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What is ambition?


It’s one of those loaded words that we intuitively understand yet still struggle with.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines ambition as a strong wish to achieve something and a desire to be successful, rich and powerful.  Implicit in this paradox is the suggestion that ambition fosters greed and hubris.  It carries a double-standard with it, too; one steeped in gender biases.  Men are complimented for their ambition:  He’s driven; he’ll be a good provider; or possibly start the next successful tech company.  Whereas in women, it’s treated with suspicion:  She’s selfish; too tough; unlikable.

Mia Lewis, the protagonist in my new book Lagging Indicators, is ambitious—unapologetically, competitively, aggressively so.  I first met women like Mia when I was young and new to the corporate world.  They were more seasoned professionals whose moxie and intensity made me uneasy at first, due to my own misconceptions about powerful, successful women.  I mistook their no-nonsense style for being cold, forceful and cocky.  But were they so different from the male excutives at the professional services firm I worked for?  Or did I hold them to a different, higher standard because they were women?  Did I expect them to be softer, more subtle?  A tall order considering this was Manhattan and they, like their male counterparts, had to manage demanding clients and were being judged every day.

After analyzing my unconscious biases, I stopped feeling intimidated and embraced what these women could teach me.  Their work-ethic was a given, but they spoke up; made connections; seized opportunities; and even self-promoted.  Since I was more of the quietly ambitious kind, I could only look on in admiration and think:  You go, girl.

Novelist Jessica Knoll recently wrote an essay in the New York Times that stirred some debate because she announced in the title that she wants to be rich and isn’t sorry about it.  I interpret “being rich” as a metaphor for control, security and power.  Knoll’s not sorry for being ambitious, for figuring out how the game is played (and won) by men and applying the same mindset and methods to get there.  Many were shocked by her bluntness; I was excited she tapped into an issue I explore with Mia.

Women today have made many strides, but recent events have also demonstrated how precarious this progress is.  The fight against objectification, harassment and scapegoating isn’t over; nor is the struggle to prove that we deserve a seat at the table.  Nurturing female ambition means offering women and girls the education and resources that allow them to reach their full potential, giving them the freedom and voice to choose who they want to be.

Maybe ambition isn’t such a dirty word after all.  What do you think?

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