[This was originally written back in 2019, as a guest article that I recently discovered is no longer available online. Here it is, republished. The article may ostensibly have been written for women, but there is a message for everyone in there. If you’ve ever felt an unravelling of the path you’d hitherto been following, and realised how vital it was for you to re-evaluate what matters to you in your life and career, then have a read – and let me know what you think.]
I vividly remember my very first work appraisal back in 2005. I was 24, full of ambition, a perfectionist and ultra-high achiever, and I’d spent the first 6 months in my new job doing whatever it took to impress senior management and not let myself down.
Driven by that ambition, I was regularly in the office well after hours and on the weekends. I’d missed my best friend’s wedding because I couldn’t afford to fly 6,000 miles only to be able to stay for the weekend, let alone get the time off for the plane journey in the first place. At the appraisal, my boss told me something I’ve never forgotten: “You’re the best administrative officer I have ever had”, she declared, before we discussed my tendency to be ruthlessly harsh in my own self-assessment. Then she said, “You could be a Registrar* in years to come.” A pause. “If you want it.”
I’ve recalled this conversation many times in the intervening years. It came back to me in my early thirties, during a coaching training session when I was in the role of client. The exact content of our conversation escapes me now, but the turning point was when my coach looked me in the eye and said “Why are you in such a hurry?”
The memory of this conversation resurfaced again when I returned to my employer in 2018 after a year’s career break. During my sabbatical I’d set up my coaching business, and, as part of a new portfolio career, had also negotiated a new part-time contract that was far more aligned with the career direction in which I wanted to go.
This decision meant that I was consciously to take myself out of what had previously been a potential trajectory to the top. I’d gone in with my eyes open. Yet, a couple of months into the job, I found myself blindsided when my contemporaries started getting Director-level jobs. I knew I didn’t want their jobs and everything that came with the territory. But a part of me really wanted to know I’d have been well in the running.
Moving Through Change and Doubt
As a coach and mentor, I’ve worked with numerous women over the years who’ve found themselves unexpectedly wrong-footed by the question of ambition. Many had risen through the ranks as single, career-focused individuals, their drive focused squarely on performance and promotion. At some point in their careers, however, something had begun to change.
For some, this had come about as a result of motherhood and the re-evaluation of purpose that often accompanies this kind of major life shift and extended time away from the workplace. A second group, burnt out from the chase or having otherwise reached a tipping point, had been forced to step away to recover and reassess. For others, it was nothing quite as dramatic – over time, however, a nagging feeling of discontent and unhappiness had emerged and persisted.
With all of them, there was a feeling of guilt. Overcome with thoughts like: I’m not performing well enough anywhere. I’m not a good mum, not a good partner, not a good employee. Then doubt, moving between the polarities of wanting it all and wanting something completely different: I should want that. Why don’t I want that? What do I actually want? Worry, too: I thought I’d be much further along by now. Why is it that she can do it, and I can’t?
Asking some Important Questions
What characterises ambition? You’ll find two main definitions in dictionaries: (a) a strong wish for fame, power, wealth or status; and (b) the desire to achieve a particular end. The first is fairly self-explanatory. The second bears somewhat more scrutiny.
We’re conditioned to compete. The scourge of that competition is that while it can lead us to excel, comparison with others can often find us seduced by what others have and inevitably feeling like we come up short. Leaving the arena, then, and setting out on the lesser-trodden path, can be hugely freeing. Of course, it can also be scary and destabilising, but this is the thing about fear: being scared of something is all the more reason to face it.
So, where to start? You can’t go far wrong with asking yourself some important questions, and taking the time to give yourself some very honest answers.
Who am I? (And who do I want to be?)
Your identity develops over the course of a lifetime. It’s rich and multifaceted; a community of selves. And because you’re always learning and growing, you will almost certainly reach various turning points throughout your life that will make you ask: Is this life an honest reflection of the person I am? And if not, am I prepared to live it anyway, or will I take the plunge and connect with who I am really meant to be?
What’s important to me?
Now is the time to take a step back and think: what is your driving purpose and what values do you want to see reflected in your life and work? Some people want to make a difference through the execution of their vision for a better world – social change, environmental work, political activism. Perhaps your driver is focused on touching people’s hearts and building them up at an individual level. Or perhaps your fundamental values are all about freedom and independence, yet somehow that wild spirit has ended up on the predictable rhythm of a treadmill.
What am I good at?
If you’re searching for work that will give your life more meaning and fulfilment, then you need not only to understand your values and what you identify with, but also your motivated skills and strengths – the things you’re not only good at, but also like doing. Are you good with people? Or are you more comfortable with data? Perhaps you’re great with your hands, or when working with concepts and ideas. How well do your top strengths and skills align with your current work?
What dream am I chasing? (And whose dream is it?)
Is it the one that you think you should want, the one that the you of yesteryear did want, or the one that you actually do want? If you think you might be heading in the wrong direction, ask yourself: If all jobs paid the same, what would I want to be doing for a living? What would excite me and help me grow?
When we stop looking outward to external standards of achievement and ambition, we become free to focus on what is infinitely more valid: our own measure of what constitutes success. That may look very different for everyone else, and that’s ok. Are you being true to yourself, and if not, what choices are you going to make about that?
– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd
(*Registrar: The head of the central administrative service in a UK university.)