, what is my role? How can I support, encourage and reinforce the ambition of others?

The other thing that happened to me in the past three years is that I became an “elder,” not by age but by tenure. I am officially a mid-career professional. And with that comes both responsibilities and rewards. The greatest reward, frankly, is the good faith that I have earned by working hard and following through in my twenties and thirties. And the gift that I can return to the good people around me is to mentor and coach my colleagues and other emerging leaders. I view as part of my daily responsibilities giving informational interviews to anyone who asks for one. I accept with honor the request to write letters of recommendation for graduate school. Supporting others’ ambitions means encouraging a friend or colleague to go for a promotion or an opportunity that makes her feel afraid and overwhelmed. Most often this simply means reminding other women of their power, their promise and their resilience.

A stay-at-home parent with the first six kids and a working parent with the last two, my mom would not likely have described herself as ambitious or even accomplished. In my estimation, she was enormously successful. She was driven by her values, and her work at home and at the office reflected her faith, her desire to be of service and her commitment to do her very best. As my mother was dying, my siblings and I watched a wonderful video featuring hospice nurse Barbara Karnes called Gone from My Sight. Of the many reassuring takeaways I heard was that most of us die as we lived. My mother died with a smile on her face surrounded by children.

For me, ambition stems from a desire to be of purpose, to be helpful in the world and to leave it a better place. At the end of my days, I hope I feel proud because I helped people to know they are seen, loved and valued. There is no separation in my mind between being that way at work and being that way in the world. Perhaps that’s the grandest ambition of all—not only to live as though there is no separation but to help create the same opportunity for others.

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