Ambition and the Modern Careerist

You don’t often hear about ambition these days; it’s a term that feels slightly old fashioned, like something out of Mad Men.

Somewhere along the way, ambition went out of style, or at least showing it did. Recently, articles about Olympic snowboarder Shaun White reported that he is wildly unpopular among his fellow snowboarders despite the fact that he almost singlehandedly brought the sport to the world stage. Other snowboarders found his ambition to win unseemly.

According to a February 2014 article for Slate Magazine by Justin Peters and Josh Levin, “Even though White is perhaps the best—and certainly the ladder1best-known—snowboarder in the world, he has never fit in with the sport’s mellow bro culture, in which everyone gets along and it’s gauche to admit that you care about victory.”

Ambition is often associated (not always fairly) with ruthlessness and narcissism, and many people find it a repelling quality. We all want to be successful, but it should surprise us, falling onto our heads like an unexpected rain shower on a summer’s day. “Me, a vice president? Why, I’ve never considered it. But of course, I’m happy to accept…” Wanting it feels so greedy. And then, if you obviously want it and don’t get it, you risk the Schadenfreude of all your competitors and enemies.

But maybe we’re just rethinking our priorities.

Ambition has been declining among professional women in the workplace for the past ten years, according to a yearly survey from More Magazine.

  • 43% of women said they were less ambitious than a decade ago
  • 15% reported feeling more ambitious
  • 73% say they wouldn’t apply for their boss’s job
  • 38% say they don’t want the politics, pressure and responsibility of a high-power position

Women, especially, are rejecting the idea of “having it all.” We know that it’s not possible to have a completely balanced life where work and family get equal time and attention. So many women (and men) are choosing family first. We’re also tired of owning things that we don’t have time to enjoy. “I work incredibly long days to pay for the big beautiful house filled with things I never see because I work incredibly long days.” Sound familiar?

Ever since Sheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In) gave us permission to view our careers as jungle gyms, and not necessarily ladders, we’ve been rethinking our strategy. We want to construct careers that have meaning, challenge us, and bring us happiness. And that’s not always about money and prestige.

Would you describe yourself as ambitious? Leave a comment.

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