Ambition is often seen as a desire to achieve something remarkable that scores us material and symbolic recognition. This can foster an individualistic, egocentric vision of success that’s not always easy to swallow. Our expert in The Lab, Laetitia Vitaud, explains how she reconciled with ambition at the age of 40, after years of doubting the concept.
Ambitious people are terrible
For a long time, I had (and still have) an ambiguous relationship with ambition. Part of this is due to the idea that a “good person” should serve the collective and put their own interests aside. The desire for accomplishment is only acceptable when it’s for an altruistic cause, when it stands for the first person plural: we, us, and our. This isn’t the case when ambition is conjugated as I. All the synonyms for ambitious have a negative connotation, like social climber, opportunist or careerist. In sum, an ambitious person isn’t benevolent.
So it’s not surprising the concept has gotten bad press. And let’s be clear, it’s even worse when the accused is a woman. Social norms and stereotypes have a hard time accepting this behavior when it comes from the deuxieme sexe. I quickly understood this as I grew up and I was obviously not the only one, given how widely this belief seems to be interiorized: In 2018, a study by the Professional Women’s Network found that while 9 out of 10 women consider themselves ambitious (which is almost queal to men), 77% agree that publicly affirming this is still taboo.
Associated with material and financial success, in my family ambition was seen as superficial and unethical because, as I was made to understand, having money means, in certain ways, “having stolen it from others.” Ambitious people were immoral, and ambitious women were unprincipled, even promiscuous. Yes, the prostitute stereotype still hovered over the idea of paid work for women. Those who demanded remuneration instead of offering their efforts for free were often seen as suspicious. And this won’t surprise you: on the global scale, women do most of the unpaid work while men claim the majority of paid labor.
On top of this, the ambition incarnated in the economic and political world is a total sacrifice of your free time, excessive constant pressure and chronic stress. I was made to understand in school that “women have a harder time with this type of stress” and that “it’s not made for them.” The final nail in the coffin was how young women undergoing an interview were (and still are) often asked, with great insistence: “How do you plan to balance your personal and professional life?” The result: after a failed experience in a company where I didn’t know how to be ambitious enough, I left everything behind to become a teacher. I would finally be in my place…
An ambitious reconversion
Professional reconversions are often the fruit of a deep look into this negative model of ambition. In her book Merci mais non merci, Céline Alix evokes the particular situation of these “ambitious” women who finish by abandoning their glorious career for a professional life where they find more meaning, autonomy and authenticity. This decision includes a financial and political sacrifice: giving up some of their power (specifically, the power to “change things from within,” if that’s even possible) and accepting less pay to be “closer to their values.”
By playing the ambition game by rules they didn’t even agree to, women are not only criticized for their transgressions but they face additional obstacles (the glass ceiling, gender discrimination, sexual harassment…). If I had followed an “ambitious” career, maybe I would have also asked myself to what extent professional success needs to exclude all our other lives (familial, personal, social). The individuals who renounce the gratifications associated with ambition in the middle of their career to lead a better life — I understand them very well. For my part, I took the opposite path.
I spent 8 years teaching: supporting others in the learning process, helping young people grow and blossom, counseling them and even coaching them sometimes. A bit like those parents who fulfill their lives vicariously through their offspring. One day, as I watched the graduating classes go off to explore the world to live exhilarating adventures, create businesses and find numerous forms of recognition, I no longer had the desire to live my adventures solely through my students. I wanted to take their place. I found myself, at the end of my thirties, exploring diverse options before realizing entrepreneurship would give me a sense of meaning… and money.
This is when I discovered that we can do whatever we want with ambition. For me, it meant enjoying a professional liberty that also earned me material liberty (money) and the relative influence that writing can give me without having to enter an unpleasant game whose rules I didn’t choose (presenteeism, political games, etc). The world isn’t a binary place with meaning on one side and money on the other. In reality, professional reconversions are an effective way of boosting your revenue. According to a Deloitte study, French white-collar professionals change their jobs or company every four years to benefit from a 10 to 15% salary increase (for a fourth of them, it’s even higher than 20%). But as money is a taboo subject, we rarely discuss reconversions from this angle.
Middle age: a budding, mid-life power?
The median age of French women is 44 years old (my age). That means half of us are older. Yet we continue to act like the forces of potential and ambition only apply before this age. It’s as if, at 44 years old, the game’s already been played.
Journalist Sophie Dancourt discusses this convent syndrome: “There’s an invitation to disappear that evokes the period when widows were supposed to leave society to live in a convent. This strong image nicely sums up what women of our generation feel when they pass the fateful age of 50 […] they’re then asked to put themselves aside to let others continue living without them. This covent syndrome is never explicit — it’s expressed insidiously, through numerous ageist comments.”
Even though we’re seeing remarkable progress in this area, women over 44 years old are still underrepresented in the media, meaning they’re far less than half of the women we see in movies, advertisements and TV. Yet the statistics are on our side: our demographic is growing as the median age gets older. Not to mention many of us refuse to go to the covent! For a long time, I felt very embarrassed, even adolescent, at the idea of being noticed (and humiliated) for standing out from the mold. Now, I derive childlike joy from the fact that I’m not invisible. Wanting to be seen by others isn’t inherently unhealthy. On the contrary, that’s only the case if you don’t see others as equals, and you’re looking to dominate or manipulate them.
Sometimes, I wonder if there isn’t some kind of superpower that comes mid-life (and maybe even in the second half of our lives) that’s just waiting to be discovered. An potential for ambition, creativity and freedom that’s suppressed by society and wants to be liberated. My ambition today is that we collectively learn to free this power for everyone’s good.
In my experience, four things allowed me to succeed:
- I worked to detach myself from what was expected from me in terms of ambition. We value women for their empathy and the services they provide to the collective, but we remunerate the ambitious who only pursue their own goal. Many women think we’ll end up valuing them for their altruistic actions. But at work, this recognition never happens. So I distanced myself from this feminine model.
- I found role models in older women that helped me redefine ambition in a non-linear career: more and more women are opening doors for others, like entrepreneur Bénédicte Tilloy, whose creative force and professional reconversion I particularly admire. There’s also Frédérique Cintrat, executive director of a company that provides care to vulnerable individuals, for whom “ambition has no age,” who just published a book (in French) on restarting your life after 50. And I should mention Catherine Barba, whose incredible energy led her to create a school for freelancers at the end of her forties, along with three other inspiring women of her generation.
- I learned to “play the game” to increase sales, ask for money and propose services. If it was uncomfortable at the beginning, it’s because I took it too seriously. Maturity helped me put all of that at a distance. Now, I take these things lightly. There’s a theatrical dimension to my work and I take pleasure in it.
- I surround myself with inspiring, kind people at work. Just because you work for yourself doesn’t mean you should work alone! Your energy is complemented by the “colleagues” with whom we choose to embark on interesting projects. I ask questions and for help when I need it, without any fear of seeming ignorant.
There’s something political in the revendication of women’s ambition (at any age). This includes it’s material dimension — money and visibility — because behind all of these taboos is an unequal distribution of wealth, free vs. paid work, public recognition, authority and an inegalitarian balance of power. How I would love for my personal discovery to be conjugated in the first person plural…
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
More inspiration: Laetitia Vitaud
Future of work author and speaker
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