“I’m quitting my job. I don’t want to be a boss anymore. I’m not ambitious.”
Whether you call it burnout, the great resignation or the anti-ambition movement, you’ve probably heard someone proudly proclaiming how they’ve let go of their ambitions.
Set against the backdrop of a pandemic that pushed underpaid, overworked, under-resourced and unprotected professionals across industries to their breaking points, that sentiment is not surprising. And it’s brought much needed attention and urgency to long-standing problems in the workplace.
It’s clear that work isn’t working for many (if not most) of us these days. And so, we often think, it’s time we let go of our ambitions.
But as I’ve written before, “When we link our ambition to how much we can cram into a day, or how many weekends we can spend working, per the hustle culture model, we can start to feel disenfranchised from our own ambitions.
But ambition is not an amount of hours worked. It’s not waking up at 4am. It’s not a diet, an exercise or a productivity hack. It’s not a lack of boundaries or a perpetual state of stress and busyness. It is not a single-minded hyper-competitiveness, chasing goals for the sake of checking things off a list — climbing a ladder that might not even lead to where you want to go.
To be ambitious simply means to have ambition: that drive to create a life that reflects your skills and potential. To be valued for those qualities and abilities that you experience and value in yourself.”
So today, I’m pleased to invite Jessica, co-founder of the The Fioneers to Too Ambitious, to share her own experience of losing her ambitions before learning to reclaim them for herself.
In late 2018, I stopped feeling ambitious. At the start of that year, I’d been denied a promotion.
“You need to more independently manage your workload,”my supervisor said.
So for the next 6 months, I put my head down, made no waves and set no boundaries.
When asked to take on something new I said yes, no matter how many hours over my 40 hour work week I’d already pushed.
When asked to plan an off-site retreat for the entire company (on top of everything else), I didn’t hesitate.
When asked to do an analysis on staff retention data (and told what insights I was “expected to find” in the results), I didn’t speak my mind
“If I could just get this promotion, the hard work and long hours will finally be worth it.”
“If I could just get this promotion, people at work will finally listen to me.”
“If I could just get this promotion, I’ll finally feel like I’m not just another underpaid woman with a career that’s not keeping up with my male spouse’s career growth.”
“If I could just get this promotion” – the number of thoughts that started with that phrase were too many to count.
I had always been an ambitious person. I wanted to Lean In, climb the ladder and bring other women up after me.
And on July 1st 2018, I got the promotion, along with the coveted 6-figure salary.
11 days later, I had a mental breakdown. I woke up at 3 AM sobbing and couldn’t stop. My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breathe. When I realized it was an intense panic attack, I woke my spouse who sat with me for three hours until it finally subsided. I decided to take a sick day.
I’ll be out for a few days. Then I’ll go back to my old ambitious life, I thought.
Weeks passed and I still couldn’t open my work computer without getting hit with intense tightness in my chest. It was a tell-tale sign. If I kept going, I soon wouldn’t be able to breathe.
Maybe I just needed a new work environment? I thought.
A few months later, I applied for a new job. When I couldn’t even think about the interview without having a panic attack, I knew I needed to cancel it.
My mind wouldn’t admit what my body already knew: I needed to dramatically shift the course of my life.
My body was saying, “enough is enough”. It had kept track of all the toxic work environments. The sexism I’d internalized. The trauma I’d experienced throughout school and the workplace. It wouldn’t let me go back to my previous life. I had to let go of my ambitions – or so I thought.
I ended up taking a 6-month medical leave to learn how to manage my anxiety. I went to therapy on a weekly basis. Most importantly, I took care of myself. I slept, relaxed, read, took walks outside, went swimming, and spent time with friends – all without having the cloud of a toxic work environment hanging over me. And slowly, I created a new definition of success for myself.
My job title and salary would no longer be my primary metrics of success.
I realized that chasing them had become a way for me to prove my past professors and bosses (with their misogyny and sexism) wrong – all the while making me miserable.
The time off also gave me a chance to figure out what I actuallywanted.
I wanted to be mentally and physically healthy.
I wanted to invest more heavily into my relationships.
I wanted to figure out what I actually loved to do.
I wanted enough income to cover my expenses and meet my long-term financial goals.
I didn’t need a six-figure salary. I didn’t need to push and work in an environment that made me miserable.
Work had taken up so much of my life that I didn’t even know who I was or what I enjoyed anymore.
As my mental health improved, I accepted a part-time job. And instead of increasing my hours as I was more able, I used the extra time to start a business I was actually passionate about.
Two and a half years later, I quit my job entirely and made the leap to entrepreneurship.
It turned out my ambition hadn’t been the problem. It was following someone else’s definition of ambition – trying to be “worthy” of a six-figure salary in an inflexible and toxic work environment, that had gotten me off track.
Now I’m reclaiming my ambition on my own terms. Not on metrics of salary or job titles, but in how I get to spend my time and energy.
I want to love my work. But I also want to run my business on part-time hours. I want time to focus on investing in my relationships, maintaining my health and everything else I care about. As a business owner, I’m not primarily focused on growth or profits. I simply want a business that generates enough income that it provides me with that flexibility.
Instead of obsessing over thoughts like, “If I could just get this promotion,” I’m now asking myself questions like, “How much is enough? And how can I spend my time doing more of what I love?”
They’re different kinds of questions, but no less ambitious.
Jessica is a lifestyle design coach and co-founder of the blog, The Fioneers, a globally recognized and award-winning resource focused on building financial freedom and designing a life you truly love. You can follow her @TheFioneers on Twitter and Instagram.
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