On Ambition

Yesterday was my younger sister’s college graduation. I am beyond proud of Leanne – she graduated with honors, conducted exciting psychology research, and is going on to get her PhD next year. But I couldn’t help feeling more than a little bit lazy surrounded by so many accomplished young adults. Sure, I did well in school, but academia always intimidated me. I wasn’t sure enough of myself to take advantage of the opportunities available to me as a college student, like undergraduate research, internships, and other such leadership programs. And my plans after graduation involved an AmeriCorps program with the Maryland State Parks – something which I enjoyed and learned a lot from, but didn’t necessarily earn me much in the way of respectability or a career boost. Sitting in the audience among so many proud parents and family members, I couldn’t determine whether my ambition was lacking or just different.

I was also more than a bit cynical; I couldn’t abstain from feeling a few inklings of doubt as I heard each young graduates’ bright plans announced as they crossed the stage. Maybe the real word has beaten me down, or maybe I’ve just yet to land upon my dream career path. There’s probably a healthy dose of burn out mixed in as well, contributing to how I felt about these students’ grand dreams upon embarking out into the post-collegiate world. I just couldn’t help thinking that their goals were all so high, while the job market is so tough and the cost of life without parental financial support is so daunting.

After mulling this over for a day, however, I worry that maybe my dreams are too unrealistic. I want to do well in my career, but I don’t want work to be my life. My job as a social worker is particularly demanding right now, yet I’m the only person in my modest department who doesn’t regularly work overtime (and those people that do are still beyond stressed and not accomplishing everything that needs to be done anyway). At first I thought this was a sign of my devotion to the idea of balance – I don’t want any part of my life to overtake the others and work is the one area where I am most conscious of this possibility. Long critical of our society’s conviction about the overriding importance of work, I value my family, my marriage, my relationships, and my personal health more than getting far in my career, and I certainly will not sacrifice any of the former for the later. When surrounded by ambitious and career-oriented people, especially ones younger than myself, I begin to question these convictions I so firmly have held. Are my dreams the wrong ones? Am I becoming a selfish person? Is my life’s worth less than that of those people who go above and beyond the call of duty on the job?

I give lots of thought to my dream home these days. I’m not superficial about the American Dream of homeownership; in fact, I want a very small, simple home as the outdoor space is my major reason for wanting to own. But I’m almost obsessive about finding a modest house on a private tract of land with easy access to both the nearest state park and my parents’ home (free childcare in the future is always in the back of my mind too). I consider these housing requirements as essential to my ability to lead the life I want. Spending lots of time out of doors, gardening, not wasting my days cleaning a huge home, leading a simple life – these are all hallmarks of my ideal future lifestyle. But I’m becoming disillusioned as I realize what I want costs just a little more money than I have. And I worry that the only way to get enough of the requisite money is to sacrifice this dream lifestyle, to work more hours in order to work my way up the career ladder, only to find myself more stressed and overworked.

As a relative newcomer to the “real world” and as someone who entered during a particularly troublesome economic time, I recognize that my fears are probably both over-exaggerated and premature. I also need to shake off my self-consciousness and doubt – I know that I’m good at my job even if I don’t like to devote more than 40 hours to it each week. But I’m worried about falling behind as more people follow their grand ambitions and I struggle to figure out what my dreams consist of, let alone how to get started.

I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had with my cousin. In her mid-forties, she has a great family of three, a lovely home, and a stable career in public relations. She recently told me that she still doesn’t know what she wants to be “when she grows up,” a comment that both comforted and scared me. Her lifestyle (at least as I view it from the outside) is a very close approximation to the one I envision for myself. I imagine her life to be full and satisfying in the areas that I also value, particularly family. Her career confusion helps me recognize that there’s no rush – I still have many years ahead to figure it all out. But then I also wonder if there is a dream job out there for everyone, or if it’s even all that important to locate it if you enjoy what you are doing enough. Is it settling to not seek more or just a balanced, realistic, and self-aware means of looking at life?

I’m happy to know that some people have the clarity, determination, and ambition to land the seemingly perfect position for themselves. But maybe there isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, and certainly other realms of life require higher levels of satisfaction for certain people. I’m coming to find that my career ambitions aren’t lacking so much as being overshadowed by my family/relational ambitions – and I’m coming to think that just maybe this is how I would truly like my life to be.

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