SG101 - The Ambition Collision

‘Just Do It’ - the famous tagline from Nike is synonymous with the idea of taking action, to move past any hesitations and go after what you say you want. The real challenge, however, isn’t people always hesitating to take action the real challenge is people being honest about what they really want.

I remember very clearly around my mid twenties sitting down with a senior female director and sharing with her that I had ambitions of having a family and that I didn’t want it to affect my career. I shared that my aspirations were of securing a senior management role as quickly as possible, that way I could then go off and have babies and not have my career impacted too heavily. My belief at the time was that as a middle manager if I had babies and considered going part-time afterwards that I’d struggle to secure a senior role if I wasn’t already in one prior to having children.

I felt that my logic was sound, but I remember her response very clearly - “don’t be silly you can have babies and not have that affect your career” I was stunned, and excited that this female director that I looked up to was going to show me another way, but unfortunately her next sentence wasn’t what I expected, she followed quickly with “I had a friend who had a baby and she took six weeks off and it didn’t affect her career at all”.

Seriously, excuse my language, WTF! Six weeks! That would be like an extended holiday, of course it wouldn’t have affected her career and of course this woman returned to work full time!

I realised then that I was talking to a leader that had no sense of reality around raising children, she had none of her own and whilst I’m sure she thought she was being helpful and somewhat inspiring, her comments did more damage by confirming my belief that I needed to knuckle down and work harder to secure my place in the hierarchy before I could go after what I wanted in regards to a family of my own.

What I was experiencing was an “Ambition Collision”, a term coined by journalist Lisa Miller, I wanted to have a successful career and I also wanted to have a family.

At that time I really didn't feel I could have both and I had a narrative that said I needed to ‘earn the right to have a baby’ - looking back I think this is a ridiculous thing to have been telling myself but it’s true - it’s what I thought, based on the environment I was in and the evidence around me.

I knuckled down, got the promotion into senior leadership but then I started to tell myself another story - I believed I had to prove myself at that senior level first before I could consider trying for a family, so I delayed the timelines yet again.

When I finally gave myself permission I was in my early thirties and I had pushed myself in my career, worked hard and sacrificed a lot personally, as I’d moved homes and locations several times to follow my career and give myself the start I felt I needed.

The ambition collision was intense, I carried so much worry even after giving myself permission to try for a family. I worried what bosses and the people I worked with would think if I got pregnant and what that meant for my opportunities to reach where I thought I wanted to go in my career. I know this sounds crazy, but again this is my truth - I didn’t believe and I couldn’t see how I could have both, and it was hard having to choose.

The ambition collision isn’t easy to navigate, and for me personally growing up in a single parent environment I understood how necessary it was for me to be able to stand on my own two feet which intrinsically motivated me to seek success in my career so that I could provide for myself without having to worry about leaning on anyone else.

Unfortunately the perspective I lacked in my twenties and early thirties was to ask myself the question “what would fulfil you the most?” Which may have helped me seek greater balance in my life and choose with more discernment the sacrifices I was wiling to make.

As I look back, the collision I was navigating then was the desire to have financial independence (so I could feel whole in myself and my ability to make a contribution) with having a family because, for me, that was what was going to be most fulfilling.

I see this more and more with women striving and working hard in their careers, wanting to have the opportunities that have been afforded to men for decades but ones that they have to go after often at a huge cost for themselves - choices in delaying entering into relationships, delaying having a family or considering if they have one at all, choosing to freeze their eggs (whilst very grateful women have this option, it can also feed the beast), or trying to be superhuman by doing it all at the same time and burning out in the process.

The truth, however, is that we are not there, many career women are waking up to the fact that this female empowerment message isn’t necessarily always serving their needs. The world is changing but it’s still a man’s world and women trying to be super women and making huge sacrifices in the process isn’t the answer.

I believe it’s time for some radical honesty about what women really want and start working together to take action to determine how we get it.

I don’t have all the answers but I know I’m seeing more and more disengaged women in their careers, feeling a sense of emptiness because they are still fighting the good fight but not seeing the progress they would have expected, and questioning their personal sacrifices. There are many others I see that have had to take huge risks by starting their own business with the aim of obtaining the flexibility they weren’t being afforded, in their careers, to manage family life and make a valued contribution that recognises their gift and talents.

There is no easy answer or one size fits all solution, and I’m not by any stretch of the imagination saying women should not be ambitious or go after their careers, I’m offering the perspective of don’t ‘just do it’, but take the time to pause and ask yourself what you really want, and why, before you take any action.

Find the meaning you want in your life and let that be the intention you put into your day and everything you do.

As you ponder this thought have a read of the article Lisa Miller wrote about The Ambition Collision.

This is what happens to ambition in your 30's