Ambition is a convoluted term, especially for women.
It seems positive on the outside—denoting images of determination and grit. But we all know what you really mean when you say you are ambitious. You are willing to table everything else in order to put all your energies into achieving this one thing. And once you have achieved that thing, your amygdala doesn’t let you rest. It’s onto the next dopamine hit.
For men, ambition is almost expected; for women, it’s penalized. Not that this doesn’t come with its own negative impacts for men, namely becoming more aggressive when they feel their manhood has been threatened or feeling high pressure to perform. (Society’s inability to accept men’s emotional expression is a whole other article.)
But as a whole, men are rewarded for speaking up and pushing the envelope, whereas women are denigrated for not advocating for themselves or negotiating. Furthermore, the perception is due to “a lack of ambition.” However, it actually reflects that ambition in women is equated to aggression rather than determination. A recent report by Women of Influence found almost 90 percent of women worldwide feel they are undermined because of their professional achievements.
It was easier for women to be ambitious in the time of hustle culture. When #GirlBoss was trending, and a side hustle was a trophy, hustling was not only rewarded, but companies benefited, so they encouraged the trend. Ambitious women were lauded for working overtime, and we used history to confirm the fact that suffering was a part of the path to success.
Once the pandemic hit, all of that changed. Women had this collective wake-up call that it didn’t have to be this way. Burnout and exhaustion didn’t have to be capes we wore to prove our worth. We didn’t have to pretend like we were workers who happened to have kids, but rather mothers who were trying to also have a career.
We had to develop a whole new term to describe the concept of arriving at work to do the job you were paid to do, and leave when you were supposed to leave. The idea of not going beyond what was required had become so foreign.
Women are done being done to. But does ambition have to die as we take control?
What can ambition look like without a hustle culture dictating an environment of overzealousness in the workplace? How can we reframe the definition and our relationship to it? Can we learn to be ambitious without going 100%?
Perhaps, the absence of hustle culture leaves room for nuance in our ambition.
“I feel more ambitious than ever,” Jackie, a writer, and mom of two from Cincinnati, says. “It’s an ambition that I control. When you learn what’s most important to you, the energy you spend achieving it is replenishing versus depleting.”
It’s not an all-or-nothing mentality. You could be ambitious about keeping a plant alive or walking outside for 10 minutes a day. The ambition is the motivation that keeps you doing. The difference today is motivation is internalized. A culture of being overwork and burned out should not dictate it. Success should not be measured and validated externally but within ourselves.
“I think you can get specific about how you will use your energy,” Marla, creative director for a PR agency, says. “‘This morning, I will be ambitious about preparing for my big presentation.’ ‘This evening, I will be ambitious about making space for my ‘me time.’ (Reality TV counts.) When you carefully apply your ambition in each moment, you can show up as your best—whether at work or rest.”
There is power in intentionally approaching the determination and grit that lives inside us. Hustle culture requires us to go 100% all day long. However, time spent does not automatically breed success. In fact, it could be what’s held us back for so long. This curated approach to ambition may make our success more lucrative and even more meaningful.
Today, right now, we have the opportunity to change “ambition” from a dirty word, back into an empowering one.