What is Ambition?
I wondered, before I came here, whether I was going to confess to you this secret I’ve had since I was seven. I haven’t even told my husband about it.” The woman across from me, a journalist in her forties, paused and looked at me intently, wondering whether she should reveal her secret. Sitting there under her worried gaze, I wondered where we were going. As a psychiatrist, I’m used to hearing the most improbable and even lurid of personal secrets. But this woman was not a patient. She was a friend of a friend, who had kindly agreed to let me interview her. It was actually the very first of a series of exploratory discussions that I had scheduled to start my research on ambition in women’s lives, and I already found myself in unfamiliar territory. How had my seemingly straightforward question about childhood goals elicited a long-hidden secret?
The journalist looked at me uncertainly but continued. “When I was about seven, I had a notebook at school, and I would write poems and stories and illustrate them. I was going to write and illustrate children’s books. They were clearly based on the books I loved. And I had this acronym that was like magic, like a secret pact with myself. I didn’t even tell my sisters its meaning. It was IWBF—I Will Be Famous.” She broke out into nervous laughter. “Oh my God, I can’t believe I told you. You must understand, I didn’t want to be recognized in the streets. My pact was tied up with writing and being recognized for it. I’m sure it was tied up with my father’s approval and the literary world he operated in.”
This was the long-withheld secret? Not sex, lies, or videotapes, but an odd incantation from childhood? It was the first of what were to be many lessons for me on how hidden and emotionally laden the subject of ambition is for women. I soon came to realize that although the articulate, educated group of women I interviewed could talk cogently and calmly about topics ranging from money to sex, when the sub- ject of ambition arose, the level of intensity and anxiety took a quantum leap.
It was hard to know what to make of the often long-winded, evasive, contradictory, and confused responses this subject elicited. A woman editor of a popular magazine vehemently denied that she was ambitious and produced an astounding string of euphemisms about pursuing “her personal best,” “self-realization and understanding,” and enlightenment, sounding more like a Zen master than an executive in the midst of the bustling, highly commercial magazine world. A choreographer who had recently started a career as a playwright gave me the following reply when asked about her ambitions: “I don’t have any ambition. Well, I’m interested in creativity and in my work. I’ve been working on a one-act play and a screenplay. I guess one could say, ‘That sounds ambitious,’ but the fact is, what I don’t want to do is promote myself. I do work.” A woman in her forties who had started but then left a fledgling business to be at home with her children said emphatically, “I’m just thrilled that I didn’t spend my twenties or thirties trying to grow my business and be a star in that world. I have a close friend who was also in a start-up, for a very hot product. They got a lot of attention. But she spent seven years at it, took too much cocaine, had an abortion, and by thirty-nine had no children or life or job.” Yet toward the end of the interview the same woman suddenly revealed her continuing fantasy of returning to a career and making a success of it. A young woman who works on math textbooks announced, before I so much as asked a question, that she felt troubled by her lack of ambition. “I think it’s all tied up with this business of goals. There needs to be some target out there. At work every year we have this development discussion, and we meet with our supervisors. And they ask, ‘What are your short- and long-term goals?’ I always put something down, but it’s nothing I feel passionate about, it’s usually some small project.” The absence of ambition seemed no less fraught than its presence.
The women I interviewed hated the word ambition when applied to their own lives. One woman executive began by stating, “That word is not one I’ve used much in my vocabulary. On previous occasions when asked whether I was ambitious, I would tend to say no. I would describe myself as purposeful.” For these women ambition necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. Despite the fact that women are currently more career-oriented than at any time in history—and often more clearly ambitious—there is something about the concept that makes them distinctly uncomfortable. These women’s denial of their own ambitiousness was particularly striking in contrast to the men I interviewed, who assumed that ambition was a necessary and desirable part of their lives. They often chided themselves for lacking sufficient amounts of it. Perhaps even more surprising, the very women who deplored ambition in reference to their own lives freely admitted to admiring it in men. If ambition was, by definition, self-serving and egotistical, why was it not only acceptable but desirable for men?
As I tried to sort through the diverse responses to my questions and to home in on the aspect of ambition that made women so uncomfortable, I realized that I needed to backtrack. I needed to understand what ambition consists of—for men and for women. But the more I tried to pin down its meaning, the blurrier it got. When I asked people to define ambition, nearly all of them, after a few attempts, finally resorted to examples: “Take Bill Gates . . .” There was something elusive about ambition. Everyone seemed intuitively to know what it was, but no one could articulate it.
In psychiatry, as in most branches of science, the study of a complex phenomenon often begins by tracing it to its earliest, simplest form. So I decided to review the childhood ambitions recalled by the women I had interviewed. Perhaps in this embryonic form I would find clues to its most basic elements. And indeed, compared to the wordy, ambivalent responses that these women had given about their current ambitions, their answers concerning childhood were direct and clear. They had a delightfully naïve and unapologetic sense of grandiosity and limit- less possibility. As a child, each of the women had pictured herself in an important role: a great American novelist, an Olympic figure skater, a famous actress, a president of the United States, a fashion designer, a rock star, an international diplomat. “My fantasies about what I wanted to be? I think they were very ordinary, like being a ballerina. I took dancing lessons for seven years. I think of those kinds of fantasies as being common. Or maybe I’d be an artist—being anything that I did well. I wanted to be the best. I thought everyone had those kinds of fantasies, but I haven’t really thought about this.” “When I was a kid, we had a summer home in rural Maryland and on the way there we’d see signs saying, ‘Impeach [Supreme Court Justice] Earl Warren.’ And my mother or one of my siblings would say, ‘One day that sign is going to say “Impeach Jenny Fenlow.” ’ Oh God, it’s hard to believe, but that’s what I thought I’d be, a Supreme Court justice.” “Oh, my ambitions? They were very pedestrian. I was going to be either a brilliant writer or an actress. I had a very specific picture of being an actress. I wanted to be Sarah Bernhardt; I mean, I was extremely ambitious. I wrote a musical when I was in eighth grade that was produced at school. When I look back on it, I think, I wrote that?”
In nearly all the childhood ambitions, two undisguised elements were joined together. One was a special skill: writing, dancing, acting, diplomacy. But the childhood ambitions recalled were not just about developing a talent or expertise. The images of future accomplishment virtually always included a large helping of attention in the form of an appreciative audience. In each picture of the future self, the woman- to-be was front and center; she was the star of her own story. Public recognition was either included explicitly or, more often, implied by the very nature of the endeavor chosen. Special talent was assumed. In part, it was this open celebration of their specialness that made their childhood ambitions seem so silly or even embarrassing to the women who recalled them, that made them laugh and then ask me nervously if I thought their ambitions were normal.
Looking through developmental studies of both boys and girls, I noticed that they virtually always identified the same two components of childhood ambition. There was a (at least theoretically) practicable plan that involved a real accomplishment requiring work and skill. And then there was an expectation of approval: fame, status, acclaim, praise, honor. Each ambition was a narrative about a wished-for future, and in each story the child projected him—or herself into an adult life as a productive, admired member of society.
Of the two aspects of ambition, or at least of childhood ambition, the first seemed nearly incontrovertible. Without an element of mastery, after all, a picture of the future is not an ambition; it’s simply wishful thinking. It’s about luck or fate—you are merely a passive recipi- ent of whatever fortune comes your way. You may desperately want to win the lottery, but that wish is not an ambition. Ambition requires an imagined future that can be worked toward by the development of skills and expertise.
Long ago the scientific community embraced the notion that there is a powerful and innate pleasure in mastery. Approximately half a century after Freud postulated his “drive theory” of motivation based on sex and aggression, researchers and theoreticians alike realized that a huge portion of behavior simply could not be explained in these terms. By the 1960s workers in the fields of animal behavior, child development, and even psychoanalysis accepted the existence of a powerful drive to explore, manipulate, and control the environment—in other words, to develop mastery.
Jean Piaget and other developmental psychologists who focused on children’s need to master both intellectual and motor tasks discovered that children would repeat a task over and over until they could predict and determine the outcome. Theorists such as Erik Erikson began to posit a human need to “be able to make things and make them well and even perfectly: this is what I call a sense of industry.” Researchers even turned their attention to “the addiction to bridge or solitaire, vices whose very existence depends upon the level of difficulty of the problem presented.” Robert White, at the time a Harvard professor of psychology and one of the seminal investigators of motivation, named this drive to mastery “effectance.” In describing such behavior he noted, “It is characteristic of this particular sort of activity that it is selective, directed, and persistent, and that instrumental acts will be learned for the sole reward of engaging in it.” Mastery has its own powerful, built-in motivational engine. And there is no evidence to date that the intensity of this motivation differs between girls and boys, women and men.
The delight with which children describe their ambitions derives in no small part from the pleasure they foresee in developing this mastery. Children, as well as adults, passionately engage in learning skills—a fact so obvious that at times its significance is overlooked. There are few people whose lives do not include multiple areas of mastery—at home, at work, at play. People who strive to improve their professional skills often greatly enjoy their evolving expertise. But just as often they work at perfecting their avocations. Think of the intensity with which people practice their golf or tennis strokes—hardly key survival skills—or pursue bird watching, heading out to the woods and fields at dawn.
In Frank Conroy’s classic memoir of his childhood, Stop-Time
, he captures the sheer joy that children, like adults, take in mastery. The young Conroy becomes fascinated with the yo-yo and painstakingly works his way through a book of tricks, standing hour after hour practicing in the woods across from his house:
The greatest pleasure in yo-yoing was an abstract pleasure—watching the dramatization of simple physical laws, and realizing they would never fail if a trick was done correctly. . . . I remember the first time I did a particularly lovely trick. . . . My pleasure at that moment was as much from the beauty of the experiment as from pride. Snapping apart my hands I sent the yo-yo into the air above my head, bouncing it off nothing, back into my palm.
I practiced the yo-yo because it pleased me to do so.
Doing a thing well is an end in and of itself. The delight provided by the skill easily repays the effort of learning it.
The wish for mastery is undoubtedly a key component of ambition. But the pursuit of mastery virtually always requires a specific context: an evaluating, encouraging audience must be present for skills and talents to develop. Frank Conroy, in the same childhood scene, rushes off to show his new yo-yo expertise to his friends and to two particularly proficient older boys, Ramos and Ricardo. He seeks their acknowledgment of his ability. Like the young Conroy, we all need our efforts and accomplishments to be recognized. Without such earned affirmation, long-term learning and performance goals are rarely reached.
As the term is used here, recognition means being valued by others for qualities that we experience and value in ourselves; it involves appreciation by another person that feels accurate and meaningful to the recipient. Because recognition affirms a person’s individual experience or accomplishment, it is different from other forms of attention.
Attention can perhaps best be pictured on a graph. On one axis attention goes from positive to negative; on the other from personal to generic. If you rob a bank and are caught, you will likely receive attention that is both negative and highly specific to you personally. If you win your local bingo tournament, the attention will be positive but generic; no particular individual skill or quality was involved.
One area of the diagram would represent attention that is at once individualized and affirming. It is this combination that defines recognition. The attention is specific, accurate, and positive. It might be praise for a series of photographs you have displayed, for the furnishings of your home, or for a program you designed for your computer. It could be admiration expressed for work in the local environmental group, or recognition for being a steady friend or for a presentation at work. The affirmation elicited is particular to the person; most likely no one else would have done these things in exactly the same way
Attention received purely for an accepted, societal role such as being a minister, policeman, doctor, scholar, parent, or teacher is usually affirming but only moderately individualized. In my own life, for example, I receive a certain amount of recognition for being a psychiatrist. And indeed being a psychiatrist represents a personal accomplishment—I got through medical school and residency. However, it is also a role that I share with many others and that elicits a response that is, to that extent, positive but slightly impersonal. There are lots of psychiatrists out there. Recognition for belonging to a specific group can overlap with recognition that is highly individualized—as it might be if I were praised for my skills by one of my patients. Both types of recognition are central to the formulation of an ambition.
As will be discussed further on, virtually every area of research into human behavior, from sociology to clinical psychology, from occupational behavioral studies to investigations of learning, has concluded that we are constantly motivated and shaped by this type of response. Many investigators have postulated that the need for approval is a powerful innate drive in humans. Attention is a key currency in all human interactions, and recognition is its most valued specie. Throughout life, recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energizes us, directs our efforts, and even appears to alter mood.
It’s important to emphasize that recognition is not synonymous with praise. Unlike recognition, praise is often given for a trait or an accomplishment that we don’t care about. I can recall as a young child receiving an award for my penmanship and, even in that pre-computer era, thinking that it was an utterly useless skill and therefore a meaningless prize. Receiving the prize was a nonevent. I would probably not even recall it if I had not recently come upon the certificate in a box (and thrown it out).
Praise, in contrast to recognition, can be experienced as false—in which case it has no impact. Humans are endowed with an uncanny ability to discern fake, unspontaneous emotions. Undoubtedly that is why acting is such a difficult art; it’s hard to put one over on us if you’re not Sir Laurence Olivier. On a more humble note, when parents ooh and ahh over a child’s every drawing of spindly figures under a line of blue sky, no one is fooled. Nor are we credulous when we give a bad presentation at work and our friends tell us that it was just fine. Praise qualifies as recognition only if its content feels meaningful, deserved, and accurate.
As noted previously, ambitions are about goals that require work and the acquisition of skills. It is precisely for such mastery that we desire to be recognized. The wish to be recognized as a descendant of a Mayflower family is not an ambition, because it is (or is not) a historical fact irrespective of any individual effort. It is an attribute that may be admired by others, but it is passively acquired. Equally important to an ambition is the expectation that one’s efforts will be affirmed outside an immediate circle of family and friends. Ambitions involve a public arena, even if that arena is as small as a classroom or an office. When we acknowledge an ambition, we are admitting to a desire to act and be appreciated within this larger sphere. You will rarely, if ever, hear people say that their ambition is to write a novel that they can share with a few friends before putting it in a drawer or to do scientific research but not present their findings to a scientific forum. Ambitions assume participation in and recognition from a community larger than one’s intimate social circle.
The fact that ambitions develop within a community has several important and beneficial consequences. At the most obvious level, it permits a larger quantity and range of response; the audience is more diverse and populous than one’s buddies and family. A community also allows there to be more objective criteria for evaluating skills. Realization of an ambition usually depends on work and talent as much as or more than attractiveness and likability. Whether the ambition is to be a rock star, a caterer, a nurse, a lawyer, a landscape architect, or a dress designer, the criteria by which your accomplishment is evaluated extend beyond the personal. If you are a broker whose bottom line is bad, a lawyer who loses cases, or a musician who frequently misses notes, it’s unlikely that you will thrive professionally no matter how affable you are. Social skills may be important, but they are rarely sufficient. Effort and work, things over which we have some control, are the sine qua non of realizing an ambition.
The motivations behind ambitions—to practice skills and be appreciated for them in “the real world”—are powerful and essentially inseparable. In one revealing survey, for example, accomplished scientists were asked whether they would rather make a great discovery or receive the Nobel Prize. Most of them found it hard to come up with an answer—splitting off recognition from mastery hugely diminished the discovery’s value for them.
If we are to pursue an ambition, we must have both the wish for mastery and a potential audience, along with an expectation that we can reach the desired end point. When these elements combine and we achieve a goal, even on a small scale, the impact can be huge. In fact, the effect of experiences in which our accomplishments are recognized can hardly be exaggerated; they are often remembered for a lifetime. When, in the course of my interviews, I asked women to tell me a favorite memory from childhood, every single one recalled an experience of unusual recognition. Here is a typical memory:
We used to put on productions at the beach we visited each summer. One summer when I was around ten, we put on this amazing production with old songs like “Strolling Through the Park One Day”—all these songs from the 1920s and 1930s. It just stands out. I think actually the other thing I remember was another production. [Starts laughing.] Maybe I should have become an actress or a singer! In sixth grade we put on HMS Pinafore. I was the star.
The findings from my unscientific, anecdotal interviews are backed by more rigorous research. In one study in which twelve hundred successful women were asked this same question about a favorite memory, the author notes that the most frequently cited memory was success in a competition. “Furthermore,” she adds, “four of the other frequently mentioned positive experiences [were] awards in a talent field, exhibitions of work at high school, elective office, and publication of written work.” High-recognition events are both intensely pleasurable and vividly recalled. They can become virtually iconic memories.
They are also highly formative. The impact of such moments is repeatedly described in the biographical literature. Willa Cather, for example, whose ambition as a young woman was to be a doctor, abandoned that vocation after an unexpected event: “Cather went off to Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska,” wrote Joan Acocella in The New Yorker
The following spring, for her English class, she wrote a theme on Thomas Carlyle which so impressed her teacher that, behind her back, he submitted it to Lincoln’s foremost newspaper, the Nebraska State Journal. One day soon afterward, Cather found herself in print. The effect, she later said, was “hypnotic.” She was no longer going to be a doctor; she was going to be a writer.
Clearly, a single event such as this, as powerful as it is, doesn’t suffice to create an identity or a career. There must be a context—in this case Cather’s relationship with her enthusiastic teacher. And there must be ongoing successes: eventually she became a regular columnist for the State Journal.
Ambitions necessarily include the expectation of recognition for our accomplishments. The recognition may come as applause, a raise, a pat on the back, a change in title, a compliment by a boss or colleague, a good grade. In some cases it may even be experienced as coming from someone in our past who we have “internalized” and kept alive within us. Embedded within ambition is often a kind of dialogue between past and future figures in our lives. The dialogue can take many forms, such as the belief that someone in the past would have affirmed the present accomplishment: “He would have been so proud.” “I know she is watching me now, wherever she is, and is thrilled.”
Ambitions can even be fueled by the wish to receive recognition retroactively from an important figure who previously withheld it—a critical, doubting parent is a common example. A parent’s withholding of affirmation, particularly in childhood, can create in a child a life- long need to “prove them wrong” and finally receive the wished-for acknowledgment of one’s talents or worth. There is a fantasy of finally receiving recognition long denied: “He never thought I could do this. I’d have loved to see the look on his face now.”
The famous composer Igor Stravinsky once poignantly described this type of driving need for retroactive recognition:
I am convinced that it was my misfortune that my father was spiritually very distant from me and that even my mother had no love for me. When my oldest brother died unexpectedly (without my mother transferring her feelings from him onto me) I resolved that one day I would show them. Now this day has come and gone. No one remembers this day but me, who am its only remaining witness.
Clearly such internalized figures from the past can add an important dimension to ambitions. They can strengthen or resonate with current goals. Ideally a sustaining dialogue between past and present sources of recognition can be established. But unless we expect real, continuing recognition—either by these same figures or new ones—our ambitions cannot be sustained.
An anecdote in the writer Jamaica Kincaid’s autobiographical book My Brother
beautifully captures the complex and reinforcing interplay of past and present, internal and external experiences of recognition. She describes her relationship with the famous editor of The New Yorker
For many years I wrote for a man named William Shawn. Whenever I thought of something to write, I immediately thought of him reading it, and the thought of this man, William Shawn, reading something I had written only made me want to write it more; I could see him sitting (not in any particular place) and reading what I had written and telling me if he liked it, or never mentioning it again if he didn’t, and the point wasn’t to hear him say that he liked it (though that was better than anything in the whole world) but only to know that he had read it. . . . Almost all my life as a writer, everything I wrote I expected Mr. Shawn to read
After Shawn’s death, Kincaid reflects:
The perfect reader has died, but I cannot see any reason not to write for him anyway, for I can sooner get used to never hearing from him—the perfect reader—than to not being able to write for him at all.
But such internalized sources of recognition, powerful though they may be, are rarely sufficient without additional, real, external sources. Kincaid herself notes that as she writes, she also imagines the approval and praise of her future readers: “For is it not a desire of people who on writing books allow them to be published and exposed to the public: that people who do not know them, absolute strangers, will buy the book and read it and then like it?” Kincaid’s pleasure in writing is inextricably fused with her expectation that it will be recognized.
Mastery and recognition here, as in virtually all cases, are the twin emotional engines of ambition. Yet ambition has a bad name because it includes within it an acknowledgment of this need, this dependence on the approval of others, which makes us all feel vulnerable. We wish to dissociate ourselves from such needs and believe that we are autonomous and independent—an ideal that the sociologist Robert Bellah has termed “radical individualism.” We are like the kids on the playground who put down the child who is “showing off” or “just trying to get attention.”
And in truth, some people have needs for recognition that are exaggerated and nearly insatiable, and require constant infusions of admiration to maintain their tenuous sense of self-worth. In psychiatry such individuals are called narcissists. If there is an imbalance between the need for recognition and the need for mastery, an ambition can deteriorate into an overly pressing need for affirmation or a pure fantasy of fame and fortune divorced from reality. But when these two elements are balanced, they are healthy and productive forces. If we are to meet our needs and realize our ambitions, both of these elements must be in play. Without an element of mastery, we have little control over our destiny. Without recognition, we feel isolated and, ultimately, demoralized.
Social structures in which we can reliably obtain recognition provide the armature of our lives; it is hard to overestimate their importance. And it is not simply a matter of having a multiplicity of affiliations or “connections” or roles. The accuracy, breadth, and specificity of the recognition we receive as well as the control we have over obtaining it are crucial.
Creating relationships in areas where we have some control, where the recognition is based on a talent or skill or hard work—rather than on appearance, sexual availability, pure social skills, or subservience—is the essence of ambition. Evaluating the variety and depth of such structures tells us volumes about the quality of a person’s life.
Excerpted from Necessary Dreams by Anna Fels. Copyright © 2004 by Anna Fels. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.