The Happy Feminist wrote about her experience of people reacting to her ambition with distaste. I'm very interested in that take because I've thought a lot about ambition. I've had the opposite experience.
I'm not ambitious.
What's interesting about saying that is the reaction I get from people. It's equivalent to the reaction that I would get if I said, "I'm not pretty." You're not allowed to say it. People respond as though I'm insulting myself. They want to comfort me and reassure me that I'm okay.
I don't think it's a loaded statement. I don't think I'm putting myself down when I say that I'm not ambitious. But it's really strange to see how people contort the word to try to rearrange it. "Oh, of course that's not true! You ARE ambitious, I know it. You just measure it differently. You're ambitious in a different way than most people. You're not traditionally ambitious, but you're definitely ambitious. You're MORE ambitious than people who care just about their career."
The definition of "ambitious" is "having a strong desire for success or achievement." We traditionally use it to mean a focus on professional milestones and a particular level of power or influence in a career. That's the meaning I'm using it in when I say I'm not very ambitious. It seems to me to be a statement of fact. I don't measure my success or my self-esteem that way. My sense of self doesn't come from my job title. I like work, and I set goals, and I like to earn the respect of my colleagues, and I don't like to be bad at things. I think I'm pretty talented, pretty smart, pretty capable. I like the feeling of influencing people, although I think I do that best in social and informal settings, through personal storytelling and one-on-one contact. But I'm not motivated by a strong desire for success or achievement. And I don't feel like I'm being socially unacceptable by saying I'm not ambitious.
And yet somehow it makes people very uncomfortable. People act like I'm debasing myself to say it. I think you can be ambitious without being talented, or happy. And I think you can be talented, and happy, without being particularly ambitious. I certainly have goals and targets I set for myself. But they're not the primary way I measure the quality of my experience. I think this is unusual, especially for someone who has had a lot of encouragement in a fairly elite educational system. It's my peers who go through the strangest contortions to stretch the word "ambition" to apply to the way I'm choosing to live my life. I'm happy without the label, though. But unlike the Happy Feminist I find that people don't want to let me shed it.