How I Learned That ‘Ambition’ Is Not a Dirty Word
I’ve never been the kind of person who had posters of celebrities on my bedroom walls—not even when N’Sync and Backstreet Boys were the only CDs in my disc changer. I didn’t wear the T-shirts, I didn’t buy the fan club merchandise, I didn’t have a “favorite” member of the boy band.
That kind of dedicated fandom seemed fun, but for some reason there was never anything I identified with so strongly that I wanted it plastered on my clothes or walls.
So when, for the past few months, I found myself watching hours of YouTube interviews of Taylor Swift, I thought it was weird. Am I crazy? I wondered. Why am I getting so into this? Is it just because she’s this huge star now and I’ve been listening to her music since day one? But why now?
I noticed I wasn’t really watching Taylor Swift performances or reading anything “about” her. What I was consuming and looking for was her voice, her words. I was looking for clues to how she pursued her work and her art—what keeps her going, how she deals with self-doubt, what drives her.
I recognized in her something I had been fighting in myself recently: ambition. She seems to love what she’s doing and seems to be driven in a way that I recognized in my core—a drive I feel in most of the things I do, a drive that sometimes makes me feel crazy or odd.
I’d somehow unconsciously internalized the notion that successful and ambitious women had to be cold, cut-throat and masculine. And since none of those words describe me, I’d wondered sometimes if I really had what it took to realize my goals. I was afraid that my natural personality wasn’t wired for success.
But suppression didn’t work.
It didn’t take long before I found myself in a fetal position crying, crying, crying and hating the way I was but not knowing how to change. And then I realized, maybe I didn’t have to change. Maybe being a dreamer who can’t turn off her ambition was A-OK. Maybe I could use it.
This idea led to my next book about dreams and my interview with an incredibly accomplished and ambitious Harvard-educated astronomer, Dr. Sarah Ballard. All it took was a short conversation with her for all my ideas about ambition to come into relief, and then transform.
Sarah has discovered planets and been featured in Time magazine. During our conversation it was apparent that we shared the same kind of ambition—the kind that makes you want to work really hard, the kind that says, “I want to win, but I want you to win, too.”
Sarah expressed her struggle to reconcile her ambition with another part of her, a word she used to describe herself that made my heart sing: gentle.
Something inside me clicked, and in that very moment I knew why I’d recently been so enamored with Taylor Swift. It wasn’t because she was a celebrity. It wasn’t because I liked her music (even though I do). It was because I was looking for evidence of what I hypothesized to be a gentle and highly ambitious young woman. Without realizing it, I had been struggling to reconcile all these traits together, and Taylor seemed to be an outlier that I needed to understand.
Can I be both gentle and ambitious? This was the underlying question behind my recent T Swift research binge, and it began the day I listened to the bonus audio at the end of her 1989 CD (the Target edition).
It features behind-the-scenes audio of three of her song ideas in their original form. She sings into her phone, gently playing her song ideas for a variety of collaborators, saying she hopes they like it. I got the sense that she was truly wondering if they would like it, that she didn’t take her talent for granted or expect greatness in a first draft—that she understood, like a pro, that sharing your ideas, taking risks and asking for feedback is essential to growth, all the while evoking a quiet confidence and strong work ethic. She seemed kind, not weak. Calm, not shy. Self-assured, not arrogant. Gentle, not timid. She seemed like a person being fully herself and fiercely ambitious.
I am a gentle person. I know it in my bones. And it’s not because I’m a woman (I get it from my dad, actually). It’s just who I am. For a long time, though, I didn’t like this part of me. It felt as if it was at war with the ambitious part of me. So when I heard Taylor sing her first ideas into her phone, I felt something in my heart.
It was that feeling you get when you meet someone and find out she grew up in your hometown or graduated from your college or loves the same sports team or speaks your first language. It’s a sense of instant recognition and shared identity.
While I should have known that you can have both traits, I’m a little ashamed to say it’s taken me 28 years to believe it could really be true.
But I know now in every part of my being that you can be sweet and gentle—and be a hard-core ambitious scientist who graduates from Harvard and discovers planets and appears in Time magazine.
You can be sweet and young and a woman—and write songs that break records.
In other words: You can be you and be successful. Maybe you’ve always known that. But for me, that this could be true is one of the most profound and greatest gifts.
I’ve finally learned that who you are, whatever that means for you, can be an asset, not a deterrent, to your ambition. I now know that ambition will only become fully beautiful and fully realized when you give yourself permission to be who you really are. Selfish ambition is a whole other thing.
Ambition is not a dirty word.
In fact, I think the idea of ambition being this hard thorny thing has been the biggest lie I’ve told myself all along. The more successful people I meet—both men and women—the more I realize ambition itself is mostly roses and sweetness, drawing others in to who you are and what you see.
You might even draw others in so much that they start buying and wearing your merchandise, like the blue and white sweater with the flying birds featured on the cover of your latest album.
It looks like I might have learned how to become a super fan after all.