Being ambitious about anti-ambition

Increasingly, there’s a realisation that hardline ambition — long regarded as the preserve of success — is burning us out and that we need more out of life than the ‘secure’ trappings that come with always being on a mission to ‘achieve’

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Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 12 Aug 2022, 12:03 AM

A friend called from Singapore one afternoon, and there was a slight edge to her voice. “Sush,” she started, “XXX [her husband] is planning to quit his job, so now I’m having to contend with the fact that soon I may be the sole breadwinner in the household…”

Wait, wait, wait, why does he want to quit?

“Some work nonsense.”

“Office politics?”

“Not really… he’s been offered a promotion, to lead the vertical he was part of, but he doesn’t want that role…”

“He doesn’t want to be promoted?”

“He’s clear he doesn’t want the extra stress, the extra responsibilities — says it’s not worth the bumped-up salary and perks… he’d much rather do a job he enjoys doing without fretting about it.”

Here’s the thing. My friend’s husband is good at his job, has never cut corners in his professional life. But turns out, he believes his job, the one that can (potentially) fetch him a partnership at the firm he works in (where he’s held in very high regard), is not important enough to lose peace of mind over. He’d rather settle for less materially in order to extract more out of life.

‘My ambition now is to do things that make my soul sing’

Media producer and content creator Paul Ewart used to be based in Dubai more than a decade ago. Originally from the UK, Paul left Dubai and moved to Sydney — though he prefers being “hailed” from Bondi Beach these days. Just goes to show his state of mind.

It wasn’t always like this though. “I was brought up with this kind of need to be ambitious, this pressure from society to be constantly busy, so I worked very hard — especially after I moved to Australia, where I had two incredibly tough jobs: at News Corps, and then in television, two daily live shows… the stress levels were crazy!”

After a point, he realised this “really wasn’t worth it”. He took up a regular practice of yoga and meditation — that instilled in him “a sense of peace and stillness” — and reckoned “life is short, there are things more important than ambition”. Eight-and-a-half years ago, he resigned from his last full-time job; his new goal was “work to live and not live to work”. He moved into the domain of travel writing, “travel is a passion, so I ‘created work’ that would allow me to have the lifestyle I wanted”.

Paul is clear that even though “I make sure that what I do, I do well, the most important thing for me now is quality of life. You have a responsibility to yourself — to create the life that you want. It is attainable, many think it’s not, but it is, and I think [many others would think differently] we owe it to ourselves.”

“I guess as I get older, I realise what’s actually important — as cliched as it sounds! — and that no one knows how much time they have, and yet time is the most important asset we have. My ambition now is to do things that make my soul sing, to spend time doing things that enrich me. I’ve kicked work goals: did they really make me happy when I got there? In hindsight, I don’t think so…”

“Of course, I need to earn money but the money that I’m earning is taking care of necessities, and I’m not buying things as much as I did earlier… I’d rather have more time than more money…”

Yes, at times, Paul still struggles with an inner voice that says “oh you should be doing this, pitching to get more work”, but that, day by day, is dissipating as he contends with doing stuff that matter: “like volunteering at an intensive care unit, or allowing myself the luxury of sitting on the bed and reading a book in the morning”.

‘Life isn’t all about money, is it?’

Rebecca Rees spent three decades in corporate comms roles in the UK, Caribbean and, for the last 16 years, Dubai. While full-time jobs brought security, a regular salary and perks, she wanted the freedom “to work to my own hours and spend more time on what’s important”. In January this year, she finally gathered the courage to do what she wanted to do for a long time: become a comms “consultant”.

“The pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for me. It made me realise that we cannot — and should not — take anything for granted, and we never know what’s around the corner… I decided it was now or never, and half-excited and half-terrified, I took the plunge.”

Like many others, she had taken a pay cut during the 2020 lockdown. “Initially, I was worried about the prospect of bringing home almost 40 per cent less each month. How would I survive and pay the bills? What about my savings? But the reality was that, during those five months on lower pay, I saved more per month than I’d ever done on a full salary, and it made me question what on earth I was spending my money on before.”

Armed with this new ‘awakening’ and the fact that she didn’t have a family to support, she made up her mind to factory-fit her lifestyle to a less demanding regimen — and lead a more meaningful life. It’s been eight months since Rebecca took the leap of faith. “I have no regrets. I’ve met some wonderful new people… and have a growing collection of lovely clients — from established brands to local start-ups.” But best of all, she’s working to her own schedule — and on her own terms. “I’ve always been a bit of a night owl so, quite often, I’ll work at night, and give myself the freedom to play tennis in the mornings, spend time with my Salukis at the dog park or nip to the mall mid-week when it’s quieter.”

She admits her outgoings have increased: start-up costs, medical cover etc. Plus, she doesn’t get paid at the same time each month like before, and her earnings can vary month on month too.

“But life isn’t all about money, is it?” Being ‘exceptional’ at what you do doesn’t mean you have vaulting ambition.

For Indian freelance journalist Sanchita Guha, it took a tragedy for the penny to drop. In 2000, Sanchita was in England on a media scholarship with a group of other journos. “One of our workshops paired us up and required us to do a character analysis of each other, based on a short essay that we wrote about ourselves.” Her partner in the project was an ‘ambitious’ business reporter, doing rather well in his field. “His assessment of me, based on my essay, was mostly positive, but he also said that I showed a certain lack of ambition. He said it as if this was a character flaw.”

It was a bit upsetting for Sanchita. “I didn’t need to be told, in front of a roomful of scholarship peers, that I lacked ambition. And I also thought that he was completely wrong about me because I knew I was exceptionally good at what I did.”

Five years later, in 2005, she received the shocking news that her former workshop partner had been involved in an accident and had died on the spot. She couldn’t help but think — a little perversely — back to that day when he had said that she lacked ambition. “He had ambition, and he was going places, too. But, look, it only takes an instant for everything to end.”

That was also the year when Sanchita was working at a leading daily newspaper based in Mumbai, a stint that “looked like a great career shaping up for me in India’s most

buzzing city”. But then, a new department head — “ill-behaved and indisciplined” — took over, and, one day, “my section head went literally berserk for no reason at all, subjecting me to insults that were totally out of line”. “The next day, a brief conversation with this section head made it clear that she wasn’t going to change.”

Right then, for the first time in her life, she resigned without any plan of what to do next. “I had no idea if I’d find another good job in a senior position soon in a very expensive city, but there was not a grain of doubt in my mind that this was the right decision.”

She realised finally what ambition meant: “It didn’t mean proving anything to anyone else, because my only real competition was with myself, by doing something better today than what I did yesterday.” This gradually saw her shift towards anti-ambition from the stereotype of ambition. “I still had regular jobs but I was also organising my life — mainly my personal finances and home ownership plans — in a way that would leave me free to make career changes as I saw fit.”

A few years ago, she opted to become a freelance writer-editor. It meant losing the certainty of a regular salary, but also gaining control over her time.

“Now I look at work and money in terms of an investment of time. We’re told that ‘time is money’, but, for my generation, it has taken half our lives to realise that time is far more valuable than money.”

‘Life is too short to not do what you love’

Michael Yanni is founder and CEO of YAN Capital Ltd and IRGL Creative, and Loren Yanni is co-founder and creative director of IRGL Creative. The powerhouse duo, now living a digital nomadic lifestyle with two budding ventures, point out that society, media and modern culture portray “success” relative to corporate titles and pay checks. “You can see how easy it is to get pulled in. It’s especially hard to leave the corporate race if you’re chasing old society’s version of success, but nothing beats doing what you love.” Lean into your interests; develop them in your free time and you’re likely to build a “joyful life”.

Life is too short to not do what you love, avers Michael and Loren. The pandemic sounded the wakeup call and “reminded us all of that and encouraged so many to pursue their passions. Building your dream life takes time and effort, but it’s absolutely worth it.”

Their passions became their priorities, adds Loren. “We found ourselves adapting the parts of our lives that weren’t serving us, and putting our effort into what we felt called to. Being in tune with our passions brought better performance and growth, earnings, and eventually success.”

Balancing career ambition with personal wellbeing is not easy, especially since most of us don’t take the time to define either, points out Dina Sam’an, founder and managing director, CoinMENA. From the moment we enter the educational system, we are effectively put on a conveyor belt and tasked with achieving a minimum level of competency to advance to the next level (grade). “We go to school, so we can go to university, then we go to university so we can get a job, then we get a job so we can retire. It’s always about the end goal, rather than the journey.”

The ideal path to wellbeing is simply enjoying what you do for a living, according to Dina. “If you are passionate about your work, then the ‘work’ will reward you with a sense of fulfillment that positively impacts your wellbeing. This is easier said than done. We are not taught to find our passion… in fact, quite the opposite, we are often discouraged from it because ‘there’s no money in it’. Unfortunately, this conditioning starts from an early age, and by the time most of us graduate high school, our passions are stripped from us under the pretense of ‘practicality’. One has to swim against the current in order to pursue their passion, that’s why many don’t bother and settle for jobs they don’t like.”

However, whether you are passionate about your job or not, finding a balance is both necessary and possible. It starts with being honest with ourselves, and what our values are. How much do we value our career/money relative to family/friends/fitness etc? “We find our balance when we allocate the appropriate amount of time and energy towards all of our values, not more, not less.”

‘Young people understand their personal value more than previous generations’

Stephen King is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University Dubai. Part of his job is to be in sync with the ‘aspirations’ of the new generation. Stephen believes “young people understand their personal value more than previous generations”. “This could well be inspired by a continuous barrage of motivational messages from TikTok life coaches and commentators. And also by peers who they see making significant sums from creating content or competing in e-sports competitions.”

Additionally, Covid has completely demolished the inter-generational myth that you have more “security” if you follow a traditional career path. As a result, youth are able to enter the workplace with eyes wide open — by which he means “they are very likely to compare their experiences with a number of close friends and seek wide advice before accepting a job offer”.

Stephen also believes that the youth do not see themselves as “human resources” — i.e., factors of economic production who can be hired and fired depending upon the laws of supply and demand. “They consider themselves as talent to be managed. A new wave of companies is realising this. These have transformed traditional HR departments into talent care and talent development themed and focused units.”

But overall, he maintains, young people today are no different from young people in the 80s or 90s. They still flicker between excitement and pride, and fear and anxiety as they approach a new job. “The key difference is that they are now members of an unofficial digital union, empowered by technology with a global council of advisors and advocates at their fingertips.”

Away from the younger lot, “It’s possible that there is a community that has adopted mindfulness and realised that, after decades of stressful work, they now have sufficient resources saved for many rainy days, and that they can get by very happily following a different strategy. This might be termed as ‘topping up’, rather than following the path of Sisyphus to continuously strive to achieve new heights.”

Covid has demonstrated how one can get so much out of life and enjoy so many experiences with friends and family, without consumption. Stephen describes it as “simply a different way of thinking”: “perhaps a realisation that where money cannot buy you happiness, pursuing modesty can”.

‘Living for oneself trumps working for others’

Sanchita adds that among younger people, many now put their personal interests before the professional treadmill quite early on in their working life, and still manage to find a viable way to support themselves. “Among some of my peers, those who’ve spent 20-plus years in very taxing careers, the seed of anti-ambition is gradually growing into a full-fledged plan, and they’re looking at alternatives that have less of work and more of life. With education, drive, and marketable skills, there’s always money to be made, and financial losses can be recouped [unless one is extremely unlucky!]. But time that’s gone is gone forever, and we can never recoup that loss.”

Finally, the sense of mortality that the pandemic has stirred in everyone is certainly a recent factor driving anti-ambition. “I’ve lost a friend with an extremely successful career and even better prospects; I’ve seen very wealthy acquaintances pass away in a matter of days,” says Sanchita.

The whole world is, perhaps, motivated at present to put living for oneself before working for others. “That might explain the Great Resignation of 2022. When we choose anti-ambition over the received wisdom of ambition, we’re setting ourselves up for some inevitable hardships. But we’re also giving ourselves permission to leave that little well and experience the world.”

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