Rethinking ambition

One of the surprisingly common reactions to my recent announcement that I have started my own business is the question of what my goals are. How soon before I employ someone else? Where is my office going to be? How big do I anticipate growing?

It seems I’m not alone in answering these questions. In an online freelancers online group I’m in, a recent thread points to the number of people whose sole trader status is questioned by those that love them most – looking down on self-employment and treating it as a crazy fantasy or a cute little hobby.

For me, these questions lie at the centre of something I have been pondering for a while – the need to rethink what we mean by ambition.

So far all of my career has been spent in organisations with clear hierarchical structures – government bureacracies, consulting companies where partners lead the show, and not-for-profits led by strong executive teams. These have been the templates I have been working to. Career development is usually defined as working your way up through these hierarchies.

I have long wrestled with this notion of ambition. I want a successful career where I am able to use my skills and abilities to make change in the world. At points, I’ve wanted to be the industry-leading CEO or a partner in a successful evaluation practice. But in recent years, I’ve also been thinking about the things I want out of my career – one where I can stay well, be close to the work that matters to me and be a leader to the people around me.

I previously wrote a blog on here that I immediately unpublished because I felt ashamed of it. In it I wrote that I knew I could never satisfy the ambitious part of my personality because I had chosen my health over my ambition. For example, I know I want control over the hours I work – how can I be the kind of CEO I would want to be when the templates I have around me are people who work long hours, most days of the week. Many of the people I most admire have the careers I want, but they don’t have the lives I want.

I took that blog down so quickly because it felt like admitting I was a failure and that was scary. But if anything, my move to self-employment has taught me that perhaps it is the structures around me that are setting me up to fail.

Senior, executive roles need to change to be more accommodating of diversity. I am most immediately talking about diversity in terms of different modes of working. Our current templates sow the societal expectation that a Partner or a General Manager needs to be ‘on’ at all hours. Leaders are admired for their teflon-like durability rather than their vulnerability.

This excludes people with different ways of working and different styles of leadership. I’d hazard a guess it’s also one of the reasons that leaders still tend to be white, male, privately-educated alpha-types. Acceptance in diversity of working types is probably going to enable society to be more accommodating of the underlying reasons some of that diversity is required – caring responsibilities; visible and invisible disabilities and chronic health conditions; differences in cultural background.

What we also have to do is value other goals. This why the questions I get when I announce my new self-employment baffle me – the goal has never been for me to start my own company and make all the money; it’s been to use my skills and labour in a way that enables me to live the life I want to live – to do work that is meaningful and have a life outside of work that is equally meaningful.

When we value career progression, productivity, promotions and pay cheques above building meaning into our work and lives, we entrench the power imbalances that make it so hard to achieve these things in the first place. We value the managers for their seniority over the frontline staff delivering services.

I know many people – and I’m sure you do too – who have taken a promotion into a job that takes them further away from doing the work that they enjoy. Principals who miss teaching. Health managers who miss nursing. Executives who miss talking to customers.

This is not to say these aren’t important and that some people don’t thrive in these roles, but it’s weird that we equate ambition and success with seniority and not with doing what makes us happy.

And that’s my ambition – to live a life that makes me happy (while earning enough to pay the rent). One day I might choose to become a senior manager, but I know now that I will be doing that because it aligns with what I want from my life, not simply because my ambition tells me that’s the next step.

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