It has been said that “the surest way to keep a man in prison is not to let him know he’s there.” And the surest way to keep a woman from embracing her pure career ambition is to make her believe she’s already done it.
Don’t believe it.
Heading into 2009, we women still are not advancing in our careers the way we should. We’re not getting the fulfillment we desire or making the money we deserve. And this time it’s not men who are holding us back. This time, sisters, we’re doing it to ourselves, because ambition—for us—is still a dirty word.
Do you unconsciously buy into our prevailing cultural paradigm, that double standard that says: ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are bitchy, greedy, cold, arrogant females who attract enemies, repel lovers, make rotten mothers, live lonely lives and, in one way or another, miss out on fulfilling lives because of their ambition?
Are you not advancing in your career as quickly as you’d like? Are you not making the money you deserve and getting the fulfillment you desire? Are you afraid of what you might have to sacrifice if you pursue your big goals?
YOU’RE NOT ALONE.
It doesn’t matter where we grew up, went to school, or go to work. It’s the same whether we’re in our twenties and new to our careers, or in our fifties and sixties and among the most highly-regarded professionals in our industries. Today, the greatest barrier to earning more money, getting the power and recognition we deserve, and feeling entitled to stay the course comes from inside of ourselves. We agonize over whether or not we deserve to be ambitious—and about what it will cost us.
High-achieving women of all ages and at all stages of our careers all harbor the same dirty little secret: we all struggle with socially sanctioned failure to embrace our ambition. We all have some version of the same pernicious audio loop playing between our ears:
“Will being as ambitious as I dream of being make me less of a woman? Can I? Dare I? Have I gone too far? Will it cost me my personal life? Will I make enemies? Is it impossible to be a great mother and as equally committed to my ambition as I am to the well-being of my children? Will it make those I care about suffer? Is it impossible to be ambitious and happy? Am I giving my employer or my clients their money’s worth? If I negotiate, if I ask for what I’m worth, will I lose the opportunity? Is it wrong to care as much about making money as I do about making a contribution and being fulfilled at work? Does taking credit mean I’m greedy, arrogant? Am I worthy of recognition and power? Do I deserve to go after my biggest, most precious career dreams?”
Ambition is not a dirty word, but as far as many of us are concerned, it might as well be.
Why do so many of us self-sabotage without noticing that we’re doing it?
Because everywhere, there are disempowering ideas about women disguised in positive, and even sometimes flattering terms. The ideas translate into seemingly desirable traits women should cultivate, and we buy into them and internalize them. But these views and attributes are not desirable—they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and they lead to self-sabotaging beliefs and behavior. By accepting them, and action on them, we women compromise our ambition—but we don’t see what we are doing to ourselves.
Our culture encourages women to derive our sense of self from being selfless, by giving to everyone else first and foremost—even at the expense of our career dreams. Could there be a more confusing, contradictory recipe for self-satisfaction? No wonder we drop kick our dreams!
We women have been told—implicitly or explicitly—not to value our ambition as much as our other priorities. Instead, we’re spoon-fed a culturally acceptable, watered-down definition of success:
-“You don’t have to be unabashedly ambitious. You’re above all that. You’re sophisticated enough to realize that ambition isn’t as important as getting the life-balance equation right. Get balance right and you’re successful, even if you have to sacrifice your dreams.”
Few of us challenge the notion that the accepted definition of success might actually be holding women back because it is couched in such a positive way.
How can we take seriously the necessary soul-searching required to discover what we were meant to do professionally when we’re rarely encouraged to explicitly acknowledge and to discuss our pure, unadulterated ambition?
This year, tell yourself a new message: your ambition is not a dirty word. It’s the best of who you are.You owe it to yourself—and the world—to make the contribution you were born to make. You can be as ambitious as you want to be—with integrity, grace, and dignity. And being true to your ambition needn’t cost you a happy personal life.
Here’s my new year’s challenge to you:
Go down just as hard for your ambition as you do for any other primary priority in your life, be it lover, friend, child, community. Don’t sacrifice your ambition for any reason.
In 2009, let’s reclaim ambition as a virtue by adopting three rules:
1. You must love your work. You must be willing to aggressively pursue the professional work you were meant to do and to strive for any career opportunities that inspire you.
2. You must regard your deepest career aspirations as unconditionally sacrosanct. The real way to have a great life is to see your career ambition as a part of your value system to which you must give equal attention, along with other non-negotiable priorities in your life, including your partner, your unconditional dedication to your children, and your commitment to your friends and community.
3. You must feel entitled to earn your worth. You must charge your full marketplace value without self-reproach, without leaving money on the table, and without feeling like an impostor.
If you don’t go down hard for your ambition, you’re letting the best part of you, the part that the world deserves to have you contribute, rot in a basement. In 2009, let’s get her out.
Protect your passion. As the ambitious woman 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”:
Tell me, What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
To steal a line from the musical “Rent”, “It’s gonna’ be a happy new year.”