Opting out of a career doesn’t make you less ambitious

There’s more than one way to be ambitious.
There’s more than one way to be ambitious.
Image: REUTERS/Larry Downing
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In 2012, the two of us were, individually, circling a crisis of faith. We hadn’t mentioned this internal chaos to anyone, especially not to each other. We had both subscribed to the belief, along with many other women, that if we went to a good college, graduated, and worked hard and made our way up through the professional world, things would fall into place and we’d achieve the dreams of our feminist foremothers. Along the way, we hoped, we would find people to love who would love us back. We would become mothers, we imagined. We would feel satisfied in our careers and happy in our home lives and it would all work out, the end. We’d embarked on our careers so certain, building our resumes and checking off milestones as though our lives were giant invisible to-do lists. But once we hit our early forties, for the first time in a long while we discovered we were unsure where to go next.

Was it just us, we wondered? Or were there others? We decided we would interview a few of our mutual friends from college—women from our sorority—to find out. Those conversations led to others, and ultimately we decided to interview 43 of our former sorority sisters about the same questions and unease we were facing.

We remembered our sorority sisters as the picture of ambition. They prioritized academics over aesthetics, wearing hastily-styled ponytails and baggy sweatshirts, competing for slots on the dean’s list. They were now spread out across the globe, living a wide array of lives, and most importantly, they were women. That was essential because we were sure that this thing that was happening to us, this gnawing uncertainty, this feeling that we were possibly doing it all wrong, had something to do with being female.

When we began our interviews, we did so with the underlying assumption that all our friends from college, or nearly all of them, were ambitious. The woman with the fancy Chicago ad agency internship senior year, who was constantly rushing in and out of the sorority house in a suit, was surely an advertising VP, working out of an office overlooking Lake Michigan. Our friend who had planned to open a progressive school was probably busy this minute securing equipment and mentors for the hands-on STEM curriculum she’d designed. And as for our former classmate who had left Northwestern and headed straight to Harvard Law, we imagined her mere minutes away from a Supreme Court nomination (as soon as there was an opening).

We were a bit taken aback, then, when we interviewed four stay-at-home mothers in a row. Others we interviewed were idling in good-enough jobs year after year instead of chasing promotions. The two of us paused our interviews, trying to understand what we were finding.

An easy explanation is that maybe these women simply were not as ambitious as we thought they’d been. The popular rationalization of the day is the “ambition gap.” Sheryl Sandberg coined this phrase in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in 2012, arguing that girls’ ambition is thwarted from childhood: “We don’t raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons.”

Sandberg is not the first to doubt women’s level of ambition. Women have been criticized for their dearth of ambition practically since they were told they could be ambitious in the first place. A 1987 study found that women’s lack of ambition prevented them from applying to medical school; a 1990 study reported that women suffered diminished political ambition. And even today, you don’t need to look far to find research illustrating all the ways women are ambition-deficient. Studies have found that as women rise through the ranks at companies, their ambition level drops, and that women are less interested than men in becoming senior executives.

While the “ambition gap” theory may hold true for some women around the globe, it doesn’t fit for our former classmates, the majority of whom came to college with dreams of being the first, the best, and the boss. They told us, “I had ambitions of being the president of the Red Cross, or running for Senate,” “I wanted to help people who didn’t have a voice,” and “I thought I was going to be the press secretary at the White House.”

If our friends were, in fact, as ambitious as we remembered them, why wasn’t that reflected in our conversations? If these women had been bursting with ambition when they got to Northwestern, why weren’t we looking at twenty-two or thirty High Achievers instead of (what felt like a paltry) thirteen? If they had planned to rule the world, why weren’t they doing so?

Part of the answer lies in the definition of “ambition.” In a seminal study on psychological development, Jerome Kagan and Howard Moss followed a group of eighty-nine people over a twenty-nine-year span, from childhood to adulthood, and found a high correlation between the desire to master a specific skill and “social recognition through acquisition of specific goals or behaviors.” Psychiatrist Anna Fels took this finding a step further. While conducting a study on women and ambition for her 2004 book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, Fels received some puzzling responses. None of the women she was studying would admit to being ambitious. In fact, they seemed to hate the word. (It’s interesting that we encountered the opposite—nearly all our friends prided themselves on being ambitious, which could indicate a generational shift, or could be related to the fact that we were interviewing friends, who perhaps felt more comfortable sharing their ambitions than women being interviewed by strangers would.)

Fels decided to conduct a literature review on what others before her had found about ambition. “Looking through studies on the development of both boys and girls, I noticed that they virtually always identified the same two components of childhood ambition. There was a plan that involved a real accomplishment requiring work and skill, and there was an expectation of approval in the form of fame, status, acclaim, praise, or honor.” As hydrogen and oxygen must both be present to make water, so must mastery and recognition converge to enable ambition.

That is, in order to be ambitious, you must have a burning desire to master something, anything, be it juggling or big data. The seeds of this desire are planted in childhood, and the object of ambition may shift over time or may span multiple topics (in our cases, we wanted to master ballet, writing, field hockey, speed walking, and social graces). But it is not enough to simply like juggling, for example. You must be the kind of person who annoys everyone by juggling in the hallway, at dinner, in your room after your homework is completed, driven by an innate desire to get really, really good at juggling simply because you must. You’re not sure why, but you’re going to manage to keep four balls, or bowling pins, or potatoes, going at the same time if it kills you.

The true driver for most people, the thing that keeps you going back time and again to improve your skills, is the goal of being recognized for your achievement. It is not enough to be a secret juggler, lofting potatoes into the air in the corner of your bedroom. An ambitious person is not sated by having mastered something simply for the sake of achievement and self-satisfaction.

Those of us driven by ambition need to take our juggling act on the road, to perform in the school talent show, for parents, for neighbors, for strangers on the street. For those whose interests lie in something less performative—math, writing, problem solving—recognition comes in the form of awards, publication, high grades, coveted jobs, flawless performance reviews, promotions. As Kagan and Moss noted, “It may be impossible to measure the ‘desire to improve a skill’ independent of the individual’s ‘desire for recognition.’”

Using this definition of ambition, there is no doubt that our former classmates arrived at Northwestern with both the desire to become great at something and the need for the world to know they were great at it. So what happened next? Here come the complications. For some women, who had come from small towns or suburban enclaves where they’d been the stars of their high schools, finding themselves at Northwestern in a sea of other high school superstars was a splash of ice water to the ego. They arrived certain of their place in the world, but a year or two—or for some, even just a few days—in, they weren’t so sure they were that special after all.

Once they moved out into the world, our friends’ desire took them in a range of different directions.On the surface, some of these directions made it seem that the women’s ambitions waned, that they had lost their way. A few of the women themselves wondered aloud to us where their drive from college had gone. But as we interviewed more and more of our friends, we began to see an increasingly nuanced, complex portrait of ambition—a sort of ambition that can shift over time and be directed into many different streams of life.

Nearly all the women we spoke with, whether they spend their days chasing kids around the playground or chasing C-suite executives around a meeting room, according to Fels’ definition, still radiate ambition.

Almost all the Opt Outers we interviewed spend large chunks of their time doing things on top of childcare or housekeeping, and they pursue those activities with as much ambition and dedication as they had previously pursued high marks in college or promotions at work. One woman noted, “I wasn’t working for almost two and a half years. I struggled with that and overcompensated with volunteering. I did the yearbook and was PTO copresident.” Once she returned to work, she scaled back her school leadership involvement, but mentioned, as an aside, that she had recently solicited a large donation of bottled water for the school carnival, as though she couldn’t help herself.

Another woman who left the workforce after her kids were born is on the board of multiple charity organizations and maintains a contacts list full of powerful, accomplished women. These are not women who lack ambition, waiting aimlessly for the moment their children return home from school. They have chosen to leave the paid workforce, but still want to be out in the world, contributing in ways that feel meaningful. They volunteer for nonprofits, advocate on local issues, raise money for their children’s public schools, figure prominently in their communities. They may not be writing the nation’s foreign policy or negotiating billion-dollar mergers, but they are also not content to live without goals and recognition.

Ambition needs to be continuously nurtured and rewarded, and these women found ways to do that that were as varied as the goals to which they had initially aspired.

This article has been adapted from “The Ambition Decisions.” It has been published with permission from Viking.