So while I was reading one of the aforementioned women’s magazines (occasionally I walk by the stack on the couch and get hypnotized by the hot pink bubble letters in the headline and start thinking, “What IS he really thinking about sex every time he sees my hair?”), I stumbled upon an article about women and ambition. Women, said the article, don’t like to admit that they’re ambitious. In fact, the only woman who has ever been known by the editorial staff at this particular magazine to refer to herself as ambitious is Catherine Zeta-Jones. The rest of us just blush and look down modestly when we receive our Olympic gold medals. We say afterward, to the hordes of hungry reporters, “Oh, gosh…I don’t know. I guess I was lucky?”

Of course, I immediately thought, “Yet another way in which Catherine Zeta-Jones and I are soul sisters.” No, not really. But I did think that I don’t know very many women who aren’t ambitious. And it seems to me that they are willing to admit it.

I am ambitious. It drives me crazy. I don’t want to be. I want to be completely content with a delicious sandwich, a decent job,  and a good TV show. Or several delicious sandwiches, a reasonably decent job,  and a few mediocre TV shows. Life would be  a lot easier. I want to be OK with leading a quiet life, surrounded by family, like my fantastic 90-year-old grandmother.

But I’m ambitious. I don’t need to be a celebrity or a world-famous something or other. I have no interest in the paparazzi and I’m incredibly unphotogenic anyway. I don’t feel any need to make a million dollars. But I want to be recognized for what I do. I want people to think that I’m awesome. I want to be perceived as successful. I want to push myself to be better at the things I’m good at. To be better at the things I’m bad at. To be better.


I feel awkward writing it, so maybe there was something to that article in the magazine. Maybe it is awkward to say that you want those things. Maybe it’s especially awkward, somehow, as a woman. I get the sense that I’m supposed to say, “I’m just so thankful for everything I have, all the time. I couldn’t imagine having anything more!” I should say, “If I ended up with two or three happy and healthy kids and nothing else, that would be completely fine. That would be perfect.” I should say, “Family is the most important thing in my life, at all times.” Or “If I never impress another person, that’s completely OK, because I am content just being who I am.”

Sometimes I’m walking home with two unfairly heavy bags of groceries and I catch myself thinking about how much I want to succeed. It’s kind of vague. Sometimes I’m imagining getting a book deal. I know a book deal doesn’t actually mean success in the way that a lot of people define it. Plenty of writers get published only to discover that approximately ten people are even remotely interested in reading their book. I imagine myself founding a company that does something cool and productive that everyone needs. I have no idea what. What I do know is that it’s important to me to be able to someday look back at my life and point out to myself the things I did that made an impact. And by impact, I mean “affected a lot of people in an obvious and positive way.”

It can be embarrassing to admit to wanting something conventional. To admit to wanting something stereotypical. To think things that sound arrogant. I hear myself thinking, “I have a lot to say, and it’s worth something. I want everyone to have access to it. I want to be important.”

And then I quickly think, “What makes you think you deserve to be important? You aren’t that special.

And then I think that I don’t care if I’m not incredibly special, I still have points that should be heard. I feel deserving. I feel ready.

When I talk to my young women friends, a lot of them want to be heard, too. They want to be important. They want to be conventionally successful in one way or another. They want to change things, to improve things. They don’t say, “I want to be famous.” They say that they have big goals.

We’re not supposed to want to be important. It sounds selfish. I know, because I’m uncomfortable writing about it. I assume that whoever reads this will think that I am too self-involved to be tolerated. Penelope Trunk told me to write about things that make me uncomfortable. Because that’s when I’ll know I really care about what I’m writing. And chances are, if it makes me uncomfortable, it will be something worth talking about.

So here I am. Me and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And a bunch of other women, really. Who feel kind of unfulfilled. Who feel moved to do something bigger. Who feel like we are capable of doing something bigger. Who are always thinking of another project. Who would be OK with being famous, if that happened. Who sometimes really, really want to be famous (as long as there aren’t too many cameras). Who are always sort of waiting for something to happen. Something spectacular. Who want to be heard by a lot of people. Who think they have something to say that’s worth hearing. Who believe they are deserving. Who want to make the world a little better. Who want to be remembered. Who are ambitious.

(see? we’re practically twins. source)

*  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love the way I naturally pace. Especially when I’m talking on the phone. I have a lot of pent-up energy. Maybe I’ll do something sudden and awesome. Maybe I won’t. Who knows!

P.S. Some women are definitely ambitious through their family life. I feel like I may have overemphasized the classic division of career and family.

Chapter 2 of my little memoir about homeschooling that I wrote when I was 16, over at Un-schooled.


Kate on January 25th 2011 in feminism, life, perfection

24 Responses to “Ambition”

  1. Jess responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Hi, Kate!

    You’re not insufferable at all. I envy women who are more ambitious, careerwise. I’m always embarrassed to admit that I’m not. But that doesn’t mean that I’m unambitious.

    I may not want fame, fortune, and a huge impact. I really want that really good sandwich, to be madly in love with the right person, to have a great family and a home with nice things, and enjoy the work I do. To have an impact on a few people would be pretty great. That’s it. Small potatoes. Kinda domestic. Kinda vague.

    But if anything– *anything*– tried to get in my way of finding and getting those things… I’d cut a bitch. I’m going to have them. So I, too, consider myself ambitious. Ambition takes a lot of forms. I’m on my way. Stand back.

  2. Kate responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Love this response. I was really nervous to read the first comment on this post! And you’re right, ambition takes a lot of different forms. Yours sounds especially good, though.

  3. MWN responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Hey Kate, I noticed in this post and yesterday’s post about the fashion borg that there were a lot of pictures of the variety that I usually try to avoid. Like covers of magazines, and photoshoots of celebrities, and other retouched, artificial images that draw and hold my eye and kind of look perfect in their flawlessness, but also really alien and weird (do you SEE the way her collarbone juts out? And her boobs just emerge from no where?). I love the photos you include of yourself, or guest writers eating cake, or other, shall we say, less mainstream images. I find it hard for me to be reading about body positive stuff while also inundated with images of Catherine Zeta Jones after three hours of professional hair, lighting and makeup. My mind wants to reject those harmful messages but my eye likes the symmetry, I guess. I don’t run a blog and I can only imagine how difficult it is to find photos to illustrate your articles, so I’m not sure how feasible it is to not use those images. Feel free to implement or reject my suggestion.

    Unroast: I have gotten to the point that I look forward to exercising and no longer need to drag myself to the gym (although I do need music and a good book for distraction while I’m working out.) I lift weights and do leg exercises and have even started working on my abs, so I feel strong all over!!! When I’m boarding a plane, I help people lift their luggage into the overhead bins and it feels like nothing. I organized an impromptu arm-wrestling competition and came in third!

  4. Kate responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    I like to use these images ironically– mostly because I find them alien, too. I definitely try to avoid using a lot of them, though!

  5. Christin@purplebirdblog responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    “Who feel moved to do something bigger.”

    That is me in a sentence as of the last year or so. I used to be content with my little life, but then something in me snapped and I can’t be content with mediocrity at this juncture in my life. Hence massage school and the blog and looking for a different job to get me through massage school because I hate the one I’m at now… I’m just sick of settling.

  6. Kate responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    I love that you’re doing massage school. I think that’s completely awesome. It’s something I would definitely consider doing, too, at some point.

  7. Ashley responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    I have kind of been thinking about things along the lines of what you are talking about here. I love going to general discussion message boards. I have been on a countless and I am a regular at a couple of them currently where the age range seems to be 16-28. On these forums, they will usually ask that you make a thread introducing yourself. When I do, I usually mention that I am a writing student with hopes of being a magazine editor. Then I will mention that I have a part time job at Target and also as a model. Lastly I will briefly talk about my volunteering work and my involvement in pageants. This is hard for me because I am often treated differently whenever I talk about my ambitions. One message board is very honest and I have been straight up told that I come off as conceited because I talk about my modeling like I am some gorgeous person that everyone should bow down to. I looked through all my posts and within 6 months, I found that I actually only talked about it twice. And they have also said that I just talk about the rest of my activities like I am holier than thou, and whenever I give advice to people who ask for it, I am accused of being a know it all.

    So I feel like I can’t talk about myself ever, even though everyone else can freely talk about their jobs and lives without being attacked.

    I am an ambitious person as well, just like you, and although I also don’t aim for fame or fotune, I just want to be recognized for what I do and I want to be able to inspire people and make a positive impact on the world, (and if fame and fortune happen as a result, I will welcome it and I think I could handle it) but I guess some people think that is vain and self righteous, or so I have been told in so many words. So now I feel like I am censored sometimes on those communities. I feel like I should be ashamed that I don’t want to settle for a Burger King job for the rest of my life and having kids by age 22. I feel like I should think of myself as up my own ass for thinking I could do more than that. How crazy is that? I know I shouldn’t feel that way, and in actuality…I don’t.

  8. rachel responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Making an impact and being perceived as being successful are not one and the same. There’s definitely a gender paradigm at play that makes it culturally acceptable for a man to aspire to “success” but not okay for women, but just because something is defined as positive in male terms doesn’t mean it’s by itself desirable. There are a lot of ways to make huge impacts – to help people – that don’t come with recognition and there are many models of “success” that don’t have anything to do with the greater good.

  9. Suzanne responded on 25 Jan 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    I don’t think you sound bad at all. I just am coming from a different place, I think. I am trying to NOT care if I matter to anyone else. I am trying to matter to ME. The one thing I know that I want to do in a big way is to let each person that comes into my life know that they have value. That’s it. ambition is not a four letter word. It is a good thing…as long as it is used towards an admirable goal. I think your goals are admirable. :)

  10. Autumn responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 12:00 am #

    I feel like there’s an added layer when your ambitions involve something that is indeed about the self, which, though I’m a new reader, I’m gathering they are–you write a personal blog with your reflections and thoughts, and I feel like a lot of times women are sort of trained to think that means that we’re self-absorbed. But then here are these people commenting, because something you said struck them, so it’s really your writing and connecting that’s forming the ambitions–but if you’re anything like me, on bad days that part gets lost.

    Also, hi, I’m Autumn and just started reading your blog, which I’m loving! Thank you for putting this out there.

    And also, re: being photogenic: I interviewed a photographer and she made a good point about being photogenic–that it’s really about comfortability in front of the camera, not about technical things on the subject’s end. Me, I’m fine in front of a video camera because I don’t feel like I have to “look pretty”–but put me in front of a camera and I get this contorted face that looks nothing like me, because surely pretty people don’t just look like moi, now, could they? The interview is here if you’re interested:

  11. Louise responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 4:14 am #

    It’s absolutely brill that you’re ambitious!
    I wish I was more so.
    But for some reason I don’t really care about failing Maths – only perfecting things that I enjoy.
    Is that strange?
    So now I set a goal – when I get into the workforce I want to be ambitious.
    Thank you for this interesting post on something I hadn’t really thought about before.

  12. Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 7:31 am #

    I wonder if part of the reason a lot of women – myself included – feel uncomfortable publicly stating our ambition is because we’re constantly told, “women don’t like to publicly admit to being ambitious”.

    Actually, I have no problem speaking enthusiastically about my oh-so-lofty goals (with the occasional bit of embarrassment about how incredibly lofty they actually are! As you say, it feels like declaring “I think I’m special”) except when I read or hear about how most women don’t admit to their ambition. Then I shrink a little and think, “Oh, maybe I’m not supposed to say that.”

    In any case, count me as another member of your, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ and Penelope Trunk’s tribe. :)

  13. Tweets that mention Eat the Damn Cake » Ambition -- responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 8:01 am #

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ellie Di Julio, Kate . Kate said: Cake eating – Ambition: So while I was reading one of the aforementioned women’s magazines (occasionally I walk … [...]

  14. B1 responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    Ambition… I think we all have different ambitions, however our prudish culture, marketing, and advertising still tries to wean it out of us. They insist that all girls love pink, want to be in the kitchen, and that our career choices are limited to those in the areas of nursing, secretaries, or anything that is in the background… never the forefront, until she has proven that she deserves to be there.

    We’re making strides in changing those things but change is hard for most people, so they will fall back to what is comfortable or what was taught to them.

    Women before us attempted to be in the forefront by fighting for our rights to vote and those women were used as examples of what could happen to you if you spoke out. So, even though our mothers tell us we can do anything, their body language teaches us that we’re subservient to men and anyone of stature or power. That is the place we are taught where we belong.

    So, feeling ambitious feels foreign to us. We feel uncomfortable wearing it. But Kate, you are making a difference. You are great. You are awesome in your expressions. You are the one who has created a place where outsiders get to see a small window into your world and make comments on it. I’m sure you have many readers who do not comment, who think, ‘I feel that’, ‘I think that’, or ‘God I wish I had her courage’.

    Unroast: I love my smile because it is infectious.

  15. tereza crump aka MyTreasuredCreations responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    I think you are so cool.

    Today I was talking to my DD8 who is struggling with writing but wants so much to write like “everybody else does”. She keeps comparing herself to others not yet understanding that she is her own unique person. She is very ambitious. She told me today she wants to write a book “because she has so many adventurous stories in her head”. And she wants to do stuff with horses.

    Oh, I forgot to say… she is also unschooled. :)

  16. Deanna responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Nothing wrong with ambition. The only downside to drive is when expectations exceed the reality. I tried doing the corporate thing with being a mom and I felt like I failed at both. I then reinvented myself, started a more part time job and felt better about myself. I think that at times American women expect to much from themselves: career, mommy hood, good body, beautiful home….etc. This won’t lead to happiness unless the expectations are closer to realty.

  17. Mandy responded on 26 Jan 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    About ambition, now. Ambition seems to make women uncomfortable–not being ambitious, but being labelled as ambitious. Something about the word seems so self-aggrandizing. I think women believe we are supposed to be the power behind the throne, not the ruler on the throne. To be under that much scrutiny is scary, because if we mess up while everyone is watching…well, don’t we have enough trouble being taken seriously, in the first place?
    To be ambitious, in the traditional sense, is to be willing to take a stand, to risk making a huge mistake(s), to be willing to say, “screw what everyone else thinks, I’m doing what I want.”
    At it’s most basic, to be ambitious, is to say, “I want______, and I’m going to work my butt off to get there.”
    Which, if viewed in that light, isn’t quite so scary after all.

    Kate, I love the way you see things from a perspective I hadn’t considered. I love how that makes me think. (I had no clue I had this comment inside me!) And I love how you inspire people to comment on your thoughts–myself included.
    And, most of all, I love how you keep me honest.
    Thank you!

  18. darryn responded on 01 Feb 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    Thank you for writing this. I can completely relate to every emotion you expressed. It’s interesting, because I think that “lack” of ambition the magazine seems to be referencing might have to do with the fact that ambitious women are sometimes resented. They’re the kinds of women that you always hear men are “intimidated by”, and that’s supposedly not a good thing. (By the way, I could count on two hands the number of times guys I have been on dates with have told me I’m “intimidating” – and I haven’t even been on that many dates).

    Also, I think that ambition manifests in unexpected ways. For example, I don’t dream about becoming a high profile lawyer, businesswoman, or millionaires. Like you, I just want to keep being *better*. Doing better. Doing more.

  19. Eat the Damn Cake » Are women taking over the world? responded on 02 Feb 2011 at 11:51 am #

    [...] name the people who helped them along the way, and consider themselves lucky. Remember when I was talking about ambition? I’m like a prophet. Kidding (especially since these talks were given a month ago. Being a [...]

  20. Alice responded on 08 Mar 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    I know that this is almost a month old, but I wanted to say thank you for writing it. I’m only in high school, but I feel like this all the time. I feel like I have important things to say, and that I’m thinking interesting things, but only a few of my friends are interested in hearing them, and that I’m not that important, and that I should just keep quiet. I’m getting better with expressing my opinions, but I still feel exactly the way you described–I want to be important, but it feels bad to even think it. Thank you for writing this, and for letting me know that it’s okay, and that other people have the same thoughts.

  21. Eat the Damn Cake » So smokin’ contradictory responded on 09 Mar 2011 at 11:48 am #

    [...] was I? Yeah, I’m intensely ambitious, but…I cannot wear a power suit to save my life. Something about the shoulders. I look like [...]

  22. Kelsey responded on 01 Jul 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    I know I’m reading this insanely late, but wow… just wow… You said everything I’ve been feeling/battling lately. I’m a young woman who fell into a version of my dream job, in the small town I want to be in, doing/getting paid for my other passions on the side, moving up and forward… and still wanting more. I DO feel selfish and embarrassed at times and it’s worse when family, friends, significant others comment on how much I work, but then I really think about it and realize that I like what I do. I like where I’m going. I want more because it’s fun and I want to be better. I like the challenge. Why stop just because it’s a lot? Women are seen as pushy, greedy, selfish, scary, bitchy, and YIKES! if they go for what they want. Why can’t I do what I want and still be a woman who loves her family and wants kids someday? Why do we (as women) pressure ourselves and other women to only pick one thing – family or career? Why can’t we have both!? Of the genders, we’re the stronger, more organized one and if anyone can do it, we can. Until we want to stop.

    So thank you, thank you for writing this. It makes me smile to know I’m not alone :)

  23. Spelling responded on 24 Aug 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    Okay, so I know that this is super late… but I understand! This post really made me think about talking about our ambition, even with men. Today I was thinking about what men think of us when we downplay our talents and ambitions. Do they think that that’s unattractive? Are men really drawn to women who say, ‘Yeah, I did that!’ and are confident? Do they even care? (Another reason this came up: after going through a hard breakup, I find myself wanting to date again. I’ve also noticed lately that I’m prone to downplay my gifts, because maybe I’ll seem conceited or something.)

    So many interesting things this brings up… even insight into the minds of men. Who can understand :D

  24. Eat the Damn Cake » trying to sit in the dry patch for more than one second responded on 27 Sep 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    [...] I am ambitious in a cruel way. Maybe ambition always has a mean edge. Mine bites me. It prods me. It forces me forward when I’m really tired. It insists that I am not even close to a stopping point. Not even to a pause. I am like a guy with a wife and a new baby at home who stays too late at the office even though he really doesn’t have to. And at the same time, it’s clear that a tiny tree-hugging, stop-and-smell-the-roses, home birthing hippie has chained herself to my corporate heart, and she is not going anywhere. You would have to cut her out of there. I have this feeling that life is better when it’s slower, when you can appreciate the little moments. When you make mundane things matter by recognizing them. It’s possible that the hippie is my mom, who is really into home birthing, even though now she wears tailored clothes and her nails are freshly done. But let’s not make this about my mom– I have this feeling that life is better when you aren’t always trying to jump up to the next step, because you really believe the view will be totally better. But I keep jumping, anyway. So I am basically going to hate myself forever. [...]