We are forced to believe by our cultural standards that “a man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions” (Marcus Aurelius) and that belief sadly controls many of our lives.
I have always nurtured some level of ambition all throughout my life. First I wanted to be a doctor, a fashion designer, then a U.N. interpreter and finally a project manager, for which I went to college with a focus on international cultural projects.
In other words, I am a dreamer with a plan.
The term ambition itself, etymologically speaking, derives from the Latin word ambitio which expresses a desire for honor, popularity, power and favor. I think we can all relate to some degree, and that is the concept of ambition I grew up with up until about four years ago. You guessed correctly: that is when I became a mother and when my definition of ambition not only changed, but I would also say it became enriched and multidimensional.
I grew up in Africa, surrounded by poverty. Professional ambition was, of course, seen as the solution, and therefore seemed to be what one should focus on in their prayers, in their studies, and in their extra-curricular activities in order to ‘make it’. It was consequently strongly tangled to what I viewed as success, aside from serving in ministry and finding love. On top of that, I craved recognition and preferment and, in that sense, I was aiming for the career woman life: working a nine to five, traveling the world, using the multiple languages I learned, and having a job that would mix both structure and creativity.
I came really close to getting all those things until motherhood came knocking at the door — and we all know how children can beautifully disrupt pre-existing plans, don’t we?!
Becoming a mother caused my heart to burst in a million different colorful glittery pieces and get put back together in ways I did not know before — and with that, my definition of ambition among other things broadened. It was not all about me and my potential achievements anymore. I believe what truly happened was a metamorphosis of what success looked like for me from then on. Instead of desiring to attain a certain professional status or a certain personal rank in society or particular circles, I found myself feeling the urge to prioritize being a good mother and wife, a spiritual influencer, and wanting to leave a creative mark in the world.
It took me a little bit of time to find my marks through the beginnings of motherhood, battling not feeling like a whole and free human being anymore, and struggling with that overwhelming tension between ‘I am fantastically happy right now’ to ‘why am I not satisfied with what I have?’ – and all the guilt that comes along.
I eventually came to realize that for me, none of these things could exist independently anymore. That a happier me would make a happier world around me, which was connected to all the pieces of the tension. I understood that anything I pursued for myself I also pursued for my children. Anything I created, I created for them.
Navigating through that priming season and gaining more life experience, today I see my ambition, or rather the fruit of my ambition, as a legacy for my children first and foremost as well as for the other women with whom I get to share my story.
Ambition isn’t just ambition anymore. Rather, it’s a means to an end — it’s my way of leaving to my kids something I am proud of.
I want them to know that I am an ambitious woman and mother, not as a form of greed but yet as another way for me to use my life as a teaching and empowering vehicle. I want them to say I saw my mom (and dad) do it! “I got it from my mama”… isn’t that how the saying goes?
Looking at things through such a perspective allows me to connect all the dots between my faith, my passions, my calling, my gifts, the people I love and my influence in their life. More than ever it brings purpose to my drive to push through and work hard. I am not just building temporary things for myself but for my kids and the people looking to me.
Finally, viewing ambition as a brick in the wall of my legacy helps weed out any of those negative feelings sometimes accompanying the concept of ambition. Although ambitious people are generally praised, they are also very often criticized for being overzealous or workaholics. Add the motherhood complex to the pot, and running your own business can quickly become a big black cloud above your head. Which leads me to my feminist minute – sweet and quick, I promise.
As a feminist — probably not in the popular sense of the word — I cannot ignore the double standard regarding ambitious women and how that has affected me in both extremes; making me want to prove them wrong on one end, and on the other discouraging me from trying to go higher with my expectations. For instance, I know my father was not a fan of his own wife having any type of ambition but was quite disappointed when his daughter (me) got pregnant less than two years after she got married, as he thought it would keep me from working and “I would just keep having babies.”
I am tempted to warn my daughter about the jungle that is out there regarding women and ambition, debating whether I should prepare my boy and my girl differently.
I try to hold on tight to my original definition of ambition and remind myself that ambition is not an exclusively professional term, unlike what our culture tends to imply. My daughter’s personal ambition one day might have nothing to do with pursuing a career or even having a business of her own. I want both of them, boy and girl, to know that whichever path they decide to follow, they should follow it with all their hearts and put in the hard work to attain it. It’s not about making millions — nothing wrong with that I assure you — but it’s about aiming for that red dot right at the center of the target of your calling. That’s ambition! No matter who you are and what that means for you. I would like them to always remember that “We can each define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests” (Sheryl Sandberg).
If I were to define in one final phrase my concept of ambition at this point and time, I would say it is the force and manner by which I go after what I consider to be my personal success.
It is a combination of notions tied together with a common denominator: the people I love. As Pearl Bailey said, “A man without ambition is dead. A man with ambition but no love is dead. A man with ambition and love for his blessings here on earth is ever so alive.” I feel ever so alive!
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