In the first few months of the pandemic, when my physical and mental health seemed to be deteriorating faster than I could patchwork fixes for them, I wrote in my journal. “I feel emptied out, like when I shake a tote and gum wrappers and two nickels and half-finished chapstick fall out,” I scrawled in sloppy cursive I can barely make out now. “I am my own life’s leftovers.”
While the circumstances of a deadly pandemic exacerbated it, the feeling that I had nothing left to give had trailed me for awhile, showing up as I worked from the bathroom floor when my body felt as if it was giving way, or when I spent too much time awake at night, wondering what felt worth it any more.
After years of being driven by ambition, I was convinced I’d used mine up.
A few years later, my body and my brain still fight with me, but I see it through a different lens now. Letting go of the idea that ambition was my saving grace meant, in part, giving myself actual grace – a concept I only digested after two years of reporting on the concept of ambition, and how it shapes us. I spent countless hours talking to people of all different ages and circumstances about their own relationships to ambition, and one beautiful thing emerged: people were increasingly using the intention, care and drive ambition required in a manner that was collective, not competitive.
Ambition doesn’t exist outside cultural and institutional forces that help shape it, which is part of the reason it gets argued in both directions: people are told they are too ambitious, too persistent and too wanting; or people are told they aren’t ambitious enough, as if one can out-ambition or out-work their circumstances, an individual solution to structural problems.
Whose ambition is encouraged is also deeply connected to gender, race and class. Ambition can be considered both a privilege (in who has the energy and time to think about their aspirations) and a tool for capitalism, tethering worth to output.
All efforts shared the intention and drive of ambition; all required not turning inward but reaching outward
The stories I’ve heard are equally complex. A 27-year-old student and parent in Maryland told me she’d never been thought of as ambitious or hard-working as a young adult because she had her son in high school – despite earning her associate’s degree and pursuing her bachelor’s, securing housing for herself and her child, and working. A 63-year-old who just moved to New England to be closer to family described owing $200 a month for health insurance and not making enough to live on, underscoring how, with a threadbare social safety net, just meeting one’s basic needs is seen as something to be achieved, rather than a necessity.
As much as hearing stories about ambition upholding overwork and exploitation infuriated me, it didn’t surprise me. But what delighted me was hearing how people were imagining a different ambition. Far from individualistic striving, people described reshaping their ambition into something that stretched beyond them.
The psychologist Dr Meag-gan O’Reilly told me about seeing ambition as falling under a “condition of worth” – the idea that we must do something in order to be valuable. It’s almost like “achieve X, or else”, she explained, meaning that love, a sense of worth, and support could be withdrawn if we don’t perform in a certain way. This differed, she added, from ambition based on an intrinsic yearning, one that could be nurtured by our communities, with support and love that wouldn’t disappear if we missed the mark.
While reporting, I found ambition nurtured by community. I listened to workers describe unionizing their workplace as a form of both collectivity and imagination for something better. I talked to people who described shifting away from self-reliance and toward tending to each other by advocating for care infrastructure. They pointed me towards their mutual aid initiatives, describing how common spaces shape care and create friendships. They talked about having fun, from participating in a community orchestra to a “rolling hang” with their local mutual aid group, which involves having a designated spot in the park where they converge, people coming in and out.
All efforts shared the intention and drive of ambition; all required not turning inward to unearth the last embers of self-motivation, but rather reaching outward.
As my understanding of ambition has shifted, so have markers that represent it. Right now, ambition is my cats zipping across the room, fighting over their stuffed moose. It’s the call log on my phone, filled with conversations with friends, mentees and mentors. It’s when I close my laptop and go do something that isn’t about me at all.
When I asked O’Reilly about making ambition more collective, she mentioned how challenging it was in a culture steeped in fierce individualism. It was a matter of shifting the questions, she said: “Instead of ‘what do I want to achieve?’ or ‘what problem do I want to solve?’, perhaps, ‘whom can I serve?’ and ‘how can we make life better for others?’”
Some might struggle to classify these questions as “ambitious”. But what if they were?
That’s what I hope for: more care for each other, more resources to do it, more reshaping what ambition can be.
All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive, by Rainesford Stauffer, is out now