Where's my ambition gone?

The pandemic effect might not be what we think it is

Ambition is the goldilocks of the success matrix. Too much and you’re a greedy, ruthless shark; not enough and you’re a lazy, unmotivated wasteman. Let’s not even get into the connotations of what it means to be ambitious as a woman. 

Personally, I have a complicated relationship with my ambition. I have it to thank for a career that I love and fulfils me. It’s what drives me to hit milestones that make me proud. I do ~a lot~ of things.  But at the same time, I worry about constantly striving for the next thing at the expense of not being able to sit in celebration of current achievements.

I find reasons why my achievements weren’t good enough in order to justify pushing myself harder. Publishing my first book wasn’t good enough because it was niche non-fiction, not a literary novel; a front-page New York Times byline wasn’t good enough because it was co-authored, and so on. Ambition becomes yet another stick with which to beat ourselves. 

As it happens, some people are more ambitious than others. In 2012, researchers looked into why that is. They found a number of underlying factors that caused ambition, such as: “conscientiousness, extraversion, low neuroticism, general mental ability, as well as parents’  occupational prestige.” Interestingly, things like birth order, insecurity and a tendency towards comparison were all variables that, depending on how we respond to them, make some more ambitious than others. The conclusion I’ve drawn from this is that ambition is, in fact, a personality trait. It’s part of who we are, resulting from our personal cocktails of nature and nurture.

In cultural vernacular, we often mix up the terms ambition and aspiration. Aspiration is striving towards a specific goal, hoping to achieve it. While ambition is a strong desire for success. In other words, it’s almost like a way of being. 

In that respect, I don’t think it’s as simple as the pandemic killing ambition. I think it’s more a case that it’s been a confronting assault on our very identities. When I wrote about my ambivalence towards journalism, I heard from so many readers experiencing a similar identity crisis. The pandemic didn’t cause my professional angst, it just prompted me to question it. Similarly, it didn't steal my ambition, rather it was put under a microscope. Amplified and magnified to the point where it couldn’t be ignored any longer. 

To hear a longer discussion about ambition, listen to the latest episode of Is This Working?, my podcast about work, careers and success that I co-host with the writer Tiffany Philippou. Listen now on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or search “is this working” whether you listen to podcasts.