You’re reading Too Ambitious — a newsletter about navigating ambition, power and money on our own terms. Please join me in welcoming, writer and attorney, Heather Joelle Boneparth to Too Ambitious to share her story.
A decade of my life was governed by my intense desire to impress other people. Almost every decision I made was wrong. For me, at least.
Fresh off my return from a prestigious study-abroad program for journalists in Ecuador, I decided I would become a lawyer instead of a journalist.
I felt I came up short, as a student and a writer, and was afraid that what I had to say would never matter. That my work would be irrelevant.
You can sell yourself on anything when you are afraid.
Law school seemed safer.
I could make stable, good money and use my words to change people’s lives. It sounded great in admissions interviews but was far from the real reason why I was becoming a lawyer.
Truthfully, I was caught in a cycle of clout-chasing.
I didn’t think twice about choosing the highest-ranked and most expensive school in the most expensive city, because it was the best I could do. The highest I could reach. Tuition and housing cost me more than $200,000—all borrowed.
When the Great Recession hit in the thick of my studies, jobs became so scarce I felt compelled to take a job I knew was a poor fit. I began my career at a mid-size, male-dominated law firm defending construction companies from personal injury and property damage lawsuits.
This, of course, wasn’t the plan. Most of the time, I felt more like a casino hostess than their colleague. It was as if any time I did begin to shine, someone made sure to spill a drink on me. I endured disrespect (to put it mildly) out of fear I could be left without a job to make even the minimum payments on my student loan debt, which was metastasizing by the month.
When I moved to a larger law firm, specializing in insurance, I quickly learned the definition of working around the clock. I missed everything: sunlight, dinner, fitness, friends. Even when I could see them, I couldn’t mentally put myself in a position to enjoy their company. My superiors wanted to know my whereabouts when I wasn’t at work too, just in case an “emergency” came up. But everything was an emergency, a life-or-death fire drill. I was all but told I belonged to them.
It didn’t take long for me to believe that I was worthless beyond what I was worth at work.
I was so ashamed of my debt and financial reliance on a career I wasn’t passionate about that there were days I couldn’t see beyond it—like there was no way out of the mistakes I made.
So the person I became formed a version of ambition that tethered my self-worth directly to my job.
Titles and paychecks were like character traits, talking points used to gloss over my resentment inside.
I needed to live within a construct of constant validation to bury those feelings even deeper. If I wasn’t going to be happy, at least I could be respected. Perhaps, in my mind, happiness and respect were the same thing.
The first time I thought about success differently was on my first maternity leave. By then, I was working in-house at a Fortune 100 company. My husband, a certified financial planner for millennials, watched me and so many of our peers struggle to find the return on our investments for our overpriced degrees. So in between feedings, sometimes in the middle of the night, we wrote a financial book for millennials all about budgeting, debt, and finding financial freedom.
I can admit that writing our book started as just another way to continue seeking external validation with my day job put on pause. My motivation probably also stemmed from postpartum anxiety and the fear of losing my identity to my child. But through the process, I learned to sit in new kinds of discomfort. My vulnerability was showing more than ever in real life, and it began to show on the page, too.
Until then I had been searching for benchmarks others would approve of, but none of it ever satisfied me.
In writing again, I found a place to accept that truth, admit my mistakes and confess my regrets. Success became about persevering through my own personal and professional challenges–not about impressing everyone else.
After 12 years of corporate life, two daughters, and one book baby, I’m pivoting my career to work with my husband at his wealth management firm for millennials.
This isn’t to declare my insurance law career over forever. In the right context, there might be a place someday where my industry knowledge can meaningfully improve real people’s lives, and I won’t be afraid to seize that opportunity if it arises.
But right now, I am about to push the limits of my true ambition for the first time in my adult life.
I am not sure where it will take me, but for once, I’m not afraid.
Heather Joelle Boneparth is an attorney, writer, and mom of two little girls. Along with her husband, she co-authored The Millennial Money Fix: What You Need to Know about Budgeting, Debt, and Finding Financial Freedom (Career Press 2017). Her newsletter, Our Tiny Rebellions, searches for meaning in our subtle wins and losses.
Image: We Are/DigitalVision via Getty Images