Meet Nuni, a New York City-based writer working in marketing. “I’ve always been a very ambitious person,” she told me. But Nuni’s ambition has also been met with a lot of backlash – at home, at work and in her relationships. Here’s our conversation (edited for length and clarity). Nuni is a pseudonym to protect her identity.
Even in kindergarten I was submitting to writing contests, being a competitive kid, trying to get the most blue ribbons and such.
My mom is African American and my father is African — he’s from Liberia. Culturally, it’s very different. So where my mom was very feminist and drove me to really push and succeed and get the blue ribbons, my father was more, “Women should be less.”
He felt that being ambitious was in stark contrast to being weak, which was supposed to be more valued for a woman.
So my relationship to ambition has always been, I won’t say contentious, but something that people would be taken aback by.
Do you remember your earliest memory of that feeling of someone being taken aback by your ambition?
I think second or third grade. I was really proud because at my elementary school you were only supposed to do three events for field day and I got three first place ribbons. My little brother got one participation trophy.
I remember trying to show my dad, like, “Hey, look at my ribbons. Didn’t I do well?”
I had a team second place ribbon because my team got second place ones. So for my events, I got first place and for the team I got second. He’s like, “See, you got second.” Then for my little brother, he made a point to really say to him, “Good job.”
I was like, is he joking? But at the same time I was like, why couldn’t you just say, “Oh, good job” to me?
So that was my first time I felt ambition wasn’t for me.
I would love to hear some of those experiences for you as you got older.
I feel that ambition, especially for Black women, is really, really penalized. So with this in my mind I almost overcompensate. I do feel like I have to be — not necessarily twice as good — but both motherly and kind.
But I also feel if you’re too submissive, if you’re too aggressive, if you’re this or if you’re that — women can’t really win.
In work we’re told we make less than men because we don’t ask for it, we don’t push for it. But then also when you push for it, you’re sometimes penalized.
Like for one of my jobs, they told me the range at the beginning of the interview. I was offered the highest portion of the range, then one of my recommenders, a white male said, “You need to ask for more.”
I know the person that pushed me to ask for more just had my best interest, but I think he maybe hasn’t kept in mind that I’m a Black woman and he’s a white man. So maybe it’s expected for him to ask for more. But for me, it’s not.
I had another friend who did say, as Black women we feel very grateful when we’re offered a job. We felt very grateful to the white men that did hire us. But she said, “No, go against that. They’re grateful to have you. It’s not like you’re doing them a favor.” So she said, “It’s okay to ask. Just be nice about it”.
It’s funny that the women I spoke to said you have to be nice about it. You can’t just ask.
So I did that. I was very nice. I received an email from HR with my official offer letter and they said that it was 80K with 90k after bonus, and I replied and said, “Thank you. I am so grateful. I am so excited to work for this company. However, I am currently interviewing for other positions, so if it’s possible to bump me to an 85K base, then I would stop interviewing with other people immediately and immediately accept. But if not, then I would like to take until Wednesday to think about it.”
So it was Monday. I said I’d like to take until Wednesday. My boss called me frantic, very nervous that I was not going to accept the position.
I think he felt very slighted or taken aback by my not accepting as readily as I could have. Even though I did basically say like, “Hey, I’m very excited. If you can’t offer me any additional money, then I will take a few days to think about it.”
He’s like, “I want to understand what happened, you don’t want to accept the position? Is there something going on? Is there something wrong?” I was just like, “No, no. It’s not you. It’s just, I was told that I have to negotiate. I really don’t want to make your job any more difficult.”
He ended up saying, “I can try to get you like another $5K if that’s what you want.” I was like, “No, no. It’s okay. I don’t need it. I’ll just accept what you gave me now.”
I felt so uncomfortable but I also felt so ungrateful. I felt so worried about being perceived as ungrateful and pushy.
So you had this discomfort already around asking for more, and then that gets reinforced by their response. What was it like when you started — having gone through that whole process?
Honestly I felt awful. I felt terrible going through it. Then I spoke with a therapist. She basically made me feel like I was kind of being ridiculous a little bit. She’s like, “It’s business. Why do you feel so bad? There’s no reason for you to feel upset. You’re fine.” She didn’t seem to understand why I felt so bad for asking, or why I felt so bad for making someone else feel bad.
I do still feel the sense of gratitude and imposter syndrome. But also looking at everyone else’s resumes and background, I don’t necessarily feel that I’m the least qualified for the job.
What else comes to mind when you think about your history with ambition?
My college boyfriend: Something that really stuck with me was that I was getting an honors undergraduate degree and one day I was trying to finish work on it and he’s like, “No, I want to stay here and cuddle. I don’t want you to work today.”
It was just a prevailing theme of our relationship, where he felt like me and my friends were overachievers and basically resenting me for wanting to do more for myself.
I was applying for a Fulbright and the idea was that I would get this award and eventually go off to live in South Korea for at least a year. He said that he was proud of me and excited for me to go. But he also, in his own way, would make it seem that it was kind of a turnoff, for lack of a better term.
We had been dating for around three months. I’d say, “Hey, I want to take the next step. I want to take things to the next level.” He says, “Look, I like you. I love that you’re so ambitious. I love that you’re doing X, Y, Z. But I really can’t get serious with you knowing that you might leave the country in a year. That’s too much for me right now.”
Of course I was upset. I really liked this person. He said, “But, I still really want to be with you. I maybe want to just see where things go for the next few months. If you don’t get the award, that’s fine. We’ll talk about it. But I just can’t get serious.”
When he said that it made me feel like he likes that I’m doing all these things, but he doesn’t want to commit to me because I’m not submissive enough.
I’m doing my own thing. I’m out here trying to go to Korea. I’m out here trying to publish a book, and that’s great, but that’s not what he wants in a partner.
Six months go by and I got to be a semi-finalist. They chose to go with someone else for the award. I told him about it, of course really upset, but I was also kind of like, but hey, now I may get to meet your mom. I can meet your friends. We can come out really as a couple now.
Basically he said he still wanted to hang out, but he just really wasn’t ready to commit at all. So we break up. And then it turns out a few months later he’s in a relationship with someone who, from what I could discern, was not at all — I do want to preface, I’m not trying to bash this other person, but just like, it brought up a lot of feelings of being too much because this other person was not at all accomplished. Wasn’t really trying to, I guess, do more.
It was kind of one of those things where it felt like I’m too ambitious to be with a partner.
I hate this idea that men want someone that is submissive and that is quiet, and that won’t make them feel emasculated with your accomplishments. I will say that for a while that’s how I felt. Like I was just too ambitious for someone.
I also think that a lot of men don’t understand the emotional impact of feeling like I have to be both submissive to you and strong.
Or in the workforce, where it says I have to be both very sweet as I ask for a raise, but also I can’t let anyone walk over me. It’s just like these mental gymnastics or these balancing games that we have to play as women. I don’t think a lot of men really understand or care to understand how that affects us.
Do you have a story to tell about how ambition has played out in your life — for better or for worse? Let us know in the comments.
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