As of late a conversation has been stirring. Questions are being asked, philosophies altered, choices interrogated. Primarily this has all centred on what it means to be ambitious and successful. Olivia has written about this in a blog post with an openness and honesty that I admire greatly, and so I began to think.
Ambition, drive, success – especially paired with womanhood – are all words that seem to come packaged with their own connotations. I’ve noticed this in feedback I sometimes receive, and the assumptions that come lumped in with them. Many times it appears that the association with ambition is one of callousness, brutality, a lack of self-care, stepping on others, and all sorts of other negative ideas.
At first this surprised me: my idea of success had never included any of these things. My ambition has always been a part of me. I’ve been competitive and driven from a young age, and it’s not something I picked up from family or community attitudes. Never have I ever felt pressured to “succeed” or “prove myself” to anyone. Everything I do to strive for self-improvement and my goals is, I believe, a function of my own stubborn personality and a refusal to settle for anything less than my chosen standard.
I have come to think that the negative associations that come with ambition stem largely from a world that is becoming quickly outdated. That kind of 1980s, uber-capitalist, male-dominated business world, full of ruthlessness and deceit, the odious phrase “that’s business, sweetheart” and, not least of all, women who had to echo that ruthlessness to carve out the spaces we can now occupy a little more comfortably.
Morals and ethics change and develop, and I believe we are at a stage in history where we no longer take kindly to those kinds of attitudes. This is not a new phenomenon, we have seen it before in the outcry against public hangings, in civil rights movements, in animal welfare advocates, and so on. What was once acceptable is not always acceptable, and I believe that “old” style of striving for success is no longer morally sound. Nor is it healthy on an emotional (or spiritual, if you are so inclined) level.
We must dismantle old notions of what it means to be driven and goal-oriented. I particularly want to discard this idea that to be a successful and/or strong woman you must be cold and unemotional and underhanded. Perhaps this type of woman made it further initially because they echoed the values of the masculine world, but there is space now for more of us. This means – or at least I think this means – that we have the opportunity to change and develop what it means to be successful and ambitious.
Success does not have to be measured by a capitalist yardstick of never-ending production and a health-ruining climb to the very “top”. We can make it softer, more inclusive, more human. It is important to remember that “success” is personal. It is not a universal value, it does not come with an assigned meaning. You create that meaning. And when I talk of “success”, I really mean it as “your heart’s desire”. Sure, some of you may want to be CEO’s or world leaders or otherwise top of your field. That’s awesome! But it’s also awesome if your idea of success is to teach the third grade and live in a little house full of books and good food and maybe also cats.
Striving for success requires honesty and self-awareness, which is what I always advocate for. It requires the courage and drive to understand oneself, because the map you follow has to be one that is built for you. If you try and follow someone else’s map, you’ll likely find it difficult and treacherous, because they work differently to you. They have different obstacles to face, different ideas of what’s important, and different ways of dealing with things.
In the end, it all comes back to honesty. Not brutality or coldness or flinging everything aside – including our own needs – in order to reach a goal. I want to reach my goals because I believe they will make me a better person and a better member of society.