Do You Have Ambition Anxiety?

Lotte Jeffs
·13-min read
Photo credit: Tyler Spangler
Photo credit: Tyler Spangler

From ELLE

It was after having taken redundancy for the third time in as many years that I began to wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something. Was my destiny really to keep pursuing big-ticket jobs with impressive-sounding titles, clambering up the career ladder two rungs at a time, and after each knockback stretching ever further upwards so that my next move would feel bigger and better both to myself and to the world watching?

For decades, professional success sated my ego. I wore it like a Gucci blazer – it was a shorthand that signified the ‘type’ of person I was. I enjoyed the status. My Instagram bio was a happy reminder that I’d come further than the careers counsellor at my south London state school ever thought I would. Librarian or English teacher were her suggestions. But since winning Student of the Year at age 15, the buzz I got from being better than average propelled me to keep trying and trying and trying for the next 20 years of my life. I documented my achievements on social media, of course, partly for the validation to my ego, and partly because success is less successful if it isn’t seen. Or so I thought.

In truth, I was tired from all the trying. I was stressed and I felt the sharp edges of emptiness – a space in my deepest self that no award ceremony or posh lunch could fill. So, after I lost my last job as a senior leader at a top creative agency, one that had consumed so much energy and overwhelmed every corner of my life, I just… stopped.

I removed myself from the rat race. I looked after my young daughter, read books, wrote for pleasure and rediscovered my love of Sonic the Hedgehog on Xbox. I took a few freelance jobs to cover living costs but said 'no' to anything more substantial.

It turned out the ‘unexceptional’ life I’d been running away from wasn’t so tragic after all. I felt happier and freer than I had in a long time. Yes, it was an ongoing battle with my inner monologue – I wasn’t failing, I wasn’t betraying feminism. But to my surprise, I didn’t burn with envy when I saw peers getting jobs I would normally have gone for, and with that came a rush of relief. By pressing pause on my relentless ambition, I realised that I didn’t need to win any more: I just wanted to enjoy the game.

‘Part of the loveliness of not having to live the Big Life is that lots of avenues open up. When you stop striving to that level of perceived success, things just don’t matter as much and you realise there’s a lot of joy to be had in the mediocrity of life,’ Sophie, a 35-year-old ex-magazine editor, tells me. She too quit a high-salary role when she realised that her successful, but stressful, career was seriously compromising her happiness.

Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images

‘I remember when I resigned from my job I was forced to essentially fabricate this whole narrative around why, because it’s just too taboo, and unbelievable to many people, to say, “Actually, I realised this wasn’t for me.”’

Sophie talks about what she might do next before admitting, somewhat sheepishly, that she is hoping to do upholstery courses around the copywriting projects that pay the bills.

She laughs at herself: ‘You know, I find myself having to constantly fight the urge to create another narrative around it, to announce on social media, “This is the new me!” just to show people I’ve made the “right” decision. But actually when you give up trying to prove to the world how great what you do is, you stop boxing yourself in to your own life choices – you have more freedom to give things a go and discover what you actually enjoy.’

Her take on it reminds me of something the journalist-turned-philosopher Oliver Burkeman writes: ‘The (conscious or subconscious) belief that what you do is incredibly consequential has the effect of making the stakes too high to enjoy life. You end up feeling like you’re perpetually holding the world on your shoulders, so that if you don’t make it through your to-do list, or fulfil your various obligations, or “realise your potential”, something truly calamitous will happen.’

I’ve ditched that burden and now the stakes are lower. Like Sophie, I take pleasure from the everyday rhythms of a life that doesn’t seek to impress. But we are well into our thirties. That’s a long time to have spent reaching for the stars, before relaxing into more earthly expectations.

Reassuringly, over the past year I have noticed younger people shift their mindsets, too. They are abandoning the exhausting drive to be a somebody, started by us millennials (sorry!), and are joining an ever-growing army of Average And Proud.

Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images

Perhaps, like so many cultural shifts right now, the pandemic lit a fire under something that would have happened anyway. We’re under economic threat. A huge depression is on the horizon, and Gen Z will be the ones bearing the brunt of this for the longest. While the 0.1% will always prosper, things look uncertain for the rest of us. By circumstance, status may become less relevant.

Besides, if this year has taught us anything, it’s that ‘success’ can be fleeting. Our expectations of what extraordinary looks like are altering, too. Never before has the work of nurses, carers and cleaners been held in such stark relief to the ‘influencers’ escaping reality to party in Dubai. Maybe the illusion of self-importance is finally being exposed.

But all of that has happened against a background of an increasingly fatigued generation of status chasers who were teetering on an edge that the pandemic pushed them off. More than seven million people have clicked on Anne Helen Petersen’s essay How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation since it was published on BuzzFeed in 2019.

In her new book on the subject, Can’t Even, she traces the origins of this feeling that we are ‘constantly falling short’ to an era of ‘concerted cultivation’ parenting: well-meaning parents, often first-generation middle class, sending children off to extra-curricular activities, tutoring, playdates, work experience. Time was for increasing personal capital. Now adults, millennials are exhausted by their perceived failings.

Because, admit it, those people from school who never left the local area, settled down, had kids – you always thought they were failures, didn’t you? It didn’t matter how happy they were. There was an ugly shame attached to such a life. We associated it with a lack – of talent, of intelligence, of the fullness of our own mega-exciting lives. This stopped many of us from ever considering if we were actually cut out for ‘exceptional’, thus condemning us to inevitable burnout.

Photo credit: Tyler Spangler
Photo credit: Tyler Spangler

Twenty-one-year-old Amelia knows that to be true. She graduated from the University of Exeter in 2019 and was the first of her classmates to get an impressive-sounding job in London. Originally from rural Cornwall, she felt that her life wouldn’t ‘count for anything’ unless she lived in the big city and worked in events.

She tells me: ‘The job, in reality, was awful. I quickly realised that the unpredictability and need for everything to be done as quickly as possible, but also with no error, was so consuming. I tried really hard to convince myself that I loved my new job and new city. I started posting about work events on my social platforms, trying to show the glamorous side, and yet in reality I’d cried in the toilets for a good 45 minutes prior to posting.’

Ah, social media – the spark to Generation Dream Big’s tinderbox, thanks to its ability to not only invite extraordinary into our lives but force us to party with it 24/7.

Before the internet, exceptional people were actors, rock stars, Premier League footballers – you caught a glimpse of them off-duty in newspapers or on TV, but they existed in another realm. Like the gods of Ancient Greece, you might worship them, but you, mere mortal, could never be them. Now, your lives exist beside one another; one stark scroll is all it takes for direct comparison.

It’s not that we actually want to be, say, Beyoncé or Elon Musk, but we feel we have to be the Beyoncé of our own lives; the peak versions of ourselves.

‘There’s a feeling of being trapped by social media’, says professor Donna Freitas, the author of The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost. She has spent years researching the ways university students and recent graduates navigate their lives online. ‘We’re setting everything up for other people to evaluate even the tiniest parts of our lives, all the time,’ she says.

Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images

‘My students think if they don’t do it they’ll be left out or seem suspicious.’ She continues: ‘One of the things that amazed me when I first started doing my research was the language the students I was interviewing used about how they understood their life. They talked about their “publics” – plural. Even biology students would reference their “brand”.’

And your brand isn’t just about what you do, it’s about what you say and believe. You don’t need loads of cash to be seen as successful on social media, but you need to be seen as socially engaged. The louder you can shout, the better.

I spoke to Ella, a 21-year-old transgender woman. ‘I just want to be chill,’ she told me. ‘It’s been hard enough transitioning, telling my friends and family, and now I feel this burden that I’m not enough of a trans activist. I’m an introvert. I’m not political. I just want to be myself but my friends are always like, “Why aren’t you supporting this person, retweeting this or giving money to this person’s top surgery GoFundMe?” I’m trans, and proud of that, but I’m quiet. I’m made to feel like I don’t exist unless I am the most outspoken, the bravest trans person in the world ever. I’m tired of it. I just want to get a job I enjoy, find a partner, be happy. I don’t need to be in people’s faces all the time but then am I just sad, like a failure?’

Amelia, meanwhile, quickly tired of trying to navigate the toxic world of pretension that came with proving how great her life was. She’s currently retraining as a teacher – a job that she once saw as too ‘boring and basic to be successful’ and has moved back to Cornwall.

‘Once I got my head around the fact that work didn’t have to be an ordeal and I saw how much satisfaction I’d get from helping kids, I felt proud that I was choosing a career I was passionate about.’ Amelia says. ‘Money isn’t everything and nor is being “someone”. I enjoy being able to see my friends, having the time to have a proper lunch hour and exercise – people might knock what I’ve done, but I’ve never looked back.’

Amelia is figuring out her own happiness formula. This makes her one of the lucky few, says Dr Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale.

‘Many of us are choosing our careers and life paths based on what we think will make us happy,’ she explains. ‘The problem is that research shows we have bad intuitions about what will work. We think money, career accolades and titles will make for a happier life. But studies show we’re wrong. And we often go for the wrong stuff at an opportunity cost of what will make us happy: stronger social connections, more free time – what scientists like Ashley Whillans call “time affluence” – or even just where we’re not so frantic that we can’t stop and smell the roses.’

Dr Santos agrees we have reached a breaking point and a backlash to the ‘Big Life’ is coming. Her course – The Science of Well-Being, in which she explains the science of happiness to her students and watches their minds combust when the answers aren’t big salaries and fast promotions – is Yale’s most popular ever. This may be testament to the changing attitudes of Gen Z.

Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images

‘I think many people are coming around to the fact that there are more important things in life, and they’re starting to worry that they might be missing them’.

Choosing a life more ordinary doesn’t mean flaking on your ambition. After quitting her job, Sophie tells me, ‘I went to the other extreme, working in my friend’s coffee shop. But I learned that making lattes wasn’t for me long-term. I think it’s all about hitting the sweet spot of the simple life. It’s not like my ambition had died. I just needed to funnel it in a healthier way for me.’

I can relate. As I get older, I feel like I’m evolving into someone with their own ideas of what happiness and success look like, but my enthusiasm for work hasn’t waned. During my time ‘off’, I began writing for pleasure, but it’s turned into a novel that the ambitious woman in me is desperate to publish and have become a bestseller. I’m better at balancing that impulse now. I remind myself that whatever happens with the end result, the creative process of writing, which I found really fun and fulfilling, was enough.

By rejecting an overly ‘impressive’ life – where, instead of having ideas and asking questions, you must loudly broadcast the right opinions on everything at all times; where you don’t simply work at a job you enjoy but rather ‘slay’ every day, leaning in, smashing it and becoming CEO by 30 – today’s real rebels are determined that bigger is not better. We are at the vanguard of a backlash to our hyper performative, endlessly ‘on’, ‘110%’ culture and many of us are starting to aspire to something shudderingly average instead.

As Alain de Botton writes in Status Anxiety, ‘the world divides into the privileged who can be ordinary and the damned compelled to be remarkable’. If we can shrug off our egos for long enough, there is joy and freedom in a smaller life. Don’t be afraid to want it.

This article appears in the April 2021 issue of ELLE UK.

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