The Heart of Ambition

April 1st, 2022
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This article is the compilation of our learnings from 20 global dinners held in 2019 and 2022. From Toronto to Portland, Miami to San Francisco, Sao Paolo to Mumbai, women came together — across geographies, cultures, generations, and experiences — to share stories of ambition: what it was, is, and what it possibly can be.

And now for our key takeaways…

Our Ambition DNA

Many women’s earliest relationships with ambition were defined within their family dynamics. Early on, we learned to excel at whatever form of ambition received validation from the caregiver we most wanted to please. For some, our fathers were always working and never around, and the only time we received their praise was when we got good grades, so ambition quickly became defined as perfectionism. For others, our mothers told us to never be dependent on a man, so ambition has always been about total independence and financial security. For others, we grew up with parents that abused them or on the contrary, where overprotective or condescending towards women (ambition for women is to be good wives etc.) so they muted their ambition.While influential and revealing, is our ambition DNA set in stone?

Three kinds of Ambitions 

Ambition 1.0 — Society has told us ambition is about external success

Growing up in a patriarchal global culture, we’ve been given a very clear message about what ambition should be. In a man’s world, ambition is about achievement — your success wins you validation — which acts as the necessary fuel to keep you perpetually moving up the “ladder.” It’s productive, hierarchical and — it’s monetized. And when we admit it to ourselves, the patriarchy’s ambition can oftentimes feel synonymous with greed, overwork, and depletion.

While this definition of ambition is designed for male participation, it leaves little room for the feminine. So when assertive and confident women adopt these masculine-associated codes of ambition, they are oftentimes perceived as being “aggressive” “bossy” or “boastful.” Rather than walking around in clothes that don’t fit, what would it look like if we tried on a version of ambition that was tailor-made for us?

Enter: The Ambition Shift

Then comes the moment, when we are so drained and so deeply out of alignment within the existing ambition paradigm, that we say to ourselves, “You know what? This isn’t working anymore.” For some, it was leaving the job or academic path that felt like an unfulfilling rat-race, and finding (or at least seeking) what actually embodies their innermost truth. For others, this was stepping into motherhood, and refocusing the lens of ambition from their career to their family, or somewhere in between. Whatever it was, there is a moment when you realize that what you’ve been doing does not contribute to what you truly want or what you truly are — and then taking the steps to make a change.

Nuance: It’s important to note that the Ambition Shift can be a function of privilege. For some women around our tables living under various systems of oppression (eg. racism, discrimination, socio-economic hardships), excelling within the existing ambition paradigm is not only necessary, it is a matter of survival — for it is the only path available to overcome difficulties and make a better life for oneself. So while stepping into a more aligned and truthful expression of ambition sound like a nice idea to all, it is only accessible to some.

Ambition 2.0: Ambition is about aligning our values with our actions

We asked ourselves, “what would ambition look and feel like if it aligned with our feminine values?” Slowly but surely, the answers took shape. First things first, we would move away from what we should be doing and move towards what we want to feel. Enter ambition 2.0.

Unlike the constant quest to achieve (and proceeding burnout) of Ambition 1.0, Ambition 2.0 is a slow and fluid process, grounded in deep trust and acceptance. This is the journey from the external to the internal — FROM the validation of others TO the quiet confidence and inner-knowing we feel when our values align with our actions. When ambition is a value, not a process, it can be a sustainable and deeply nourishing journey in truth.

Ambition 3.0 - when our ambition gets extended far beyond oneself.

This is the level where we operate not only based on our personal values, but where we are also making decisions and pursuing goals that meet the needs of our wider communities.  This is when we genuinely use our determination and passion as a vehicle to create impact and positive change. But this needs to be rooted in the values of the collective (which include us, but it’s not us) to avoid being blindsided by the allure of being seen as altruistic.

Cultural nuance

Cultural and generational factors play a big role in how we relate to the topic of ambition.

Women from Latin American countries and some of our Gen X attendees shared stories of suppressing their personal ambition and goals to leave room for the men in their lives to “shine.” Whether on a first date or within a 30-year marriage, many women felt that the full expression of their ambition would detract from their desirability, and was better left buried inside.

Experiments

  1. What would ambition mean to you if it encompasses all aspects of your life — not just your career? Take a moment to envision how Ambition 2.0 can permeate your world (if it hasn’t already)….what would that look like? How would that feel?

  2. Identify the person in your life is already living in the new ambition paradigm. What do you admire most about them? What can you learn from them? Write down 5–10 values that these women lead with, and see how they could be applied to your own life.

Written by Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our hosts Neeti Savla in Mumbai, Leah Caseley in Dubai, Francesca Varda in Lima, Meaghan Kelly in Montreal, Vania Lourenco in Sao Paulo, Esther Mateo in Caracas, Amy Subach & Danya Rose-Merkle in Portland, Rosalind Franklin in San Francisco, Rebecca Roebber in Seattle, Dee de Lara in Toronto, and Alexandra Suarez in San Juan.

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