Workers worldwide are questioning what ambition really means to them

From quiet quitting to China's lying flat movement, we're seeing a moment of fundamental change around the idea of success and sacrifice
Workers worldwide are questioning what ambition really means to them
Graphic: Jo Minor
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This is the full transcript for episode 5 of the Work Reconsidered podcast, Ambition: Can giving up be good for you?

Listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher

Cassie Werber: Ambition. Getting ahead, chasing success. It can feel so positive, even exciting—we’re ambitious for a better life and we’re going to hustle as hard as we can to get there. But then one day, the world stops. Work as we know it transforms, and the mountain we’ve been striving to climb doesn’t look quite the same anymore.

In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, ambition shifted for millions of people. We started to ask, not for the first time in history, who really benefits from all this collective desperation to succeed? Have we just internalized an outside pressure to want more, to scramble over others in our climb to the top?

I’m Cassie Werber, your host for Work Reconsidered, a podcast from Quartz. Today we’re talking about ambition: what we lose by getting ahead.

I’m joined by senior reporter Sarah Todd. Hi, Sarah.

Sarah Todd: Hi, Cassie. I loved your intro, very dramatic.

Cassie Werber: Dramatic was definitely what I was going for. What does ambition mean to you, Sarah? What are you ambitious?

Sarah Todd: You know, I think I’ve gone through different periods in my life with different levels of ambition and defining it differently. Right now, I would say that I’m ambitious for my own happiness, but not necessarily ambitious in a strictly work related context, though, not not ambitious either. I also think that I have a lot of impostor syndrome, which winds up sort of like undermining some of my ambitions sometimes, too.

What is ambition?

Cassie Werber: When we talk about ambition, what do we mean? Do we mean rising higher at work or acquiring more stuff? Or do we mean striving for the best possible life? Which will obviously be different for every different person? Like, what do we mean, when we talk about it?

Sarah Todd: Yeah, I think it can mean a lot of different things to different people, of course, but I would say for the purposes of how we’re talking about it in this episode, I think that I’m talking about ambition as it refers to this sort of like, goal-oriented, achievement-oriented mindset where you’re looking ahead, and it doesn’t necessarily have to mean like, getting the promotion and you know, getting a big paycheck. But that’s often what it can mean. Or it might mean something like writing your first book, something like that, I think definitely falls into this sort of like traditional idea of ambition.

Cassie Werber: Yeah. So kind of work-related high achievement, maybe. Yeah. And how would you characterize ambition and success before the pandemic? Like was Western society, in your view in a particularly ambitious phase? And what would that even look like?

Sarah Todd: Yeah, so of course, I’m going to be speaking in some generalizations here. But that said, I would say that for the 10 years or so running up to the pandemic, was an interesting time for ambition. We had, you know, the 2008 great recession/financial crisis, which put a lot of people in significant amounts of financial constraints, a lot of people lost their jobs. And for young people who were graduating into the recession as well, they were starting off their careers at a tough time.

Burnout and ambition

Interestingly, I think what that did for ambition and the way that people thought about ambition, at least for a lot of Millennials, in particular, was internalizing this idea that you had to really hustle hard, you had to work really hard, because the economy wasn’t guaranteed to just give you a safety net and the things that you needed. Anne Helen Peterson talks about this in her essay on Millennial burnout for Buzzfeed that went viral some years back. She says, basically, you had to train yourself to be the best worker possible. So I think that was going on. And then interestingly, intersecting with that and possibly feeding off of it, too, was the rise of this Silicon Valley entrepreneurial mindset, you know, everybody’s making an Uber for everything. We had the idea of the rise and grind girl boss. So I think that there was also this idea that, because the economic safety net wasn’t guaranteed, there was this sort of love of entrepreneurialism. The idea that if you took things into your own hands maybe you could come out okay, on the other end.

Cassie Werber: Okay. So basically everybody striving for personal achievement, but also that was quite tied up with the kind of the company they were working for maybe, that everybody could push harder and make things succeed, more and more. There was already some talk of burnout. And you mentioned Anne Helen Peterson’s piece, which was about Millennial burnout specifically, wasn’t it. And then other groups as well, as Millennials, were feeling some burnout. Parents were perhaps wheeling it already with the kind of lack of childcare making it difficult for them to the utmost at work. And then also, there’s been lots of talk about the “sandwich generation” of people who would care for children also aging parents. But then, then the pandemic comes along into this culture of extreme, less extreme ambition. How do you think the pandemic changed the way people thought about ambition?

Understanding ‘the laziness lie’

Sarah Todd: So I spoke about this question with Devon Price, who’s the author of the book Laziness Does Not Exist. And he had some interesting things to say about how the pandemic changed people’s perspectives on ambition. One of the things that I think was really striking was that he says the pandemic was a mortality event in which people were just, on a mass scale, confronted with the reality that lives are finite, and we all might die someday. And that has people reconsidering whether work is what really makes them happy in this life. At the same time, people also had more time to just reflect in general, because you were home a lot more. And again, that leads to having the space to not physically be at work for remote workers also makes people think more about what they really care about and what they enjoy. Then I think that there were some other things happening. So a lot of people got laid off early on in the pandemic. Others realized that they were being forced to come to work and potentially risking their health in their lives and their family’s lives.

So there was the sense that you can work as hard as you want, but it’s not going to guarantee rewards, or getting things back from the company. And I think that that has also had an impact on the way that people think about ambition.

Cassie Werber: What does Devon Price say about laziness? Because I know his book is called Laziness Does Not Exist, right? What does that mean? Why is that the title? And what’s his thesis on laziness?

Sarah Todd: Yeah, so it’s all tied up with the themes that we’re talking about when it comes to ambition and productivity. So he basically says that, culturally on a mass scale, we’ve all bought into the laziness lie. And there are three core components of the laziness lie. They are: Your worth is your productivity; there’s always more that you could be doing; and you cannot trust your own feelings and limits. And so combined, what this ambition mindset does to us, and I’m going to quote a short passage from his book, and it says that it tells us, ‘that we must never be satisfied, we must keep running after new opportunities, which makes life less rewarding and enjoyable, because we never get to truly savor or appreciate what we’ve done or where we’ve been.’ So part of the problem that he’s identifying with ambition, then, is that it never stops, that we’re not allowed to really enjoy our lives, and that is counterproductive to achieving happiness.

Cassie Werber: Yeah, so we have all this drive to succeed, but we can ever reap the rewards of that success, almost.

Sarah Todd: Exactly. And then another really important point that he makes in the book is about how the laziness lie is internalized and also thrust upon marginalized people in particular, whether that means that you’re queer, or a person of color, or grew up in poverty—a lot of people kind of are taught to believe that if you go above and beyond, then you’ll be safe, then you’ll be accepted. And so that’s another big issue with the way that our culture teaches people to think about ambition, because there’s no point at which you’re actually going to be safe.

Changing our relationship with ambition

Cassie Werber: Yeah. And also does he talk about how things change throughout a life? A life is a long time to remain kind of thrusting forwards the entire time. Does he talk about the kind of the shifts through life and age?

Sarah Todd: Yeah, in our conversation, Devon also talked a bit about how as we age, inevitably, things are going to happen—we may get sick, we may become disabled. If you become a parent, you may have young kids, that just means that your career has to take a backseat for a while. And if you equate your life’s worth and your value with your ability to produce and achieve, then when you suddenly can’t work anymore—can’t work in the same way—that is basically guaranteed to make people feel horrible about themselves, quite unfairly.

Cassie Werber: Yeah. So, essentially, like when these events happen, it’s like, we become lazy in our own eyes. And he’s saying that, no, it is the way that society is structured that makes us believe that.

Sarah Todd: Exactly. He says, we castigate ourselves. And he also says, you know, a lot of the time what we interpret as laziness is actually something else. It might be burnout, it might be that you’re depressed. Even if you’re apathetic about life, that may be a sign that the people around you have failed you because your parents, your teachers haven’t introduced you to things that you would care about and want to do.

Cassie Werber: But what if you do really want things, and if you’re striving to get to a particular place, or a salary, or something that you want to achieve in your career. Would Devon say that you’ve just been brainwashed by the system, and that your drive isn’t really yours? And you only want things because somehow you’ve been told to?

Sarah Todd: Actually, when I talked to Devon, one of the things that was interesting is that he is making this argument, but he’s also writing multiple books, he’s quite busy, and you know, from an outside perspective, achieving a lot. And he says, the way he reconciles that is that it does feel good to strive for things and try to do stuff. But that takes work too in itself to figure out what is really important to you, what do you really care about. We all should be reflecting on what our real values are, and directing our energy toward that, and understanding that it might have nothing to do with a career in the traditional sense, it might mean that you’re writing poetry on your computer, or that you’re focusing on running a half marathon. It could be things that really have nothing to do with advancing in your working world.

Also, you know, it’s okay to have dips in your ambition, it doesn’t have to be a consistent thing where your life is a linear, up-up-up type of shape. It can be that there are times when you’re taking it easy, and that’s perfectly fine and in fact, good. And there are times when you’re concentrating more.

The other thing that I wanted to mention about the idea of, is ambition always a bad thing. I read a really interesting essay by Maris Kriezman that was written in June 2020 in GEN. And what she talks about is how the pandemic made her ambition go away in a lot of ways because it kind of reminded her some of the stuff that we were talking about before like, you know, what’s the point of trying to succeed when the world isn’t a meritocracy, and things just fall apart on you. But she says that what she was finding during the pandemic, and during this time—it was during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020—was that her ambitions for her community and the world were getting much bigger. And she says, I don’t know exactly where I fit in it. But I do know that I want all workers to be treated with dignity and respect. And I think that’s another really interesting way of thinking about ambition, not from an individual perspective, but from a collective one.

Getting off the aspirational treadmill

Cassie Werber: When you’re reporting on ambition, did you come across any ways that people are actively changing their attitudes to ambition, like trying to change or subvert the ambition system that they find themselves caught up in?

Sarah Todd: Yeah, there are lots of really interesting ways. So one thing that I found this, actually, the idea dates back to 2011. There’s this article on the website Grist called ‘[The] medium chill’ by David Roberts. And what he talks about is the idea of accepting that what you have is enough. And so he talks in that essay about the idea that like he and his wife, are married, have kids, have a car, have like a house, and all of them are things that they could be trying to improve. They could be trying to earn more money so they can buy another car, and they could be trying to buy a bigger house. But, he says, you know, if we do that, it’s just going to mean more work and more stress and less time to spend with the family. So he recommends stepping off what he calls the aspirational treadmill and accepting some material constraints. And I think that’s one thing, this predates the pandemic, but I think a lot of people are coming around to that idea. There’s actually a term in economics that describes this strategy. It’s called ‘satisficing.’

Cassie Werber: Love that.

Sarah Todd: It means that you’re not necessarily going for the optimal, the best solution, you’re just like, good enough. That’s fine. Another really interesting method of trying to actively counteract our relationship with ambition are the principles outlined by antiwork, which is a Reddit thread that has also become a bit of a subculture and a movement. So there are a lot of different principles, but some of the ones that I think are most interesting are: Don’t go above and beyond at work. So often, we’re taught that we have to really impress our bosses, and we have to stay late, and that’s how you’re gonna get rewarded. They say, ‘No. One, you’re not gonna get rewarded. Two, just take it easy.’

Similarly, there’s this idea of go slow, I think is what it’s called. So this idea has to do it goes back to the collectivist idea as well, where when you’re working really hard and really speedily on a task, that can actually negatively impact your colleagues, because now they’re expected to work at that pace, too. My mom actually has a story, going back to when she was a teenager, where she had a temporary job boxing up shoes, and she was like doing it really efficiently because she found it boring, basically. And then one of the women on the little assembly line turned to her and said, ‘Slow down.’ And the idea there being you know, when you do that you’re counteracting this, like cultural pressure to achieve to do more, do faster.

Cassie Werber: Yeah.

What is job crafting?

Sarah Todd: And then there’s also the idea of job crafting, which is a less sort of like actively rebellious, but still very interesting way to reshape your relationship with ambition. So what job crafting means is, you may not have to leave your job or switch jobs in order to shape your job around what your values are and what you actually want. Often, there’s more room to negotiate within your job itself. So you know, if you are writing marketing copy for a nonprofit, and what you really care about is animals, maybe you find a way to propose that the nonprofit start doing more work with animals, and then you’re writing about it for your blog, and then you can take your job in a different direction that actually is more aligned with what your values are.

Cassie Werber: Makes sense. So it’s not like trying to subvert the goals of your work or anything. You’re basically just doing your work in a way that is more satisfying to you personally.

Sarah Todd: With job crafting, yes, with some of these other things, no. I think that subversion is part of the goal, in a fun way.

Cassie Werber: And they mostly predate the pandemic?

Sarah Todd: Yeah, and even antiwork as a sub existed pre-pandemic, but it really took off during the pandemic. But, yeah, all of these ideas have been around for a while. But I think what’s different is that we’re talking about them at lino so vocally and collectively as a culture.

China’s lying flat movement

Cassie Werber: Let’s talk a bit about other places where ambition is in flux. I know you speak to Jane Li, who is one of our Quartz reporters based in Hong Kong. How are people re thinking about ambition and striving there?

Sarah Todd: So in China, it’s really interesting, because I think that people are confronting ambition in very similar ways to what we’re seeing in the US and the UK. There’s long been this idea in Chinese culture that you have to work really hard, be productive, get married, have kids. And instead, what Jane says happening is the rise of this movement called lying flat, which has what she calls an almost monastic outlook on life where you’re trying not only not to work or to work as little as possible, but also to consume less, to avoid having a family—basically, just kind of giving the middle finger to any cultural ideas of what you’re supposed to do with your life.

Cassie Werber: And what did she say about the origins of that movement? Where did it come from? Is it a collective thing—have lots of people been doing that together, or did somebody spark it off?

Sarah Todd: Yeah, so the reason why lying flat as an idea really took off has to do with one particular Chinese internet user who wrote a really influential post on social media about what they wanted to do with their own lives.

Jane Li: So basically, the person was saying, he hasn’t worked for the past two years, and he feels there’s totally nothing wrong about not working. He wanted to live like the ancient philosophers and sleep inside a wooden bucket enjoying sunshine and or living in a cave. Just by basically enjoying life yourself, while stop pursuing the excessive success. And I think there is something especially resonating with a young audience. One of his sentences especially touched people, in which he basically was saying this land has never had a school of thought that upholds human subjectivity. And now he can develop one of his own, which is lying down, which he labels as his own philosophic movement.

Sarah Todd: He wasn’t a celebrity or particularly important person. He was just a random man who explained his philosophy. He mentions that the ancient Asian philosophers said that you should spend your life asleep in a wooden bucket enjoying the sunshine or living in a cave. And now he wanted to develop his own school of thought around that. which is lying down. That’s his philosophical movement.

Cassie Werber: And why did it catch on so much? Or, how popular is it, and why is it so popular?

Sarah Todd: So it has really spread as an idea. So much so that the Chinese government is actually trying to censor certain discussions about lying flat on the internet. Whether or not people are able to enact on it is a different story. Because, you know, just the reality is that people have to work and pay bills, and it’s not so easy to refuse work, necessarily. But that’s actually not the total point of lying flat, either. I think the real point of it isn’t to say, you know, you can totally eschew work and society and live in a cave, although that might be very cool. But to say, in this kind of passive resistance to what the Chinese government in particular has told people who live there that they must do with their lives, it can also be an individual form of rebellion.

Cassie Werber: And did Jane talk as well about why it’s caught on? What state people were in that made them kind of want to go with this movement?

Sarah Todd: Yes. Thank you for reminding me about that part of your question. Yes. So some of the reasons why it caught on have to do with Chinese work culture in particular. So in Chinese culture, there’s the problem of 9-9-6 work culture, which basically involves working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, which is very long.

Cassie Werber: Exhausting.

Sarah Todd: Yes. So already, I think a lot of people in China are feeling fed up with that. Also, the pandemic, again, as was the case in the US and the UK, impacted a lot of people’s job opportunities, factories shut down, it became harder to find good jobs at tech companies. And all of that also, I think, has younger people in China in particular thinking, you know, why strive and try hard and compete when ultimately I’m not going to get what I’ve been told I’ll get in the end.

Cassie Werber: And why is this considered rebellious in the Chinese context? Why is not doing very much frowned upon? And how is the Chinese government reacting to it?

Sarah Todd: Oh, yeah. Okay, so I love what Jane says about this. She says, basically, that the passiveness is in some ways more annoying to the Chinese government and harder to stamp out, than, you know, demonstrations and protests.

Jane Li: The Party, as we all know, is very good at crushing physical protests. For the Party, physical protests are not a problem, because they have digital surveillance. And they have a very forceful police force and other state power to crush those. But for lying flat, this kind of passive, nonviolent resistance, the Party has almost no way of crushing it. Imagine, they can’t go to like households and yelling at people who are posting about lying flat and saying, ‘Oh, you can’t say that’. I mean, they actually have the capacity to do that. But in reality, they can’t really crush this kind of discontent, right.

Sarah Todd: She calls it an effective yet safe way of resisting the rat race.

Cassie Werber: But are they trying to crush it?

Sarah Todd: Yes, with some censorship, you know, like discussions of lying flat online, but I think from my impression from what Jane says is that while there’s some efforts at censorship, it’s not really working at quelling. People find other ways to discuss it, they can always talk in code. You know, it’s very hard to stop.

Cassie Werber: What about this movement called touching fish? Which I think you also talk to Jane about?

Quiet quitting and ‘touching fish’

Sarah Todd: Yes, so touching fish is related to the idea of lying flat, but it’s not exactly the same. So in in China, touching fish emerged also around 2020 as an idea, and it’s similar to what we were talking about earlier about not going above and beyond. The idea with touching fish is to do as little as possible at work. Touching fish comes from a Chinese idiom that says ‘muddy waters make it easy to catch fish.’ So the idea there is that you know, when there’s a lot going on, when things are very chaotic, it’s easier to get away with doing what you want, and in some cases, doing nothing. The idea being, again, like there’s no real chance at mobility anyway, so why bother. But also, this is an effective way of undermining the company that you work for. So Jane interviewed one person who talked about how she would drink a lot of water at the office so that she would have to go pee a lot. And this was like a very clever sort of individual form of resistance.

Cassie Werber: So in the West, we’ve been seeing what’s been called the great resignation, where some people are quitting their jobs and stepping back or changing what they do. And we have these movements like antiwork that have sprung up on Reddit and then it’s kind of exploded off that platform. Do you see a connection between these things and lying flat in China? Are they the same thing?

Sarah Todd: I do, yeah. And I think that there are a lot of similarities among them. Both the things that people are frustrated with, which come down to capitalism and empty promises about the rewards of ambition, I think, is what they’re fundamentally a response to. And then also, I think the idea of, it’s one thing to try to overhaul the system in the active rebellion sort of way. But the sort of passive resistance, I think, is really taking off as an idea, in part because it’s so much more accessible. It can be a collective movement, but all that it requires to start the change is really within your power. You can refuse to work the way that you’ve been told that you should, and that in itself, can maybe have a big impact. And I think both both laying flat and the anti work movement, and some of the underlying ideas behind the great resignation, have all in common, this idea that Jenny Odell also talks about in her book called resistance in place. So she says that to resist in place is now I’m quoting from her book ‘to make oneself into a shape that can also easily be appropriated by the capitalist system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship.’ So I like this idea of resistance in place. And I think fundamentally, that’s what all of these have in common.

The future of ambition

Cassie Werber: Yeah. I love that idea, too. How does Jane think that this will play out long term?

Sarah Todd: So we asked her that. And she says:

Jane Li: Ambition in China in 20 years could be very different from what it looks like now. By which I mean, ambition in China currently, basically, as I mentioned, is basically about the material goods, the material success that one can get in their lives. But I think in 20 years’ time, people might become more spiritual instead of only considering the material goods. That could be what ambition looks like in China.

Sarah Todd: Which would indeed be a big shift from the kind of consumerist culture that’s risen up there in recent decades, similar to in the US.

Cassie Werber: In a way, it would be kind of a shift back, right? Like, arguably, we’ve been in more spiritual kind of periods before this?

Sarah Todd: Well the cultural pendulum can swing back and forth, I think that we may really be seeing the start of a very different relationship with capitalism and with ambition and with the way we think about our careers.

Cassie Werber: And I think we’re seeing that in other areas as well, that change in the way we think about capitalism and what it’s for and what it’s doing to our planet and to our future. So it doesn’t feel like this is happening in isolation. It’s not just a movement of people and their individual feelings about their work and their lives.

Sarah Todd: Definitely.

How to live a happier, less stressful life

Cassie Werber: What should people do if they’re not quite ready to reject the work ethic completely, but they do want to lead happier, less stressful lives?

Sarah Todd: So Devon also has a really great practical exercise that we can employ if we want to take even a small step toward redefining our relationship with ambition. He says that this involves learning to savor. Savoring the moments that we’re in, it’s not just about enjoying the present, but it’s also kind of like extending the present moment. So there are four components to learning to savor. There’s showing your good mood. Hugging and skipping and laughing and being generally joyful—that’s going to help you really experience your presence in the moment. There’s focusing on the experience as it’s happening, which we talked about a lot with mindfulness and Buddhism, this idea of being in the present. Then there’s capitalizing, so that’s when you get good news, share it with people and really celebrate it, don’t downplay it, you know, go out and have a glass of champagne, revel in it. And then there’s positive mental time travel, which involves looking back on your happy memories. For a lot of people it’s much easier to focus on negative experiences than positive ones. So he says learning to savor is also about maybe looking back through photos and thinking about what a great vacation that was and then planning your next vacation, too. And all of that can really help.

Cassie Werber: Thank you so much, Sarah, I found this really, really fascinating. And I feel like you have reflected deeply on ambition. And I know a lot more about it as a result.

Sarah Todd: Thanks Cassie, I feel like you did too. You know so much about ambition. Great questions.

Cassie Werber: Thank you.

Work Reconsidered is a podcast from Quartz. I’m your host, Cassie Werber. And I was joined today by Quartz reporter Sarah Todd. This episode was produced by Sarah Todd and Nicole Kelly. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. This episode was edited by Francesca Donner. Our theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Devon Price and Jane Li.

If you like what you heard, please tell your friends to listen, too. You can also leave a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening.

How ambitious are you? To give us your take, email us at work@qz.com. And to read more about our lives at work, head to qz.com/work.