In the first instalment of a new column, Clare Egan questions the value of ambition and, in the context of impending climate collapse, wonders what we should be striving for…
As a young person, I was very ambitious. The horror of my household was something I knew I had to escape. I was ruled by what Mary Oliver calls ‘the voodoos of ambition’ and found a foundational part of my identity in being someone who achieved things. As a teenager, I did big things. I got published in the newspaper. I appeared on TV. I volunteered in Zambia. I worked my way out of my family home, fleeing first to college and then overseas. I spent my 20s zipping around the world working in communications for charities. I co-managed a volunteering program in India. I reported on human rights in Malawi and shit in “the world’s most picturesque compost toilet”. I shepherded journalists through refugee settlements around the Syrian border.
I was proud of my ambition, though it wasn’t always welcomed. Ambition, when applied to women, is never a neutral word. Male ambition is almost invisible, but female ambition evokes a vague whiff of disgust. It’s a word that follows women like a bad smell, as if wanting something for yourself is somehow piggish and unsightly. Everyone from Meghan Markle to Kamala Harris has been described as ambitious, the negative connotations emanating off the page. Parts of the American media spent decades searching for some deep explanatory force for Hillary Clinton’s ambition, as if her desire to lead was so unnatural that it required special study. The #girlboss era is the latest iteration of this trend. Speaking to Time magazine, Shonda Rhimes debunked this reductive label: “‘I think the girlboss archetype is bullshit that men have created to find another way to make women sound bad.’ The word girlboss, as Rhimes sees it, is ‘a nice catchphrase to grab a bunch of women into one group and say, ‘This is what women are doing right now.’ Nobody ever says, ‘This is what men are doing right now.’”
In my 20s, this narrative infuriated me. I was determined to embrace my ambition and overcome whatever small-minded biases held me (and women like me) back. I worked without a break for more than a decade. I believed in the power of storytelling to change the world but the work was gruelling. The intensity of witnessing so much human suffering up close left an indelible mark on my psychic skin. Throughout my career, I’ve navigated significant levels of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. I could fill a book with my experiences, from the seemingly mundane to the deeply distressing, but each incident pierced my already fragile sense of safety.*
I was coping until at 28, I accepted a senior management role with a big international NGO. It meant less travel and an opportunity to work on human rights issues in Ireland. Within a week, I knew I’d made a mistake. For two horrific years, I tried to make it work while my life outside work shrank down to almost nothing. Eventually, I resigned. After I left, an independent report found that the toxic culture of mistreating staff was widespread across the organisation. Two of my former colleagues died by suicide in 2018, one citing the pressures of his job in a note discovered after his death.
My experience with that organisation effectively ended my career. For more than a year, I woke up every day feeling like I was living in the ruins of my life. The career I’d spend more than a decade building evaporated in a cloud of trauma. My recovery was slow, painstaking. I couldn’t work for six months and it was several years before I rebuilt my sense of mental comfort. The frantic, breathless ambition that had defined my life up to then never returned. These days, my life is more about living than striving. That may seem like a simple idea on the page but it was years before I really understood it. I am calmer, healthier, more grounded. I am still ambitious, though my ambition is much quieter. I’m writing these words at 6:40am having gotten up early to write as I do most mornings.
Looking back, I see that my ambition was not without a dark side. As a young person, I wasn’t so much running toward my goals as I was running away from the pain in my life. Ambition was my camouflage. It hid a profound sense of worthlessness, a deep sense of shame at who I was. I now know that teenage overachieving is often a warning sign. It’s rarely understood as such but extreme ambition can be a cry for help.
I’m not the only one to have recalibrated my relationship to ambition. More than four in five people are considering a career move in the next six to 12 months according to a recent report published by recruitment consultancy Morgan McKinley. In the aftermath of the pandemic, many people are reassessing how they want to live their lives.
This is particularly striking among millennials who’ve faced a unique set of challenges over the last two decades. Graduating into a recession, most struggled to establish stable careers. The combined challenges of increasing inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic and impending climate crisis have shaped this generation’s ability to be ambitious for their lives. The coming decades will almost certainly be defined by catastrophic climate emergencies. Being personally ambitious in that context feels vaguely silly. How can I strive for my own capitalistic accomplishment while the world (often literally) burns? Ironically, while my individual ambition has waned, the need for collective ambition has never been more urgent.
*I am working on this book!