When I interview women about their careers, I often ask about their level of ambition in high school and there’s one response that comes up frequently that I always find intriguing: “I don’t remember being particularly ambitious.”
It’s intriguing because I’m typically interviewing these women due to some kind of success in their careers. They are usually perceived by others as role models. Leaders. Women who have knocked down doors and broken ceilings. Women who are actively demonstrating just what kind of life and career is possible with determination, despite the inhibitors that often get in the way.
Speaking at a Network Central breakfast in Sydney yesterday, even acclaimed and much-celebrated journalist and broadcaster Geraldine Doogue mentioned that she was not a, “particularly ambitious person”.
Something, somewhere, clearly changes for these women. You don’t achieve career success without some underlying level of desire to accomplish certain things. And when women tell me they did or achieved something by ‘accident’ I don’t always believe them. Often it’s merely an attempt at modesty, to play down the hard work and natural talent that got them there.
Ambition needs to be unlocked. It may require a little nudge from an outsider — some validation that goals are possible and desires are worthwhile. It may also require some women to overcome perceived ideas and stereotypes about what it means to be an “ambitious person”.
But once ambition is tapped, it’s certainly not there to stay. Nor do the social expectation of the ultimate products of ambition, particularly leadership, necessarily apply to all those with a determination to succeed.
Ambition comes and goes according to life circumstances, and manifests in many different ways. As Geraldine Doogue noted, not every woman aspires to leadership, and nor should they; there’s actually great merit in being a follower.
She also noted there’s only so much energy in the cup for women. The challenge is dividing it between duty, ambition and joy.
All three elements of the energy cup — duty, ambition and joy — take varying amounts of space over time. Duty can quickly become the only priority and consume most of the energy meaning there are few drops for ambition and joy.
But a heavy load of duty can also create joy, and duty can certainly lesson over time and provide space for ambition. The desire to invest in ambition may shift, valuable time and space may open up to push forward on achieving certain things beyond certain responsibilities.
We often talk about ‘work life balance’ when attempting to describe a well-rounded life. Perhaps instead we should discuss three parts in the equation: duty, ambition and joy — and acknowledge they will rarely, if ever, all consume an equal amount of the energy we have available.
For more from Geraldine Doogue’s presentation yesterday, see Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s piece.