I am a psychologist, speaker and business coach, making a living teaching women how to own their ambition in a society that has a double standard. Let’s face it, there’s still just one word that some in our culture frequently bestow on that supremely ambitious woman who unrepentantly values her career every bit as much as her personal priorities: bitch. It’s our prevailing cultural paradigm: ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are the b-word, bad wives, bad mothers, and brazenly arrogant businesswomen.
Don’t put ambition at the bottom of your priorities.
Our culture encourages women to derive our sense of self from being selfless, by giving to everyone else first and foremost, and to put our ambitious goals at the bottom of our priority pile. Could there be a more confusing, contradictory recipe for self-satisfaction? No wonder so many of us simultaneously crave and fear our ambitious goals. No wonder we drop-kick our dreams!
I believe that women don’t have to sacrifice—or “balance” our ambition to have a great life. In fact, just the opposite is true. I believe that the real way to have a great life is to see your ambition as a virtue—as a part of your value system that you must give equal attention to, along with other priorities you hold dear, including your partner, children, and friends. I define ambition as that which drives our creative existence, provides an outlet for our talents and passions, and allows us to earn our worth without apology. I walk my talk. But just like you I take hits.
In a moment of trauma I, too, succumbed to those deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. It happened to me when my son almost died.
On July 14, 2005, two weeks before my book, Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word, was due to my publisher, I was awakened at 4:30 a.m. by a phone call. My seventeen-year-old son, Devin, had been hit by a car and was lying in the trauma unit of a hospital 2,500 miles away from my New York City home. His condition was unknown. I numbly threw some clothes into suitcases and barely managed to catch a 7 a.m. flight to the San Francisco Bay Area to be with him.
In between hourly calls from the airplane phone to Devin’s father at the hospital, I ticked off the items on the guilty mother’s checklist. Dumped my child in daycare more than I’d have liked? Check. Dragged him through a difficult divorce? Check. Denied him the fancy bicycle and fancier private school while I earned my degree? Check. Remarried? Check.
But all that paled next to my biggest sin: For the last several months, I had consistently put work ahead of family. The kicker: I’d bailed on the family vacation to finish my book.
Who cared that I’d logged a lifetime of being a good, sometimes great mom? Who cared that I loved my work with a passion, that I’d helped thousands of women realize their lifelong dreams? Clearly, the gods were punishing me for being too ambitious, and Devin was paying the ultimate price. Of course this was crazy, irrational thinking—but that’s what we women do, isn’t it? Isn’t a good mother one who has the grace to feel guilty about any choice beyond putting family first?
Like you, I understand on a deep, visceral level—one that can’t be duplicated by intellectual reasoning or academic polemics—what it means to live daily with the dialectical tension of loving your work every bit as much as your children and family, of trying to nurture mutually exclusive yet equally sacrosanct priorities.
I’ve lived a complex and non-formulaic life as a deeply devoted (and deeply flawed) divorced, single mother, as well as a determined, ambitious professional woman. Your story is doubtless no less complex.
What we share as high-achieving women is the challenge of valuing our pure ambition in a culture that tells us that doing so is going to bring us down hard, sometime, somehow. We absorb the message that there will be hell to pay for loving our work with a grand passion.
For the first month after Devin’s accident, I did little but replay in my mind the details of his accident. He’d been standing on a quiet neighborhood sidewalk when a speeding, out-of-control truck hit him, throwing him twenty-five feet. His friends looked for him under the vehicle and then between it and the metal pole that it crashed into. Knocked unconscious, when he awoke his first thought was, “I’m going to die.” He’d suffered a concussion, multiple pelvic fractures, and a separated sacroiliac joint. We didn’t know initially whether he’d be brain-injured or paralyzed. I stayed by his side almost constantly in that initial recuperative phase.
At last the doctors offered a guardedly optimistic prognosis—Devin faced an uphill climb through healing and long-term rehabilitation, but they believed that he’d come through fine.
I forced myself to get back to my writing (obviously, my editor had extended my deadline and advised me to take my time getting back to the book). As soon as I sat myself down, booted up my computer, and began to work, I felt myself take a deep, refreshing breath. I felt myself letting go by focusing on my work.
Getting back in touch with my ambition gave me a sense that our lives could get back on track. My ambition was what soothed me at a time when I was deeply traumatized.
Of course I welcomed the love and support of my friends and family. But I had needed something more. Something more than any prescription drug, or running, or yoga. Something even more than caring for my son 24/7 for six weeks during his acute healing process. And what I needed was to get back to my ambitious work, even as I was sitting in the same room with my son and his friends, on my computer, doing my own thing while they did theirs.
I want to be clear here: My work here wasn’t merely a soothing routine, a distraction or escape that took my mind off my worries about my son, or a task that could restore my shaky illusion of control. It did serve those roles, but my work—and, more specifically, my love and passion for my work—did and does so much more. It brought me back home to myself.
Still feeling traumatized and guilty, I confessed to a friend that I was feeling good about getting back to work. “Still,” I rushed to assure her, lest the gods punish me again for daring to think about my career, “I’d chuck it all—my work, my business, everything—to have prevented this from happening to my son.”
But then it hit me, and I said to her, “But you know what? That’s a false choice; I don’t have to choose between my child’s well-being and my ambition. And that’s precisely what I’m writing about!”
I believe deep in my soul that returning to our sacrosanct ambition is what grounds us and stabilizes us when we’re rocked, personally or professionally. And we should feel unapologetic about having that guidepost and touchstone in our lives; we should resist feelings of guilt, self-recrimination, blame, and instead feel strengthened and sustained by our inner professional passion and drive to do the work and make the contribution we were born to make.
Your life, like mine, will throw you an infinite number of curveballs.
Your child gets hurt. You get promoted to a dream job that brings with it a steep learning curve plus a new team of high-maintenance talent to manage. Your husband has an affair. You get married. You get sick. Things outside of your control may let you down and frighten you, but the anchor of your ambition will help reground and center you. You will always have access to your inner belief in your business smarts and brain power and creativity and professional problem solving; you will always have that to come home to.
When things in my life are going my way, my ambition keeps me happy, fired up, and feeling young, vibrant, and fully engaged in every part of my life. Perhaps even more importantly, it is also the one thing that I can count on and come back to when I’m in over my head, when life disappoints or scares me, or dares me to be stronger than I thought myself capable of.
Ambition is my anchor because it comes from within me, rather than from some external source—be it colleagues, promotion, friends, partner, boss, fat paycheck, mentor, or some mercurial other. As supportive and caring as others can be—partners, friends, children—I know I can’t necessarily count on them; I have only myself at the end of the day.
We cannot look to others to live out our dreams for us.
We have to nurture the ambition in our own DNA. If we can’t find it in ourselves, we’ll have to pile up some kindling and nurture the first tiny flickers into a consuming fire in our bellies.
From this day forward, let’s imagine that we live in a parallel universe where we treat and protect our ambition as we would a lover or beloved. In this universe, you can be a loyal friend and a great co-worker. Without guilt from within or judgment from without, you could be both a good mother and a woman with big goals, nurturing both your child and your ambition dreams.
In this universe, a woman’s ambition is not just a job. It embodies a conscious, deliberate, and mindful search for truth and meaning in her life, a return to her natural wellspring of passion and purpose—even when she is lost or off course, a letting go of the fears and doubts that block her path. In this universe she sees clearly for the first time how to free herself from the shackles that have, in the past, hobbled her ambition.
Visualize yourself in new world now.
You are there—you are ambitious. Believe it: your ambition is a virtue. Hold the choices you make to fulfill your ambition precious, sacrosanct. Sometimes you’ll have to make tough sacrifices or compromises. Each of those decisions represents an acceptance and honoring of the fire within you. Regard them as gifts you give to yourself to protect and cherish your dreams—for your career, for your one life.
You owe it to yourself—and the world—to make the contribution you were put here to make. Take the leap. Strive to be the best in your field, your industry, your niche. Promise yourself you will always earn your worth.
The life I dare you to lead is a life filled with hope, dreams, aspirations—and the expectation of having them fulfilled. When you make the choice to lead that kind of life, who knows how many others you’ll inspire?
One day when he was fifteen, Devin told me, “I don’t want to be one of those people who get up every day and go to a boring job they hate just to get a paycheck. I think that’s sad. I want to be like you, Mom. You have an interesting life. You work for yourself, you travel, you decide what you want to do and how you want to work.” It was deeply validating to realize that I’d given my son a powerful role model for prizing ambition and intention, for creating a life based on passion. That memory sustained me as I sat by Devin’s hospital bed, tapping away on my keyboard.
You deserve to love your work, to be as ambitious as you wish, to earn your worth, and to find fulfillment. Give yourself permission to be true to your ambition, to make the choices you deem appropriate without second-guessing yourself.
When you build your life’s work from that place of sanctuary, you’ll be richly rewarded with lifelong intellectual and creative curiosity, evolving opportunities, and healthier, happier relationships with loved ones.
What we don’t hear from the cultural messages telling us what we ought to value as women in this society is that ambition is a part of living our best and greatest life. There is no societal clarion call ringing with the message that our ambition is a vital, irreplaceable component of our lives. Our pact is to change that. Let’s each of us agree to be an ambitious woman—and to be her now.
As the ambitious woman you know you are—and now know you are entitled to be, I encourage you to answer for yourself, every day, a question posed in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”:
What is it you plan to do with your one
Wild and precious life?
About the Author
Debra Condren, Ph.D., is a psychologist, speaker, business and executive coach and career adviser, and is the founder and executive director of the Women's Business Alliance. She is the author of Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word: A Woman's Guide to Earning Her Worth and Achieving Her Dreams. Debra received a U.S. Small Business Administration's "Women In Business Advocate of the Year" award in 2000.