Monday, 9 January 2012

on ambition

WHAT happens to ambition, when you have children? I've spent the weekend pondering this one, preparing to debate it on the radio with the formidable FT columnist Heather McGregor, author of a new book of advice for ambitious women. And it's forced me to think more deeply about whether I am still ambitious, and if so, for what.
I've always been competitive and driven (among other things women aren't really supposed to be), and definitely career-orientated, which is why the decision to give up my Proper Job after having my son surprised me more than anyone. I still want, very badly, to be good at what I do - but freelancing has been for me a way of focussing on the part I love (finding out stuff and writing about it) and ditching the stuff I don't (office politics, managing people, tiresome greasy pole-climbing).
So it frustrates me when people automatically assume that leaving full-time work signifies the end of ambition, and a slow agreeable decline to mush: because having spent the last year talking to men and women who made the same leap, I'm more convinced than ever that it's nonsense.
Those interviews were done for the book I've been sweating blood over for more than a year, which is finally out (and whose last minute labour pains have been the reason I've been so shamefully lax about blogging lately).
*look away now if you don't want to see the obligatory plug*

*Ok, you can look again now*
I don't buy that deciding not to scrabble to the top, if to do so means sacrificing everything else that matters, indicates the end of ambition. If anything, I think it's about the multiplying of ambitions - the old desire to excel professionally, fighting against a new one to be a particular kind of hands-on parent, spouse, friend, or child to your own ageing parents. The headhunter Deborah Loudon, who spent years in HR, once told me that it's never the people you expect who quit after having a baby: it's the ferociously committed ones, the lifelong straight-A students who can't stand the idea of not being 100% on top of their game both at home and at work.
The trouble is, of course, that many employers neither recognise nor reward this more plural, diffuse ambition - or even the conventional kind when it comes surging back late in life, after the children are grown. And that's one of the reasons I wrote the book.
I know I'm lucky to have a profession that's very flexible, and to have earned enough that I could afford to take a salary hit. As the saying goes, it's all right for some. But it's not enough for it to be all right for some. It should be all right for many more men and women to do interesting work and still see the children, and with a little imagination from employers, families and government, it could be. The real failure of ambition would be to think that nothing can change.


  1. I am still ambitious but those ambitious have changed. I want a happy well-rounded, well-socialised child who has all the opportunities she wants, I want to pick her up from school, attend plays and sports days and manage play dates. But I also want to be a success personally, to do my job well and to concentrate on my writing. It's a balancing act, socialising is the part that goes I think...

  2. Are you perhaps only seeing "Ambition" as a subset of "Employment"?

    You can be on someone or other's payroll for 40 years, and achieve "success" as conventionally measured. It pays the rent (important!) but there's more, and a baby-producer has a better chance of finding it than her partner, who still will have to deal with the negative sife of employment that you identified (office politics, managing people, tiresome greasy pole-climbing)until relief ( in the form of retirement, ill-health or redundancy) brings the whole thing to shuddering halt.

    You're on a winner as you are!

  3. The Deborah Loudon comment is interesting. To spend more time with your son & focus properly on work without all the other crap sounds like an excellent idea to me. Think you've made the right move.

  4. I think the discussion about ambition is thought provoking. I was very committed to my career but gave up when I had my first child because my husband worked very long hours and travelled a lot. Then we moved to Asia for DH job and had another child. It has now been 10 years and I am ready to re-enter the workforce. My ambition is still there but has a different focus. I am studying to change direction and enhance what I already do, which hopefully will allow for more flexible working arrangements. When the children then leave home I will already be back in work and can ramp up again, hopefully doing something where age is an advantage.

    In the interim years my ambition has been focussed around helping my children become well balanced, competent human beings. I have spent time with them, made sure they ate properly, and played lots. It seems ambition changes, there are different phases and being able to adjust appropriately is a real challenge.

  5. I absolutely agree that it's the multiplying of ambitions to take the leap. I've recently made the decision to leave my job and take a year out to try and find some answers to this conundrum. If anything I am more motivated than ever to find a satisfying and exciting way to work but also have what feels like the very necessary time at home with my kids. I will read your book!

  6. Thanks for all these comments - think Navel Gazer is so right that being able to adjust appropriately to whatever phase you're in is the critical bit. (And knowing when to move out of it onto the next one maybe). And Chris - this isn't always just an issue for mothers! Ambition in those partners I think changes too, & more chance than there ever has been now (tho still not enough) to follow it...

  7. Great post - I struggle with the perception that now I try and work an 80% contract (ie don't work Fridays but still work weekends and 12+ hours a day... not exactly part time) I am assumed to have given up my ambition - if only my employer could realise that I have that ambition but I also want to make my job and family continue to remain in some form of equilibrium. And I now know that many of my male colleagues would kill for the opportunity to downsize a bit whilst retaining their ambition

  8. @usedtobesomebody
    I stumbled upon this blog!
    Hope you (and all your readers!) could have success in whatever you (they) want till it doesn't harm anyone :)

  9. Gaby - I am just about to give up my job as a Partner in a Big 4 accounting firm, and I see this as the start of my ambition not the end. Ambition to truly do something that makes a difference, ambition to be a real father to my kids, ambition to be more than half a husband. I have seen "ambitious" people every day for 20 years in my job, working all hours that god sends at the expense of any personal life. I'm left wondering what they are ambitious for. It's an astonishingly shallow existence. I used to be a nobody on a faceless treadmill in London. I'm looking forward to being somebody again.

  10. One year ago I was deliberating over two choices: sit my law exams or have a baby. I chose to have a baby. To say that becoming a mother has opened my eyes to a better life is a vast understatement , but it's a start. My ambition now is to be a happy person and a positive contributor to society. I want to make sure that everything I do makes this world a better place for my little boy. I am pretty sure being a lawyer for a bank would not have achieved this so everyday I am thanking my lucky stars that I made the right decision to follow my heart's ambition, not my my head's.
    I love your book Gaby, it has given me huge hope!

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