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Ambition in my 30’s

August 20, 2018

I came across this article, This is What Happens to Ambition in Your 30’s,  on my Facebook feed several months ago, and have had it open in a tab on my phone ever since, trying to come up with some thoughts to write a post about it.

I started out my career with abundant ambition. Really, my history with ambition started before I even began a career, choosing my college major in part because it was challenging, then always striving to be at the top of my classes. Like many achievers, I had the school game down.  I knew how to learn the material, and the consistent feedback from exams and grades was gratifying.  The workplace was a different world, but it didn’t take so long to figure out that system either. Feedback was less quantitative and less frequent, but even in the early days, it was overwhelmingly positive.

My overall early experiences in the workplace also were very positive. There were hints of sexism, but it could never be separated from people reacting to my youth. It was always subtle enough that you couldn’t pinpoint which interactions were normal and which were rooted in something else.

I was excited to read things like Lean In and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. These books shared little tricks that made it seem like I could just skip around the sexism. Sit at the table! Have a good partner! I learned straightforward ways to say no to colleagues who wanted me to be in a helper and support role.  I learned the importance of pre-meetings and going into meetings with advocates already on my side. This stuff wasn’t obvious to me, but as soon as it was pointed out, it wasn’t so hard to navigate. It isn’t that an unfriendly culture was completely absent, but it seemed surmountable.  (I don’t specifically say sexist, because parts of corporate culture are bad for all humans. Women and minorities are just the canary in the coal mine.)

Despite starting out with such bright peers, there still was a lack of women in leadership roles and it wasn’t clear why.  Then I read “What Works for Women at Work.” I learned about the double bind, the motherhood wall, and the the need to prove-it-again. These seemed significantly harder issues to get around, compared to issues such as being asked to take notes in a meeting. It gave me pause. It still does.

Then, I altered my career to move to support my husband’s career. I did not agree to a move until he had a permanent position lined up, so we both sacrificed by being apart. He delayed his start date by a semester largely at my request.  Still, we ultimately made the big move.  Us moving together for his career was always our expectation, and it has worked out really well in the end. Still, I struggled with it – it was a lot of change all at once.  I was initially optimistic about my new job, but it turned out to be terrible (or really, my manger was terrible). I had veered out of engineering, but the business world was even worse for me.  The constant self-promotion grated (calling a basic excel spreadsheet a “financial model”, elevator pitches that are obviously elevator pitches). Having a business major 1 year out of school mansplain to me that I should take a course on model thinking irritated me.  (I was admittedly weak on fundamental “how businesses work” knowledge and also weak on soft skills such as not finding self-promotion totally annoying. But model thinking is basically just how most engineers see the world.) My direct manager obviously didn’t think I was awesome like all my previous leads had, and the (lack of) feeling was mutual. I didn’t see a good path to a role with work/life balance that would allow us to have a family.

When my current job came up as an opportunity, I could see that I was taking a step off a traditional corporate career ladder to something different. My current job is interesting, the people are great, and the pay is good (although surely much less than I could make elsewhere). However, There are no clear “next steps,” no path to CEO or whatever top positions. I’m not sure what comes next.   Still, I didn’t hesitate to leave behind a career trajectory that could have shot me higher but left me unhappy. I’m totally happy to keep on here indefinitely, as long as things stay good. Whatever is next will be figured out if it needs to be. (Pursing FI and financial security helps significantly with being OK with this uncertainty.)

My career is important to me, but this job allows space for the rest of my life in environment where I feel almost invariably respected. We have a house that we enjoy spending time improving, a dog that we love hiking and playing with, and are about to have a baby that will flip our lives all around.  I can easily see a way to do all of this life stuff while still having a rewarding job. This is very lucky, and I don’t wish for anything different. (Not to say this job is without times of challenge, but it is overall really good.)

I think this would have also been possible in my L.A. job, working at a big engineering company. I still likely would have had to set some ambition aside. I remember distinctly a lunch and learn event where women spoke about work/life balance.  I listened and with surprise as one women stated bluntly that she did it by not being too ambitious – when she was childfree she focused on career, when she had kids she stepped back, when the kids were grown she accelerated again. Another woman said she worked every Saturday for years in order to meet her work commitments.  It is a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure situation, and boundaries can be drawn if you choose.

My choice is to keep my ambitions realistic. I want to do an excellent job at work.  I want autonomy and purpose.  I want mutual respect with those I work with. I want to be paid fairly. I am willing to push during intense times (i.e. right now!), but generally want to go home in the evenings and have my weekends. I want to achieve, but I want to do it on my terms.

I’ll close this post by quoting quote the end of the article I linked above, which inspired this whole train of thought:

To be clear: This is not about settling, about making peace with the humdrum sexism of traditional workplaces. Rage and revolution are called for, and such upheaval requires more professional investment by more females, not less. Instead, this is about a shift in perspective — an appreciation for imperfect circumstances and unmet yearnings as facts of life, and a willingness to seek gratifications and inspirations outside the boundaries of a job. Dogs are helpful in this regard. So are children and friends and sports and museums and live music and sex and activism and charity.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2018 2:11 pm

    Ah yes, the self promotion and relationships and politics – now I’m 3 jobs removed from my journalism days and a year into my first corporate job, I’m used to it. But I hate it.

    I’m totally leaning out right now with 8 weeks left of work to be frank. I feel like I landed in an awesome spot – amazing benefits, step up in title, boss/team with no issue with flex working – for this time in my life. The work itself is … bleh, sometimes, and I try not to get too sucked under by coworkers who are frustrated about the work/progression. I actually don’t see much potential here to do great/cool/amazing/groundbreaking work, sadly, but my aim is to make the most of everything else while I can, because I won’t be here forever.

    • August 25, 2018 1:24 pm

      It sounds like it is a really good fit for where you are right now in your life. I can’t believe I have just over 2 months left until leave!

  2. August 22, 2018 3:31 pm

    “My current job is interesting, the people are great, and the pay is good (although surely much less than I could make elsewhere). However, There are no clear “next steps,” no path to CEO or whatever top positions. I’m not sure what comes next.”

    We’re in such a similar place! I never knew exactly what I was going to pursue in school but I put myself on a track after graduation to grow and climb and grow and climb and I did that all the way up til this job. Now my impulses and ambition are very confused about what’s next. Part of me wants to just enjoy it but that’s what I’ve been doing since JB was born and I’m a little itchy to know what’s next or to set myself up for something really good next, but honestly what’s going to top this? Even so, I want to be mindful of the fact that nothing lasts forever and the things that make this job perfect right now could easily change and I have no easy pivot from here.

    Part of me wants to team up with someone and make our own business but that requires both a partner and a viable business idea and the time and brainspace to make that happen. And then that involves a whole other self promotion mill, depending on what we do. But that’s still dinking around in the back of my mind as the logical next step.

    • August 25, 2018 1:23 pm

      I’m glad you have had such a good setup while JB has been young and feisty 🙂

      The idea of starting a business always floats around in my mind, since it is a way to earn money and have a project but maintain a lot of control over your life (well, it CAN be). So far, nothing compelling is even in an incubation state though, so I’m hoping this job has a long run. I don’t quite know HOW to set myself up for what is next, or at least, none of the things I think of sound like something I want to invest time in.


  1. Link Love | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured)

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