What Are We Supposed to Do with Ambition?
I've been trying to live the proverbial "simple life" for a dozen years, and I'm closer than I've ever been, but that little voice inside me still isn't sure....
For decades, I’ve longed to be the friend on the phone call who says, “Oh, me? Not much to report. Things are good.” For at least a dozen years, my dearest friend, Susie, had to endure hourlong confession sessions in which I spewed out a seemingly endless string of events and disruptions and fears and worries and traumas as I ricocheted through family illnesses, job losses, money panic, kid worry, failed relationships and broken hearts in response to the seemingly simple question “How are you?” And before that, it was a dozen years of frightfully intense work, with too many launches, insane hours, insane bosses, Herculean goals and endless intrigue, a laundry list of complaints and outrages as well as victories and celebration.
Susie tolerated my endless churn well (see also, my dearest friend), but she is also a doctor, and she pointed out to me once that I’d been bathing my cells in cortisol (“the stress hormone”) for decades, probably longer than anyone she knew — which, for those not in the know, is not a particularly good thing. (The link above goes to a Mayo Clinic article titled “Chronic stress puts your health at risk.”)
For years, I was lucky: doing amazingly fun and interesting work with brilliant, fun and interesting people. I was paid handsomely, as they say (“they” being people in the 1800s, I suspect) and I gave it my all. Then, for years, I was unlucky, with grief and loss and terrible worry for my son and the heartbreaks and, worst of all, the utter end of my career and no “pivot” in sight. I tried to pivot. I pivoted so hard I was pirouetting, but I couldn’t stick the landing. Sounds like ballet meets gymnastics meets existential angst and that’s not too far from the truth. But in all that consulting work and failed pivot attempts I was still working way too many hours, and always on the weekends, and making less and less money and just … burning out.
But I was also — I thought! — trying to get to “the simple life.” When decrying my stress and anxiety and uncertainty to my therapist, and enumerating my differing options, none of them great, for employment and financial stability, she stopped me cold and said: “What do you want?”
What do I want?
What do I want.
Well, I’d never really looked at the question of how to support myself from that perspective. It was always more: how do I take this amazing experience I have and package it up and make more money? I need money! I! Need! Money!
What do I want.
The answer flew out of my face before I’d even fully thought it: “I want a simple job that doesn’t take everything out of me and leave me with nothing left to give to myself. I want to be able to hike in the mornings and be outside and have a big garden and take care of my health. I want to be able to have time to think about what to make for dinner and then cook a meal I am delighted to eat instead of figuring out what the hell to defrost and cook in the least time so I can be done with the task of feeding me and my kid. I want to belong to myself instead of to my work. I want to live a life where I can focus on the seasons' changing and live every day with full attention, especially now that my son is older and I have a partner who brings me peace and a sense of security I’ve never known.”
She said, “Well, that’s a very simple and clear statement, the clearest you’ve ever been. So why do you keep not doing that?”
“But I am trying to do that,” I said.
My therapist was remarkably measured, so she didn’t raise a single eyebrow to me in that moment. But nonetheless I felt the eyebrow raise, I felt her leave the silence between us to force me to think again about what I’d just said.
Wasn’t I trying to do that? I thought I had been trying to do that. But turns out, ambition dies hard and doesn’t know when to let go.
My older brother, who is older (always) and wiser (occasionally) said to me recently, when I was telling him on the phone that I’m content and happy in a way I never thought I could be — living my slightly simpler life these days — and that it felt good to finally be the person on the phone saying, “Not much to report. Things are good.” He said he was glad to hear it, and that it had been a very long road for me.
And then this: “Especially because you’ve been saying this for 14 years but then you went and bought yourself a million-dollar house.” ($1,125,200 to be exact.)
Ha. Um, true? Yes? I remember making that decision? When I moved out of the city in 2013 after my parents died and I got clear that I needed to find a way to detach myself from the treadmill life that NYC seems to require, I was intending to buy a house I could buy outright with the money from the sale of my (obviously very expensive, because NYC) NYC apartment so I could “simple up.” But then I found a house with gorgeous gardens that reminded me of my parents’ home which was now gone forever, and believed I needed four bedrooms because I fantasized about my brothers’ coming to visit me there and my hosting all the family holidays and… I don’t know. A whole bunch of other things that were magical thinking.
Plus I hadn’t yet given up on being A Person Who Has Money. I said to my brother that what I know now is that apparently I thought I was going to live a simple life but somehow stay in the pay range to which I had become accustomed. (In psychiatric circles, this might be called denial.) After all, my money was my security blanket; the money I’d saved after all those years of working so hard was what cushioned me when literally everything else in my life fell apart (this after I had written the book called “Falling Apart in One Piece,” haha).
But I sold that big house (for a nice profit, thank you very much) and downsized hard. Then my partner and I bought a house together last year, when we were finally able to merge our families after six years of waiting to get there. And in a weird turn of fate, my job — working on a financial app that was a new-product launch, so still long hours and weekends and lots of chaos — went up in smoke when the parent company shut it down after just a few months. My boss had stumped for me on his way out the door and the company kept me, moving me into a position for which I was, strangely, both grossly overqualified and not-at-all-qualified to do. My new boss said when we first met over Zoom, “Well, I’ve looked at your resume and I can’t imagine why you would want this job.”
But I did want this job. Because I wanted a job, not a calling. I wanted work, not a cause. I wanted to know how much money I made every week and to count on it, even though it wasn’t exactly quite enough to make everything work. (But I still had a secret stash of money from The Other Time, so that was okay.)
And so: I found my way to my simple life quite by accident, or fate, or the hand of God. An amazing blessing, really, as I was becoming a stepmom to my partner’s three kids and my son was headed off to college and had lots of change — good change — happening that I wanted to pay attention to. (Including relearning how to cook for kids who eat a grand total of 7 kinds of food, something I definitely did not miss when my son Zack graduated from that camp. So much for my imaginative dinners.)
And yet: I can’t let go of the idea that I should be doing more and earning more.
What are we supposed to do with our ambition?
I mean, I’ve poured mine into my house and my gardens, the latter most emphatically. I created spreadsheets for my garden planning, charts upon charts. The house we live in came with none except for a ring of barberry and boxwoods (the ultimate zeros of landscape design) stuffed into the heavy clay soil around the house. I hired a bulldozer to try to excavate some of the clay so I could put in organic compost and real soil. I drew up plans and made lengthy shopping lists. I bought dozens of kinds of seeds and planted well more than 200 seedlings, starting my little plants in the dark and cold of February, sleeping in a room aglow with grow lights (thank you, Ryan, for enduring).
When March and then April came around I went out in the cold and hand-turned the beds myself, spade by spade, down to 18 inches, adding organic matter and compost and hopes and swear words and my sheer, relentless will. (And even after all that, I will have to do it again this fall and probably again in the spring.) But the gardens are coming along and I work in them every morning and the occasional evening and all day on Sundays.
I don’t know how to do less than go all-in. When you know what can be done, why would you ever do less?
Which brings me back to ambition. This job I have should be fine. It is fine. I’m good enough at lateral influence and big-picture thinking that I find ways to push for changes I think will make a difference to our customers and our company’s bottom line. My boss is lovely, and wow, I am not sure I ever thought I would say that in my life. I like and respect many of my co-workers.
But shouldn’t I be doing MORE? It’s a hot job market! I’m a seasoned marketing and comms executive! I could finally finish my pivot into Brand Comms/Brand Marketing and secure my professional future! I know enough about women and employment over 50 to know I am not ever secure. And I really, truly could use a little more money in my salary, to save for retirement after saving nothing for more than a decade, to save for college for the new children in my life, redo the aging kitchen….
Honestly, I don’t know what to do. I do know, and my partner knows, and even Susie knows, that I have never been as calm and content as I am right now. And I was just asked to join the board of an arts organization I truly and deeply cherish, and there is foundational work to be done there, to keep my big brain busy. And I write now and again for Hudson Valley Magazine about stories and people that interest me. And I still have my teensy jewelry business, that I’m not currently marketing or promoting, but have a steady drip of loyal customers to design custom pieces for.
Why can’t I just settle? What is it I have to prove to myself? Or is it that being an American so deeply ingrains us that money is what defines our value and our opportunity that I feel like I’m giving up more than money by not maxing out what I could earn?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions. And usually by the time I write on Filling in the Blanks I have at least half-filled in some of the answers to the questions I’m noodling. But this one has me stumped. Has had me stumped for more than a decade. Is it that I want the affirmation, or that I love being in charge and managing people and projects (yes, the latter; I do truly love managing people and projects). Is it that I’m afraid I won’t have enough money to ever retire? (Yes, it’s partly that, for sure.)
I want to hear what you all think about opportunity and money and ambition and how those things change or don’t change as we get older and start staring down the end of the tunnel, working for as long as we can work so we can hopefully afford our lives after we stop working (or stop being hired). I am definitely well beyond needing or wanting million-dollar houses, but the rest? I just don’t know.