Several years ago, the two of us had an unexpected midlife crisis of sorts. We’d been friends in college, both full of ambition and ready to set the world on fire as soon as we graduated, but had long since gone our separate ways. But in our early 40s we reconnected, and found ourselves both wrestling with similar questions around career, motherhood, what our lives were supposed to look like, why sometimes everything felt so hard. In an effort to answer some of these questions, we began to contact friends we’d graduated from college with. Ultimately we interviewed 43 women on career, marriage, parenting, and ambition.
Over the course of our interviews, we were struck by all of the different forms ambition can take for women over the years. We tend to think of ambition as something that can only be directed into building a superstar career, but our friends showed us that it is possible to be ambitious in a multitude of ways, from wanting to rule from the corner office to spending the summers cataloguing birds at national parks (really, this is something one of our friends does). Read on for five things women should know about ambition. Because the more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to make the big decisions we all encounter in the course of our lives.
1. Ambition can look different at different points in your life
You may start your career filled with ambition and drive, with your identity and profession so intertwined that you feel like your job equates to your identity. As time goes on, you may also find yourself stepping slightly away from your career to raise children, or to spend more time shredding with your band, or hiking in the mountains, or simply to live in a more serene locale. This doesn’t mean your ambition is waning, it just means you’re releasing one dream to pursue another, and seeing your priorities shift due to life circumstances. Your ambition can, and very likely may, change over the course of a career and a lifetime––and that evolution can lead to a multitude of successes and experiences. All of which is to say, no judgment. What looks right for you at one age may look very different five or 10 years down the road.
2. Your choice of life partner will greatly affect how your ambitions play out
Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 advice, that the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry, was spot on for the friends we interviewed. Those women who married partners who prioritized their careers as highly as (or higher than) their own saw more traditional career success. This wasn’t because these women were just lucky, or that they fell into more egalitarian marriages. They prioritized their own career success, and demanded their spouses prioritize it as well. They split up domestic and parenting duties by conscious choice, not by default.
3. Beware the common, but often unseen, obstacles that sap many women’s ambitions
You may not want a promotion or a bigger job, a higher salary, more responsibility—you may be satisfied right where you are, or not consider the trade-offs worth it. You may prefer spending less time in an office and more time with your children, or exploring hobbies or volunteering on political campaigns. You may think it’s unfair to your family to keep reaching for the brass ring when you have what seems like a pretty decent work-life balance. Or you may unconsciously convince yourself that those things are true because acknowledging and actualizing ambition can be difficult acts that may feel selfish or brazen. Dig deep to try to parse the nuances around your goals. If your ambition does shift, make sure those changes are a reflection of your own desires, not others’ needs or the challenges of working while female.
4. The balance between ambition in career and ambition in parenting is not fixed
The struggle to balance career and parenthood is a long, fraught one for women. But how that balance plays out day after day, year after year, can and will change over time. If you have children, you may find that some years you’ll want to direct your energy into more hands-on, very-present motherhood, and other years you may feel more comfortable hitting the accelerator on your career. The choice is yours, and it is ever-evolving. Our friends who took time to regularly assess where the balance lay for them and if it was working were able to adjust accordingly over the course of their careers.
5. Just because you haven’t realized all your dreams by 40 doesn’t mean you won’t
There is a power conferred on women in their 40s, a liberation upon realizing in ways both large and small that your life is your own to live. Many of our friends embraced their 40s as a time to reconfigure their lives: Taking big risks to level up their career trajectories, getting divorced or married for the first time, scaling back after many years of grinding professionally to pursue a different lifestyle altogether. So don’t think of 40 as the end of the road. For many women, it is in fact the time in their lives when they are able achieve things they’ve spent the earlier part of their lives craving.
Hana Schank is a public interest technology fellow at New America, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post.
Elizabeth Wallace worked for print magazines including Vogue, Nylon, Seventeen, Us Weekly, and Lucky, and is now a freelance editor and writer. She contributes regularly to Domino and Architectural Digest.
They are the authors of The Ambition Decisions.