Can you still be ambitious if you don’t know what you want?

Written by Eloise Hendy

It might be easier to get what you want if you know what it is – but can you still be ambitious when you feel lost?

For me, ‘ambition’ as a concept always conjured sharp suits, polished shoes, boardrooms and backstabbing. Essentially, it made me think of The Apprentice contestants. Like financial district high rises, it felt hard-edged and money-driven – two things I aspired not to be.

Recently, however, I’ve been reassessing my adverse reaction to ambition. As with many aspects of life now, the pandemic is partly to blame. At the beginning of 2020, I had just started studying for a PhD and, to a large extent, the next three years had felt mapped out for me. I believed I was following a clear path, attached to an institution and – more importantly – a funding plan that would lift me up onto the next rung of the ladder that was my life. Deep down, maybe I thought it was a way to take all the status anxiety and uncertainty that can characterise a person’s late 20s out of my hands. 

What I hadn’t reckoned with, of course, was a global pandemic. As successive lockdowns shut down opportunities for research, travel and community, I found myself staring down years of solitary study, hunched over my laptop at the end of my bed (the fact the room I was renting was too small for a desk hadn’t been a concern before libraries closed and all my housemates started working from home). With so much stripped away, my vision of the life I’d been nurturing – without ever consciously connecting this to ambition – also evaporated. So, I quit.

At first, I felt a little like my bungee cord had snapped while I was falling from a great height. But I was encouraged by the fact I was far from alone. Company closures, staff lay-offs and furlough all meant a great many people seemed to be half-drifting, half-plummeting. And then, it suddenly seemed like quitting was all the rage. The internet proclaimed workers everywhere were ’quiet quitting’ (a phrase that actually seemed to mean ‘doing what your job contract requires’). Others weren’t being so quiet, however. 

Indeed, so many people quit their jobs between the beginning of the pandemic and May 2021 that more new terms were coined to try and reckon with the phenomenon. We were living through The Great Resignation, the Big Quit and the Great Reshuffle. In the time since, we’ve seen high-profile figures such as Jacinda Ardern, the former New Zealand prime minister, walk away from work because she “didn’t have enough in the tank” anymore. While the cost of living has become the leading concern for 21-39-year-olds according to recent data from Deloitte, likely leading many young people to take on work they feel less passionate about simply to survive. It seems, post-pandemic, we have a much less focused idea of what we want from life – and how to get it. And where does that leave ambition? 

According to Susan Leigh, a counsellor who specialises in stress management and lifestyle therapy: “Ambition today is more about doing what’s right for you. Being challenged and occupied, getting the job done matters, but it has to motivate, feel worthwhile and not detract from the quality of the other areas of our lives.”

After I leapt out of one vision for my life, one question that kept burning was how to find a sense of purpose. How can we reignite ambition when we don’t know exactly what we want anymore? If things we once aspired to now feel less meaningful, or indeed totally wrong, but we still yearn to do something, how do we get ambition going again? Is purpose integral to our wellbeing?

Once a family law solicitor, Rachel Elliott made her own career leap in the last couple of years. She’s now a career change coach, operating under the business name Rachel Grace Coaching. “Clients are coming to me with a lack of motivation, often after investing many years in one career,” Rachel says. “Some have already experienced burnout in the past and now know they need to make a change. Sometimes they find that the jobs they’ve had for the last 10, 20 years have been misaligned with their core values and even their natural skills or strengths.” Often, Rachel says her clients find they have been operating from what she calls “a wounded motivator” – fear, or moving away from something, rather than a place of inspiration and moving towards something. “Recognising what is driving you and taking control of that is vital,” Rachel stresses.

“When you’re not sure where to start,” Rachel says, “a really useful part of the process is for clients to revisit who they were when they were very young, before society started influencing them and telling them what meaning was attached to different jobs.” She believes a lot of clues lie there. What did they naturally do? “Were they the kid that built stuff, that listened, that spoke to everyone, that had deep philosophical thoughts, that analysed, that made everything beautiful around them,” Rachel asks. “Understand and accept who you naturally are and what you naturally do, not the version of you that you think you should be.”

Through listening to the clues that have been there the whole time, Rachel suggests we can start to strip back “all the layers of other people’s opinions, media, and society. Ask yourself, what would you do if no one could see what you were doing on social media? What would give you happiness and meaning on a daily basis?”

“The word ‘purpose’ can lead some people to think we have this one true calling,” Rachel says, and this, in turn, can lead people to feel like a failure when they don’t feel that sense of purpose. Rather than purpose, then, Rachel says she would suggest that understanding yourself more fully and living a life that matches that is integral to wellbeing.

Perhaps, then, ‘ambition’ as a concept is becoming less sharp-edged. Maybe it is coming to mean something less like ‘individual striving’ or ‘climbing the ladder’ and more like being generous to yourself and those you love, and living life to its fullest, without guilt. “I’m so tired of striving for more all the time,” Iris, 28, tells me. “Just today, I found myself thinking that I hadn’t achieved anything significantly new in my career in too long, even though I’ve literally just reached some huge milestones.” 

She says she’s sick of feeling like what she does is ‘never enough’. “Most of the time I just want to lie on the sofa and watch telly. Maybe that’s OK?”

Images: Getty

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