Why ambition can’t be measured

I recently reached out to a young lawyer on LinkedIn; yes, I’m one of those people. She seemed strangely emotionally unattached for someone who had agreed to offer her free time and advice to a complete stranger, but I appreciated her blunt honesty and her unapologetic self-promotion. I can’t say her conversation made me feel any better, but it definitely made me think. Specifically, the conversation made me question why, socially, we often relate the term ‘ambition’ to career success.

I’ve always considered myself someone ambitious. I’m hard-working and I hate doing things half-heartedly; if I’ve decided to spend my time doing something, I may as well to do it to the best of my ability. However, I will say that I don’t think I’m at all competitive; if we can all do well then, in the words of Rhianna, “cheers to the freakin’ weekend”.

There came a point in our conversation where she gave me two options and asked which one I would prefer; these were:

Option 1: Do you see yourself having a family, having time to spend with said family and doing well in a job where you have normal (by which I believe she meant reasonable) hours?

Or

Option 2: Do you see yourself being successful, travelling all over the world and moving up in your career?

There was a moment of silence and hesitation. Not because I couldn’t decide which option I preferred, but because (i) it baffled me that a 28 year old woman would think that being successful and doing well in your career was mutually incompatible with having a family, and (ii) because it suddenly dawned on me that, in many instances, she might be right.

Once I recovered from the emotional whiplash that often comes with being slightly naïve and idealistic, I gave her my preferred option, which frankly, for me, was a no-brainer – Option 1. She, on the other hand, said that she undoubtedly preferred Option 2 and that she guessed she was just “more ambitious” than I was. This time, the moment of silence stemmed from utter confusion on my part.

That sentence doesn’t even make sense. Is it possible to be more or less ambitious than someone else? I don’t see how. By definition, ambition means to have a strong desire to do or achieve something. Surely then, people can (and most probably will) have multiple ambitions, which change over time.

Let’s say (just for fun) we could measure ambition. Would it involve listing the ambitions that each individual has and comparing who has more? Arguably, wouldn’t the level of difficulty associated with achieving each ambition and the worthiness of each ambition need to be considered? The difficulty lies in that the worthiness and the difficulty associated with each ambition will be subjective and unique to each individual. Therefore, peoples’ levels of ambition can’t really be measured and they certainly can’t be meaningfully compared.

And yet, we live in a society that equates being ambitious to aiming for career success. I would happily bet that the majority of people have used the word ‘ambitious’ to describe themselves in their CVs or job applications at one stage or another. I’m not saying the term is meaningless; saying you’re ‘ambitious’ means you have aspirations and goals that you want to accomplish (which is admirable). But in itself, the term ‘ambitious’ as an adjective is completely ambiguous. Therefore, whilst the term is not in itself meaningless, attempting to quantify it is. 

To summarise, it’s meaningless to say that one person is more ambitious than another and we should all be mindful of the potential that the words we use have to create and spread perceptions that are often inaccurate, misguided and lead to a lot of irrational social anxiety. Being aware of this also makes us better equipped to recognise these comments when we’re on the receiving end of them, and to let them brush off as the innocuous, superficial remarks that they are.

For an example (that will probably resonate with many limbo-ers) of how prevalent expressions that we often say in passing can generate anxiety, see my post, “What do you want to be when you grow up? Sound Familiar?” In it I introduce Emilie Wapnick’s much appreciated concept of the ‘multi-potentialite’.

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