This is the second in a series of essays. You can access the first here, though it’s not necessary to read them all or in order:
“So maybe my great ambition, such as it is, is to refrain from engagement with systems that purport to tell me what I’m worth compared to anyone else. Maybe my great ambition is to steer clear of systems. Any systems. All systems. (Please Like and Share this essay if you agree!) What I would like to say is: Lean In my hairy Jewish ass.”
-Elisa Albert “The Snarling Girl”
When I was a kid, I was what they then called, pigeon-toed. My mother seemed to see this as a character defect and one that was within my power to fix. She would walk behind me (from my early years well into my teens) saying “practice! You’re toeing in!” to get me to practice walking with my feet straight ahead. That was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I was doing wrong. My acne came from my not washing my face well enough, not hormones. In high school, I started using rubbing alcohol on my face because I was convinced I was filthy. The gap between my teeth was something bad that needed to be fixed. When I was bullied at the bus stop in fourth grade, I was a “ninny” who wasn’t brave enough to stand up for herself. No one was going to marry me if I continued to hold my fork wrong, wore those ugly shoes, etc., etc., etc. I was one big walking deficit.
I know my mother meant well and wanted me to have what she believed I needed to be successful in life, but what those constant criticisms did was make me deeply self-conscious (sometimes to the point of paranoid persistent thoughts) and feel like I would never be enough. When a friend in college who also had a gap between her front teeth told me her mother told her it was a sign of wisdom, I burst into tears on the spot. What would I have been like had someone told me the things that made me different made me special?
But we all get these messages, right? If you don’t get the message that you’re not enough from your family or your peers, you certainly get it from traditional media and social media. I know there are positive accounts on Instagram, but it mostly seems like a highly-effective anxiety, low self-esteem, and FOMO engine. And probably those perfect people with their perfect lives are not actually as perfect as they portray, but it’s so easy to let the message seep into you that you are not enough in all the ways that matter. You’re not pretty enough, successful enough, popular enough, or doing enough cool things. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mental models around what a good life looks like. And I realize that so many of my assumptions and ambitions were predicated on the idea that I am not enough just as I am.
I will fully admit to having felt the way Heather Havrilesky does in her book What if This Were Enough, and I’m grateful to have mostly made my way out of that space:
I wonder if I have the face of a woman who missed out on something. This is the shape my mid-life crisis is taking: I’m worried about what I have time to accomplish before I get too old to do anything. I’m fixated on what my life should look like by now. I’m angry at myself because I should look better, I should be in better shape, I should be writing more, I should be a better cook and a more present, enthusiastic mother. Sometimes I go online looking for inspiration, but all I find is evidence that everyone in the world is more energetic than me.
I don’t want to define myself by what I don’t have and what I’m not doing. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out or that I’ve taken the wrong path. I’m learning to accept the person I am rather than feel envious and inadequate or force myself to do things that are harmful to me. For so many years, I forced myself into professional situations that caused me extreme stress. I live with social anxiety and it’s taken me a long time to accept that it’s not something I’m going to “get over” by pushing myself to do things that make me miserable. I used to feel such a terrible sense of FOMO when I’d skip a social or work event because of my anxiety. When I significantly cut down on speaking at conferences, I felt like I was disappearing à la Michael J. Fox at the end of Back to the Future. But I think we have a choice: we can focus on what we do not have or we can focus on what we do. I’ll take the latter. There is so much I have to be grateful for.
I’m also taking inspiration from people who are paragons of self-love. I recently listened to an interview with one of my favorite baseball players right now, Pete Alonso. He talked about how he was told in his sophomore year of high school by his coach that he was never ever going to be a professional baseball player. In his Freshman year of college, he got a C on a paper about his career ambitions because it wasn’t realistic. In the minor leagues, scouts said he was a great hitter, but would never be able to field the ball at a professional level. He ignored all of those naysayers, worked his ass off, and is now kicking ass on the New York Mets at first base and just won the homerun derby and played well in the MLB All Star Game (and wore THIS on the red carpet, which makes me love him all the more). Lizzo is also a powerful role model for loving yourself just as you are. At the Lizzo concert I went to, she said “if I shouldn’t be full of myself, who should I be full of?” Right! People treat self-love like it’s something negative and shameful. But in a world purpose-built to bring us down and make us feel less-than, I can’t help but think that confidence and self-love are acts of resistance.
And yet, ambition (and self-love for that matter), especially in women, is frequently treated like shameless selfishness. Heather Havrilevsky writes:
It’s not surprising, I guess, that we coo and fawn over little boys who behave audaciously, while little girls armed with such arrogance often strike us as troublesome. And if a girl stubbornly holds fast to her strong sense of herself, the world is sure to chip away at it, day after day.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ambition in our field, but I feel especially happy when I see ambition coming from women. Work it ladies!!!
“Why do I fear the word ambition? Is it because I am secretly ambitious? Is it because I am a woman?”
-Sarah Ruhl, The Double Bind
I read the essay collection The Double Bind: Women on Ambition earlier this year, and it was very clear that women, by and large, have an uncomfortable relationship with ambition. And who can blame them when, according to the Washington Post, “a 2010 Harvard study… found that female politicians who sought power came off as uncaring, but male politicians who did the same didn’t incur the same reputation.” If women are passive, they’re passed over. If they’re ambitious, they’re seen as bitches. But, even in our female-dominated profession, we see ambitious men celebrated and propelled up the career ladder at a pace one rarely sees with female librarians. I’ve heard lots of my friends express resentment about that and I’ve felt it too. I remember mentioning something about this in 2008 on this blog and being told that sexism against women can’t happen in a female-dominated profession. I’m happy to find that the consensus on that seems to have changed — feminized does not necessarily equal feminist.
A lot of the women writing about ambition in The Double Bind seem deeply uncomfortable putting that label on themselves. Some talk about how women’s ambition is more focused on doing good and doing things for the collective good rather than personal ambition. The playwright Sarah Ruhl asks if some ambition is better than others: “And I realized that I have a confusion about the word ambition untethered to an object. Does the nature of ambition change depending on the goal? Is it different to be an ambitious capitalist, an ambitious peace-worker, an ambitious socialite, an ambitious pope?”
I have very mixed feelings about ambition. Had you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said “hell yeah I’m ambitious!” But at this point, I’m not even sure I know what being ambitious means in my context. Back then, I wanted to climb the ladder. I wanted more responsibility, more challenges, more more more. I’m still driven in a lot of ways, but it’s very differently-focused and much less achievement-driven.
Is ambition that drive to improve, to do more? Or is it a drive to rack up achievements? I think I’ve always felt ambition in my life — I was always driven by something inside me that felt almost beyond my control. Starting in first grade, I was a prolific writer of poems, songs, stories, and plays. Sometimes my best friend and I would perform my plays, filming them with my dad’s video camera. I would record my songs and remember creating a cassette tape with my original songs — cover art and everything. My dream in 9th grade was to be a newspaper columnist (hey, I got close with my American Libraries gig!). It all sounds super cheesy now, but I remember always feeling that drive to create when I was growing up. I think I still feel it, though the nature of creation is different now. Even writing this… when I don’t blog (and it’s been a long time since I have) blog posts dance around in my brain tormenting me. I’ve been composing this series in my head since February but didn’t have time to devote to it. But is all that ambition? Maybe it’s the purest kind of ambition since I felt it long before I was aware of the expectations of others.
Earlier this year, I read an article about the retirement of Adam Moss, editor in chief of New York Magazine in which Moss said “I’ve been going full throttle for 40 years; I want to see what my life is like with less ambition.” It got me thinking — is ambition something we can shut off?
I wasn’t the only one who reacted to that particular quote. Stella Bugbee of The Cut wrote a fantastic editorial that echoed so much of my complicated thinking about ambition. I especially loved this quote:
When I close my eyes and think about my own ambition, the same weird comic-book image always pops into my mind: a radioactive substance that chases the blood around in my veins. I have no idea why this X-Men picture always materializes, and it feels a little silly to admit it. But it captures some of the complicated feelings I have about ambition: that it is somehow in me, but not of me; that I have less control over it than I’d like.
I really responded to Bugbee’s notion of ambition being something that happens to you, something that is at least a little bit beyond our control. There have been moments in my life where I have felt called to do things. I’ll decide not to take on any new projects and then something will come along or I’ll have an idea and that will go right out the window. I’m currently near the end of the second year of a three year term in leadership of the ACRL-Oregon Board, and I told one of my colleagues to punch me in the face if I think of taking anything similar on for at least a year after I rotate off. But will I slow down? I hope so.
Bugbee has had some forced career hibernations (related to health, having kids, getting laid off) that forced her to reckon with her ambitions in different ways. I have too. Having a child, having work setbacks, dealing with depression, dealing with chronic pain; those things will make you question your identity and the direction your ambition has been driving you in. Bugbee ends her editorial by suggesting that “there’s nothing quite like stepping off the treadmill to teach you which direction you want to go.”
Having a child didn’t blunt my ambition, but it sure made me question why I was doing what I was doing. Now every choice I made had to be weighed against leaving my family. I really like sharing ideas with others and meeting people, but part of why I started speaking was to prove I could with social anxiety. I’ve already proven that I could do it; why would I do it now? The calculus has changed significantly.
Almost a decade ago, I also saw how negatively many in our profession viewed ambition; as if upward mobility and good librarianship could not co-exist. Having now experienced administrators who were more focused on getting feathers in their own cap so they could move up to the next better thing than on doing what’s best for their employees or students, I better understand where those critics were coming from. But I also have seen managers and administrators who care deeply about their work and become leaders so they can do more good and support others in doing good. And it feels like the view that career ambition is toxic is tied to a sense of vocational awe where our work is so important and “good” that we should subsume our own needs and desires to the cause. Screw that.
But ambition can also come from a need for external validation. I especially appreciated writer Elisa Albert’s sharp interrogation of ambition in The Double Bind (her chapter in particular was really a must-read and a somewhat altered version of it is available here as “The Snarling Girl”):
I mean: ambition to what? Toward what? For what? In the service of what? … Is it because we want to believe that we are in charge of our own destiny and if “things” aren’t “happening” for us, we are failing to, like, “manifest?” Or is it because we are misguided enough to think that external validation is what counts?… Here is what I know for sure: there is no end to want. Want is a vast universe within other vast universes.
And gosh she’s right. Even at my busiest — when I was blogging regularly, writing a monthly column, speaking at a dozen or more conferences per year, teaching a graduate-level course, serving on a ton of committees, plus working a full-time job — I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough. There always was more I could be doing, and I could just about picture this far-off time when I would be doing enough, would have enough, would be enough. Now I know that was a fantasy. I think in some ways I was lucky to get pregnant then, because there’s no way I could have kept on like that indefinitely. And to what end?
When I read this passage from Albert, I saw myself after I wrote my first book. Holy wow, do I feel seen:
Fine, okay, but I’ve been publishing for a decade now. When my first book came out I was a silly wreck. I smoothed my dress and crossed my legs and waited smugly for my whole life to change. I looked obsessively at rankings, reviews. Social media wasn’t yet a thing, but I made it my business to pay very close attention to reception. I was hyperaware of everything said, everything not said. The positive stuff puffed me right up, and I lay awake at night in a grip of fury about the negative. You see this a lot with first timers. It’s kind of cute, from afar. Do I matter? Do I matter? Do I matter? Rookie mistakes. What’s tragic is when you see it with second, third, fourth timers. Because that hunger for validation, for hearts and likes and blings and blongs, is supposed to be shed like skin.
It’s so toxic — this need for positive strokes from people who would probably mean very little to us in any other context. Yet we let them have so much power over how we feel and how we see ourselves. Why? I have a friend who uses a tech tool that tells her who follows and unfollows her on Twitter. On several occasions, she has obsessed over why a particular person unfollowed her. Why take this personally? Why torture yourself? Why set up an alert like that in the first place when it seems purpose-built to cause anxiety and pain? Are these really the yardsticks we want to use to measure our worthiness?
As I wrote about in my last post, much of my personal ambivalence around ambition comes from the fact that so much of my own ambition has been motivated by a need for approval; to fill a hole in myself. I think a lot of people work themselves to the bone for the same reason. The author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika Sánchez, also seems to be writing my life in her chapter in The Double Bind:
I finally understood that until I addressed all of the underlying problems in my life — my constant need for validation, the depression I’d left untreated for years, my issues with my family — no amount of achievement was going to make me happy.
While I’m proud of everything I’ve achieved, I also recognize that these professional achievements never really made me feel better about myself. I proved to myself I could write a book, teach graduate school courses, develop all kinds of multimodal learning experiences, write a magazine column, give a keynote speech to a large international crowd, but after many achievements, instead of being elated, I felt deflated. Part of it is the arrival fallacy: the disappointment that comes from spending so much time anticipating the great things that will happen when you reach a goal. When you’re focused so much on achieving a particular goal, it’s easy to build it up in your mind. And when you finish and things aren’t a magical unicorn fairyland it’s easy to wonder “is that all there is?”
I also wonder: is ambition only directed towards our work and careers? Can it be directed towards family, self-care, service to our community, being an awesome friend, etc? I looked and looked for articles that talked about ambition being directed towards our lives outside of the 9 to 5 and found nothing. Right now, I’m deeply ambitious about enjoying my time with my family and friends away from distractions like work and social media. I’m deeply ambitious about exercising and spending more time in nature. I’m deeply ambitious about self-care and shutting down the voice that tells me I’m not doing/being enough.
My first academic library director was an important mentor for me. I learned so much from her. But I began to see climbing the career ladder as my ambition because it was her path as an ambitious person. I remember talking with her one late afternoon about the “ambition” of a female colleague in the library. My director lamented that our colleague wasn’t more ambitious because she was so bright and great at her job. She just didn’t have any interest in rising in the field or getting a library degree to allow that rise. She saw it as a waste of talent and, at the time, I agreed. But my view since then has changed significantly. The idea that ambition is limited to climbing a ladder and moving to bigger and better seems so limited. My colleague was great at her job, but her biggest ambitions were more around family and community. Is that a bad thing? Is she less than because she didn’t define herself by her work? Hell no!
Professionally, my ambitions have changed. I want to be a good ancestor. I really want to do things that support and advocate for new library workers and library workers from underrepresented groups. My goal of getting people to share their knowledge with others has never changed, though the ways in which I’m making it happen now are different. I want to continue to improve my teaching and find ways to support students. I’m also ambitious about taking care of myself at work and having a healthier relationship with work where my sense of self is not totally wrapped up in my work. I want to find a balance between healthy detachment and caring deeply about our students and my work. I’m also trying not to be motivated by a need for validation. Looking for external things or people to provide internal validation is an exercise in futility; running on a treadmill that never stops. I’m getting off.
And, as Elisa Albert says, “Lean In my hairy Jewish ass.”
Up next — “Our Achievement Culture: What You’re Doing Isn’t Good Enough.”