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Big Butt or Big Career Dreams?

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Hi Debra: I set a goal last New Year’s to be in a very different place in my career by year’s end. I was going to take this advanced certification course. I was going to update and float my resume. I was going to start getting my name out there with people who might know about great job opportunities. But this and that got in the way. I got distracted planning my wedding. After that, instead of taking that course, I screwed around starting and stopping training for a half-marathon, probably to procrastinate on the professional front. I’ve been partying, not networking. And now, here I am, into another new year, still stuck in a job I hate, even though I still have my big career dreams. How can I get my butt in gear? If you were to break it down into steps, what would you say are the three most important rules for course correcting a gal’s perspective to finally embrace her lifelong passion and charge full force with great ambition down her passion path?

Dr. Debra Condren: You’re not alone in being an ambitious woman in a holding pattern. And it’s no wonder. Do you ever notice the dearth of magazine or website articles “for women” that are encouraging you to go after your big career dreams? Instead, we get the message that, as women, our time should be consumed by finding slimming jeans, wonder creams, and makeup to attract Prince Charming.

This year, walk right by all those magazines screaming at you to focus on losing weight as your new year’s goal (followed by the “getting-ready-for-summer-swimsuit goal”, and so on and so forth). Skip over those makeup, and beauty, and looking-for-love-in-all-the-wrong-places websites.

Instead, set your sights on making more money doing meaningful, challenging work you love. Focus first on tending to your ambitious dreams, and the rest—feeling great about yourself, your body, your health, and attracting a great personal life—will follow.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look great in those jeans. But, seriously, let’s not get distracted from more far-reaching goals. And, as women, it’s all too easy to put our ambitious goals at the bottom of our priorities pile.

It has been said that, “the surest way to keep a man in prison is not to let him know he’s there.” And the surest way to keep a woman from embracing her pure career ambition is to make her believe she’s already done it. 

Don’t believe it. 

Heading into 2008, we women still are not advancing in our careers the way we should. We’re not getting the fulfillment we desire or making the money we deserve. And this time it’s not men who are holding us back. This time, sisters, we’re doing it to ourselves, because ambition—for us—is still a dirty word. 

You’ve heard me say this before. There’s just one word that our culture bestows on that supremely ambitious woman who unrepentantly values a career: bitch. 

Do you unconsciously buy into our prevailing cultural paradigm, that double standard that says: 

Ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are bitchy, greedy, cold, arrogant females who attract enemies, repel lovers, make rotten mothers, live lonely lives as “that single, out-of-shape girl living with her cats”, and, in one way or another, miss out on fulfilling lives because of their ambition? 

If so, not to worry; you’re in good company. It doesn’t matter where we grew up, went to school, or go to work. It’s the same whether we’re in our twenties and new to our careers, or in our fifties and sixties and among the most highly-regarded professionals in our industries. 

Today, the greatest barrier to earning more money, getting the power and recognition we deserve, and feeling entitled to stay the course comes from inside of ourselves. We agonize over whether or not we deserve to be ambitious—and about what it will cost us. 

High-achieving women all harbor the same dirty little secret: we all struggle with socially sanctioned failure to embrace our ambition. We all have some version of the same pernicious audio loop playing between our ears, and it sounds something like this:

“Will being as ambitious as I dream of being make me less of a woman? Can I? Dare I? Have I gone too far? Will it cost me my personal life? Will I make enemies? Will it make those I care about suffer? Is it impossible to be ambitious and happy? Am I giving my employer or my clients their money’s worth? If I negotiate, if I ask for what I’m worth, will I lose the opportunity? Is it wrong to care as much about making money as I do about making a contribution and being fulfilled at work? Does taking credit mean I’m greedy, arrogant? Am I worthy of recognition and power? Do I deserve to go after my biggest, most precious career dreams?” 

Ambition is not a dirty word, but as far as many of us are concerned, it might as well be. Why?

Our culture encourages women to derive our sense of self from being selfless, by giving to everyone else first and foremost—even at the expense of our career dreams. Could there be a more confusing, contradictory recipe for self-satisfaction? No wonder we drop kick our dreams! 

We’ve been told—implicitly or explicitly—not to value our ambition as much as our other “womanly” priorities. Instead, we’re spoon-fed a culturally acceptable, watered-down definition of success: 

“You’re successful if you master the work/life equation, achieve a life in balance.”

“You don’t have to be unabashedly ambitious. You’re above all that. You’re sophisticated enough to realize that ambition isn’t as important as getting the life-balance equation right.” 

We’re told that when we master this Holy Grail juggling act, we’re ‘succeeding on our own terms’, regardless of whether or not we’ve also nurtured our big career dreams.

Few of us challenge the notion that the accepted definition of female success might actually be holding women back because it is couched in such a positive way: 

“You don’t have to be ambitious the way a man is. You’ve come around to realize that success is a different, and better, goal than ambition. You can win with empathy, cooperation and being generous. You don’t have to give up being a woman to get ahead.” (As if we can either be ambitious or a “real” woman, but not both.)

How can we take seriously the necessary soul-searching required to discover what we were meant to do professionally when we never explicitly discuss our pure, unadulterated ambition? 

This year, tell yourself a new message: 
Your ambition is not a dirty word. It’s the best of who you are. You owe it to yourself—and the world—to make the contribution you were born to make. You can be as ambitious as you want to be—with integrity, grace, and dignity.  And being true to your ambition needn’t cost you a happy personal life.

Here’s my—and DamselsInSuccess’s—challenge to you: 
Go down just as hard for your ambition as you do for any other primary priority in your life, be it lover, friend, child, community (or getting in shape and staying healthy!). Don’t sacrifice your ambition for any reason. There’s always a way to make it happen—without sacrificing your other inviolable priorities. And remember: life is a long time; you have a long time to get it right and to figure out how to work your plan. Just give yourself the green light to get started.

Let’s reclaim ambition as a virtue by adopting three rules: 

1. You must love your work. You must be willing to aggressively pursue the professional work you were meant to do and to strive for any career opportunities that inspire you. 

2. You must regard your deepest career aspirations as unconditionally sacrosanct. The real way to have a great life is to see your career ambition as a part of your value system to which you must give equal attention, along with other non-negotiable priorities in your life, including your partner, your kids, and your friends. 

3. You must feel entitled to earn your worth. You must charge your full marketplace value without self-reproach, without leaving money on the table, and without feeling like an impostor. 

If you don’t go down hard for your ambition, you’re letting the best part of you, the part that the world deserves to have you contribute, rot in a basement. In 2008, let’s get her out. 

Protect your career passion. 

As the ambitious woman you are entitled to be, I encourage you to answer for yourself, every day, a question posed in Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? 


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