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Home > Blog > Ambivalent About Ambition?
Out of Our Minds
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 10:40 PM
Ambivalent About Ambition?
Nancy D. Solomon on Values

Not long ago one of my colleagues attended my weekend retreat.  At its conclusion she told me that while the information was life-altering for her, what really blew her away was her experience of my huge heart and my capacity to empathize, especially given my reputation as being extremely ambitious, a real go-getter. 

I was stunned by both her candor and its content. I cringe to think that this fellow professional couldn’t (wouldn’t?) place my capacity to feel in the same equation as my ambition—she, like most of our culture, is of the opinion that to have ambition in the form of fame, fortune or position is absolutely incongruent with what it means to be feminine, what it means to be relationally oriented. 

Did she mean I had to choose?  I could either be feminine or ambitious?  That I couldn’t be both?  Or, at least, not at the same time?  And as for my so-called reputation— I truly believe we earn those and that we’re in charge of them so if I seem very ambitious it’s because I’m, well, very ambitious.  I set the bar very high because I, for one, refuse to die with my song still inside me.  I’ve never, even for a moment, suspended my femininity in my quest for success.  As a matter of fact, I’d attribute my success largely to my femininity.

Coincidentally, soon after this incident an equally ‘high performance’ colleague suggested I read Anna Fels’ article, Do Women Lack Ambition? in the Harvard Business Review www.hbr.org.  Fels, a psychiatrist, cites overwhelmingly conclusive evidence substantiating that this assumption is the cultural norm. Reading the research left me both appalled and relieved; the latter because it is still holds true in 2006 and the former because it validates my own observations.

It’s most likely that this colleague of mine wasn’t even conscious of what she said—that’s how it is with cultural tendencies—they’re so much a part of who we are that we don’t even notice them.  Which is what makes them so dangerous, to begin with.





2 comments

Jennifer Warwick - 6/15/2006 12:35:51 PM
Provocative question...but I think I missed a step somewhere - how did you "know" that this colleague actually believes that a person cannot be both feminine and ambitious?

I know writers have to keep posts short, so that may well be part of a fuller telling of the story. However, to me it reads as though she was commenting on seeing an unexpected and appealing part of you - a part that helped her get to know you as a full person, rather than just a business acquaintance. That is terrific for the two of you, seriously, but not neccessarily supportive of your ultimate conclusion...

Fels' article aside, sometimes candid and feedback is just meant for us and us alone, giving us an opportunity to become more self-aware and take responsibility for and own our impact in the world - and is not *necessarily* something that can be extrapolated across a whole culture. Not arguing with your conclusion, per se - just can't quite connect the dots here.
Kristine Shreve - 6/14/2006 8:36:39 AM
When did ambition become a bad thing? Throughout my professional life, I've had people telling me I'm too ambitious and I should settle. I never bought that. Ambition was what motivated me to get my degrees through night classes while working full time. Ambition was what got me the Director of Marketing position I now hold. Ambition is what drives me to be better every day, and what allows me to produce great results for my employers.

As for the femininity issue, I've never gotten that either. I have a colleague who maintains that I get better results than he does with certain things precisely because I'm a woman. Being female I often have a different approach than he does. We're both have the same goal, to succeed, we just approach it in different ways. I've never seen ambition and femininity as incompatible.

I wish more people, regardless of gender, would be more ambitious about achieving thier goals. Think what a great world this would be if we all were going full out toward being the best people we could be.

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