If we’re basing things off the trusty Merriam-Webster dictionary, “ambition” can be defined as “a particular goal or aim: something that a person hopes to do or achieve.” It sounds reasonable enough, but that’s not the first definition the dictionary lists. Instead, ambition is principally defined as “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” It’s no wonder, then, that being called “overly ambitious” is a thinly-veiled sneer.
Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think it’s good to have some kind of ambition. Who can argue against having goals?
When we’re early in our careers, “ambition” often boils down to focusing on scoring the tangibles that have the biggest “wow” factor to others. That is, we focus on getting the high-powered job, the fancy title, and, of course, the hefty paycheck. There’s nothing wrong with striving for these achievements. But those aren’t the only worthy ambitions there are.
In order to understand what “ambition” means to different women, we reached out to the Girlboss community for help. What we learned is that sometimes finding the “right” job means saying no to the “top” job.
Read on to learn how three women pivoted away from their old, high-powered jobs, toward new and fulfilling careers. Submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
After finishing my business degree, I worked in finance for three years. At the time, my career goal was to wear a suit and have a respectable-sounding title. But I wasn’t fulfilled (or even interested) in the subject. There was clear career progression to move up and eventually be in the C-suite. My friends were jealous of the stability I had found—granted, we were fresh out of university—but I felt like there were handcuffs on me. I thought of a quote by the motivational speaker Robin Sharma: “Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.”
The turning point came when I looked at coworkers who were 20 years my senior and they all had the same “I hate Monday” vibes. I thought, “Is that my future staring back at me?” I knew I had to do something.
I spent the next two years surrounding myself with supportive people before I finally made the big career switch. One day, I left the world of finance in Ottawa, Canada and moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to work in online marketing. In theory, it was an easy decision to make, but the actual telling-your-family-and-booking-flights-and-quitting-your-job was next level palm-sweats.
It takes a lot of self-reflection to remove the “brainwash” of what you should want in your life and career. I used to see ambition in a narrow light. To me, it meant working really hard, making sacrifices, and climbing towards ‘cookie-cutter’ goals. In the workspace it meant chasing a title and moving up and up. These days though, I think ambition also describes a state of internal buzzing, like when you’re excited and wanting to learn and grow. When it comes to a career, that could mean specializing into a role instead of climbing a corporate ladder. That’s what I do today. I’m a partner manager at Shopify, working with our top partners to help them grow their freelance businesses and scale their agencies. I enjoy being plugged into the entrepreneurial world and I love being able to motivate, coach, and guide people towards achieving their goals.
With time, you realize what’s important and what makes you happy. Then the challenge becomes not getting distracted with other opportunities that would steer you away from it.
—Sigute Zitikyte, 29, partner manager at Shopify in Ottawa, Canada
I used to be so impatient; if something wasn’t happening right away, I wouldn’t pursue it. But understanding that failure is feedback—and it’s all positive because I learn and grow from the experience—helps fuel my ambition, allows me to be more patient with myself, and lets me see the big picture.
After working in the corporate health and wellness industry for 10 years, my life changed unexpectedly in 2016. I was pregnant with my firstborn, a son named Kj, and I went into labor at work during my sixth month of pregnancy. A couple of weeks before, I had felt something was wrong. But I didn’t say anything because I was afraid of losing my job. I’d already taken days off work during my first trimester due to complications and my former manager had shown no empathy during my pregnancy. After three days of labor, and a week after he was born, my son died on July 31st, 2016.
That fall, I decided I would never allow another person to make me feel I wasn’t capable. I would no longer ignore what my body tells me. The death of my son gave me the freedom to truly not let another person’s thoughts or opinions dictate how I feel about myself and what I do. I realized I must take care of myself first.
Although I’m not in the same financial place as before, today I have more peace, gratitude, and stability. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Today, I help women empower themselves with my dance fitness company afrikoPOP fitness, which I do full-time with the support of my husband. It combines modern west African dance with body toning exercises set to an Afro-pop beat. It’s like a workout dance party.
At first, I worried what people might think of my decision. I learned that what holds a lot of people back is worrying what other people think. I have a vision and I’m working on it coming to pass. We get so used to our routine that sometimes we need to step outside of ourselves and ask “what do we get up every morning for?” That answer may have you doing things differently.
— Kosolu ‘Kasa’ Ananti, 35, founder of afrikoPOP fitness in Texas
Ambition to me used to mean working hard to get to the top of the class. It meant getting straight A’s, getting into medical school, and making a lot of money. These were all tangible, but what happens once you reach them? I realized when I got into medical school that my ambition didn’t jive with being measured with test scores. Later, I worked in finance and realized my ambition didn’t jive with only making money.
My decisions, though, weren’t always well-received. Professors, friends, even my parents were often shocked and judgmental about my pivot away from traditionally respectable careers. When I decided not to go to medical school, I was often met with, “If you got in, you should just go.” That statement is wild! When I quit working in finance, people were shocked because they saw it as another straight shot to making a lot of money. It seems like it’s a common belief that money equals success and I don’t think like that.
I’ve made quite a few “leaps” throughout my career—that’s how I think of my career switches. The first one in med school one was tough, though. I’d gone through 22 years of life believing I wanted to be a doctor, only to realize after getting accepted that the structure and the rigidity of it all wasn’t for me. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I had to try something completely different. I got a job in institutional equity sales at an investment bank where I interacted with top finance minds. Then I found that corporate life wasn’t for me. It’s probably a good thing, too, since these days I have purple and silver hair; that would never fly in those fields.
But I realized that I love learning about companies, how they keep growing, and what makes them successful. That’s what lead me to startups. Today, I work as a marketer for a health tech startup where I’m creating mobile experiences for both physicians and patients to make healthcare more convenient, accessible, and efficient.
Throughout it all, I’ve learned that ambition means constantly and intentionally pushing yourself toward discomfort, toward progress, and to become the best version of yourself.
To be honest, I used to care about what people thought about my career “leaps.” But then I was able to move past it thanks to the support of a close-knit group of friends. As I found more happiness in these “less stable” endeavors, I knew that I was making the right choice.
—Carrie Yang, 25, chief marketing officer at Sniffle Health in Dallas, Texas