What does it look like to reframe ambition? Is burning the midnight oil all that it's cracked up to be? Here, Lauren Smith Brody offers guidance on how to think about moving forward in your career, whether or not that means moving up.
- Written By
- Lauren Smith Brody
- Maria-Ines Gul
The other night, cooking dinner, I realized that I was using all four burners on the stove at once. I'm a decent-enough cook, but this was bold. Years ago, my toddler son took a flying leap off of a kitchen stool toward me while my hands were busy managing those four flames, and we headed straight to the ER for stitches. I swore I wouldn't attempt four burners again for a long, long time. Which apparently is now!
A decade ago, frantically cooking a stupidly gourmet dinner after a long day at work, I thought that ambition had to look like more, bigger, better:
An office with a window for that promotion (which, unfortunately, I learned offered the prettiest views of the city after midnight).
A pile of books by my bedside that no one would ever call "beach reads" (though they might have called them" unread").
An insane beach carnival-themed preschool birthday party (that cost more than all of our monthly utilities combined).
Four hours of sleep.
"You're so ambitious," people would say, and I'd wonder how on earth next year's birthday cake would beat this one. "I suffer from 'never-enoughness syndrome,'" I'd reply, laughing, hoping that a little self-deprecation would keep me likable. The problem was, there were moments I didn't like myself. When you're always trying to lap yourself (or worse, other people), you're never really satisfied.
I learned the hard way that ambition isn't always about trying so hard. It's not about success. It's about satisfaction.
So, while this is a column answering your questions about ambition, I hope you'll define that term fluidly, like the moving, progressive, walking (English major nerd alert: check out its root, "ambul") phenomenon it is. Real ambition, I've realized, is whatever allows you to keep going. Four burners and zero deadlines (like I recently enjoyed on a random Tuesday). Or four deadlines, pizza delivery. It all counts.
What if you are ambitious at work but you don't see what you want for your future in the people who are more senior than you?
I'm going to say something controversial. I no longer believe in the, "dress for the job you want, not the job you have" rule. I mean, sure, dress however formally you want if heels and pearls are your thing, but faking it 'til you make it? That shit is over.
In this new peri-pandemic era, the most interesting and innovative (and probably profitable) senior executive folks I know want to be more like you. This is very powerful. So I encourage you to stop wearing any kind of costume, literal or figurative, that doesn't feel true to you. All of our norms around facetime, measuring success, and all of the stuff that we all think of as "professional" are evolving faster than most organizations can keep up. (See: The Great Resignation.) If you enjoy your work and want to stay and move up, you don't necessarily want to act just like the people above you. Here are two alternative strategies to level up while being true to you:
- Lead with a need: The people who are the future of your company are actually not the people at the top. They are you. So, think about what it will take for your employer to succeed in the long run. How can they attract the best talent? How can they keep them? How can they propel more women and marginalized folks into leadership (where they are proven profit-drivers)? Astoundingly, the answers to these questions probably all point toward supporting employees like you! So, If you can think of even one change your company can make – especially if it supports your family (hello, flex time, or childcare stipend), suggest it with the greater good as your case. You will get heard and noticed at a higher level.
- Let go of the little tasks: This is the moment to take a good hard look at your job description versus what you actually do. Many times (too many!), the women I coach who get promoted accidentally hang on to their old duties as well as their new ones. They're capable, they're stars, and they just…do it all. No, no, no, thank you, no. That robs you of time and wellbeing and leads to toxic resentment. It's also detrimental to the growth of the people under you who need you to mentor them, not gatekeep. And most importantly, the higher up you climb in an organization, the more time you need for white space on your calendar. To have big ideas. To make time for introductions. If all of your best ideas come to you in the shower, that's a sign that you need to drop the beneath-paygrade tasks and build that time into your paid workday instead.
What does ambition look like when it's not tied to a career or a paycheck? How do you explain that your goals aren't tied to moving up along your career ladder?
Ambition absolutely does not require a paycheck!!
(But, important parenthetical, if you do have a paycheck, negotiating for more money is always a good goal as women are underpaid and tend to do great things with their spending power. My current money ambition is to charge more and work fewer hours. No shame in that!)
When it's not tied to a career, ambition can look like one of my insane birthday cakes for my kids. It can also look like calling your best friend daily when she's going through a divorce. It can look like deciding to rewatch ALL of The Office because laughing that much is good for the soul, and Pam and Jim kind of make you like your husband more. It can look like planning a vacation, even if it's a whole year away. Finally, it can look like learning to stop apologizing to inanimate objects when you bump into them. (I know of what I speak.)
Ambition is – and maybe these are the words you're looking for, dear question asker – a deliberate commitment to moving forward on all the things in life that bring me satisfaction, modeling that for my kids, and maybe making some progress for our culture along the way.
How do I avoid passing pressure to be ambitious on to our kids?
On the one hand, I think you're right to wonder about this. Our kids have been through two years we could never have imagined for them, and all of the research shows that their mental health has suffered. The last thing they need is more stress.
On the other hand – shout out to anyone whose kids are total opposites like my two boys – the older your kids get, the more striking it is that they simply are who they are. Your influence only extends so far! It's kind of humbling. They will see behaviors you model and copy you exactly with pride. They will see other behaviors you model and reject them completely and run away screaming.
For years, in my work, I taught mothers to bring their identity as a parent to their offices. Then the pandemic hit, and with so many of us working from home, I realized that the opposite was just as important: We needed to be okay bringing our identity as a worker home to our kids.
For those of us fortunate to keep our paid jobs through this time, our kids have seen us frustrated, inspired, tired, victorious, ambivalent – all things they might experience in their own work one day and then have to wake up and keep going the next morning.
For those who had essential jobs outside the home, our kids saw us do something very, very hard and brave.
For those whose primary work is the unpaid labor of childcare (or for those who pivoted into this work), I hope you speak of its value with your kids. Teach them the terms "paid labor" and "unpaid labor." Teach them that both kinds count in your family even if the rest of society hasn't figured that out yet.
And if you pass along any kind of ambition, let it be the ambition to chart their own course and help clear the path for others who might not have the same privileges.