In Which We Admit We’re Ambitious


This is a guest post from the always awesome Kate of Eat The Damn Cake.  She writes about life, cutting her long hair down to a boycut with a paper scissors and all sorts of other good things.  Pop over and have a look around! 

So while I was reading one of those women’s magazines (occasionally I walk by the stack on the couch and get hypnotized by the hot pink bubble letters in the headline and start thinking, “What IS he really thinking about sex every time he sees my hair?”), I stumbled upon an article about women and ambition. Women, said the article, don’t like to admit that they’re ambitious. In fact, the only woman who has ever been known by the editorial staff at this particular magazine to refer to herself as ambitious is Catherine Zeta-Jones. The rest of us just blush and look down modestly when we receive our Olympic gold medals. We say afterward, to the hordes of hungry reporters, “Oh, gosh…I don’t know. I guess I was lucky?”Of course, I immediately thought, “Yet another way in which Catherine Zeta-Jones and I are soul sisters.” No, not really. But I did think that I don’t know very many women who aren’t ambitious. And it seems to me that they are willing to admit it.

I am ambitious. It drives me crazy. I don’t want to be. I want to be completely content with a delicious sandwich, a decent job,  and a good TV show. Or several delicious sandwiches, a reasonably decent job,  and a few mediocre TV shows. Life would be  a lot easier. I want to be OK with leading a quiet life, surrounded by family, like my fantastic 90-year-old grandmother.

But I’m ambitious. I don’t need to be a celebrity or a world-famous something or other. I have no interest in the paparazzi and I’m incredibly unphotogenic anyway. I don’t feel any need to make a million dollars. But I want to be recognized for what I do. I want people to think that I’m awesome. I want to be perceived as successful. I want to push myself to be better at the things I’m good at. To be better at the things I’m bad at. To be better.

I feel awkward writing it, so maybe there was something to that article in the magazine. Maybe it is awkward to say that you want those things. Maybe it’s especially awkward, somehow, as a woman. I get the sense that I’m supposed to say, “I’m just so thankful for everything I have, all the time. I couldn’t imagine having anything more!” I should say, “If I ended up with two or three happy and healthy kids and nothing else, that would be completely fine. That would be perfect.” I should say, “Family is the most important thing in my life, at all times.” Or “If I never impress another person, that’s completely OK, because I am content just being who I am.”

Sometimes I’m walking home with two unfairly heavy bags of groceries and I catch myself thinking about how much I want to succeed. It’s kind of vague. Sometimes I’m imagining getting a book deal. I know a book deal doesn’t actually mean success in the way that a lot of people define it. Plenty of writers get published only to discover that approximately ten people are even remotely interested in reading their book. I imagine myself founding a company that does something cool and productive that everyone needs. I have no idea what. What I do know is that it’s important to me to be able to someday look back at my life and point out to myself the things I did that made an impact. And by impact, I mean “affected a lot of people in an obvious and positive way.”

It can be embarrassing to admit to wanting something conventional. To admit to wanting something stereotypical. To think things that sound arrogant. I hear myself thinking, “I have a lot to say, and it’s worth something. I want everyone to have access to it. I want to be important.”

And then I quickly think, “What makes you think you deserve to be important? You aren’t that special.”

And then I think that I don’t care if I’m not incredibly special, I still have points that should be heard. I feel deserving. I feel ready.

When I talk to my young women friends, a lot of them want to be heard, too. They want to be important. They want to be conventionally successful in one way or another. They want to change things, to improve things. They don’t say, “I want to be famous.” They say that they have big goals.

We’re not supposed to want to be important. It sounds selfish. I know, because I’m uncomfortable writing about it. I assume that whoever reads this will think that I am too self-involved to be tolerated. Penelope Trunk told me to write about things that make me uncomfortable. Because that’s when I’ll know I really care about what I’m writing. And chances are, if it makes me uncomfortable, it will be something worth talking about.

So here I am. Me and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And a bunch of other women, really. Who feel kind of unfulfilled. Who feel moved to do something bigger. Who feel like we are capable of doing something bigger. Who are always thinking of another project. Who would be OK with being famous, if that happened. Who sometimes really, really want to be famous (as long as there aren’t too many cameras). Who are always sort of waiting for something to happen. Something spectacular. Who want to be heard by a lot of people. Who think they have something to say that’s worth hearing. Who believe they are deserving. Who want to make the world a little better. Who want to be remembered. Who are ambitious.

Do you consider yourself ambitious?  What are your ambitions?  I’m as ambitious as all get out.  Sometimes I wish I could turn it off! 


Sara Murphy

Great post! I'm with you on wanting to do something great 🙂
I suspect that the problem with admitting ambition isn't that we feel as though we are supposed to be grateful for what we have, but rather that needing to work our asses off for something isn't celebrated by society as much as being able to get what we want just by existing. The big stories in the media are about the overnight success/American Idol type achievements, and even if the individual has secretly been working and sacrificing, that part of the story gets left behind.
Its as if admitting that we are working at self improvement and sacrificing to get where we want to be is like admitting that we weren't good enough to begin with in a society that demands perfection.


Thanks Kate for managing to articulate all the mess that's swimming about in my brain at the moment! I've just gotten back from travelling and am looking for a job…but what?! I know what I should be chasing, the position that would sound impressive to other people but will that really make me happy? I want to feel "successful" but I can't seem to find the motivation to make it happen. Just waiting around for it to bite me on the bum. I wish I could turn it off too. Be content just being, not stressing about what I'm NOT doing.


I wrote a huge comment and couldn't send it -_-
But anyway I was just agreeing with everything that you said. The other day I told some of my friends that I was planning to go to work in France this summer and some were like: yeah you'll work and earn more but with all the travel expenses it doesn't really compensate. I just wish they'd understand that working is not my major goal, my major goal is to travel to France and if the only way to do it is to work there while I'm there I'm going to do it. I feel very ambitious and it was hard to me to tell them what I planned because I feel like such a dreamer.
I admit that I feel guilty for being ambitious, some people can't afford college, can't afford a house and I'm completely dying to go traveling, visit other places or be a famous writer. How can I allow myself to be ambitious when some people would love to have a tiny piece of what I have right now?


This is a fantastic post.
I am very ambitious. And it wasn't until about two years ago that I rid myself of the self-imposed negative connotation that the word had for me. It was one of my mentors in Sweden who said: I admire you for being such an ambitious woman.
And I went: reaaaaaally? Isn't ambition kind of negative?
Needless to say she convinced me of the contrary pretty quickly.
True, life would be so much easier for me if I wasn't so ambitious but at the other hand a lot of the very exciting things happening and that I'm participating in these days wouldn't have happened if it weren't for my ambitious side.


Thanks for the post, it articulated exactly what I feel.
My ex and I used to get into huge fights because he'd ask what the hell I wanted to work so hard for, he'd work, I'd raise kids and things would be great. Enough said, we are not together anymore. I used to think something was wrong with me because I didn't want that, and I'd dropped a great guy just because he didn't have the same ambition as me, but… you can't change your stripes I suppose.


I was nodding the entire time I was reading this post. It's so true, and I know so many young women (including myself) aching for something bigger.

I have sorta specific ambitions like – power-suit wearing CEO of an environmentally conscious tech company that receives hundreds of philanthropic awards, or, billionare author turned woman president. But mostly, I just like to focus on world domination. That seems to cover whichever aspect of my personality I'm currently focusing on.


This is a great post! I am a newly qualified librarian and recently I was at a networking event and was discussing with a new contact how I got my current job in the harsh climate of public libraries in the UK. I had done some work experience in this library and then they asked me to come back for some casual work, then my job vacancy came up and I applied & got it. I shrugged it off and said 'Oh I've been so lucky, right place, right time'. But this more senior librarian said to me 'I am sure it's more than just that, you must have worked hard & impressed them to want to keep you in the organisation after just 3 weeks work experience'. And it was true, I WAS ambitious and I DID work hard, but sometimes we don't want to admit that because we sound arrogant.

Fajr | Stylish Thought

Amazing post! This has definitely stirred something in me and I feel like you are living in my brain. Sometimes I think my insane drive and ambition is unhealthy but then again if I were a man I wouldn't even think twice about it. I think what tempers it is that I am not willing to sacrifice myself for success, but I do want to be of value and add something to the world.

I love you for writing this!


I have absolutely no problem admitting that I'm ambitious, if not OVERLY so at times. This is not to say that wanting the small things- and being happy with them- is a bad thing. I want a small home with a backyard, blackberry bushes around the fence, and two kids. I want to be an art teacher. Those things are great, and not to be considered un-ambitious. After all, it's taking a lot for me to get to that point. But I also want to travel around the world, know, and be successful in, EVERY traditional art form before I die, and I want to be a hula hooping instructor. Yes, hula hooping. It's awesome. Just you tube it. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. If women are slow to admit to it, it's because they don't want to be held accountable for what they are afraid they'll never accomplish. Sad. But probably true.


what a fantastic post! and a great tip about writing what makes you uncomfortable – this really helped me with a project i'm working on, thanks!


Such a great post!

I have a "high powered" career for someone as young as I am (26) and for a woman. I am always saying I fell into it, and in a way I did… I feel into it and then worked my ass off for five years. I did it becasue it is what I want and what I wanted and I am working harder now for the next thing I want (to leave said career and become my own independent woman). The thing is, I don't know how to say: I know what I want, I know how to get it, and I know I will not fail.

Actually, I guess I just did say it. Kinda makes me want to say it again: I know what I want, I know how to get it, and I know I will not fail.

Its a lot of "I" but but it felt really good to write that! I think that often we are told that focus on self is selfish or boasting rather than ambitious. Thank you for this post.


Hi. My name is Liz and I am ambitious.
I don't think that should be buried deep down inside me.
Owning our ambitions and desires and acting on them are the only way we can make our lives, our world, a better place!
(PS So glad you quoted Penelope Trunk)


so true. i am damn ambitious. not in a "make lots of money & be famous way". i just want to make a living at what i love to do, spend time with people i love, and have a positive impact on people around me. i get so overwhelmed with the little things sometimes though. but i guess we all do on occasion.


I'm very ambitious and fairly entertained by all that I've accomplished. I just can't understand being content with going to work, hanging out with friends, doing whatever. I do that stuff, but the rest of the time I've got goals to conquer.


Absolutely love this post! It really made me realize that I've been AMBITIOUS my whole life, and it's been during the last 8 or so years that I've tried to suppress that…I don't like stealing attention away from others, or putting myself above anyone else, which I think gets mistaken for ambition a lot of the time.
I always have huge goals and have had this feeling my whole life that something incredible is going to happen. And I'm pretty sure it's my drive to make even something as vague as that happen that makes me ambitious.


Great post – it resonates a lot for me.

I have been sitting with my ambition for a long time. I have always been ambitious. It wasn't until recently I realised that the things I was doing to sate that ambition (ascending the ranks towards a relatively high powered job in an area of work I was just not at all passionate about) were the wrong things for me.

I am now ambitious to be awesome in a way that is true to me, moving my reference point from conventional measures of success (money, house, job, giant yacht) to my own measures of success (happiness, ability to affect positive change in others).

The one thing that has stayed the same? I want to be recognised and well-regarded for the work that I do.

And yeah, it does feel awkward to say/write that out loud.


See, I think I have the opposite problem. I don't have huge aspirations. I want to feel fulfilled in my career – and I do – but I don't want to work much more than 40 hours a week, because I would rather spend that time pursuing my other interests.

I DO want a happy and content and settled life. I guess my goals are big in that they're expensive and going to take time – buying a house and seeing the world, the way I want to see it – but they're hardly going to change the world.


I've always been really ambitious. Even from when I was little I wanted to shoot for the moon, and I never knew that so many things could hold you down. I wanted to be a famous writer, a famous lacrosse player, own a ranch to help abused kids and horses. I've always wanted to make a difference in the world, to inspire someone on the other side of the planet. But I could never really figure it out. Every morning I stare at the blank ceiling in my bedroom, and play what I want my future life to be like, I don't just want to be a wife and a mother. I don't just want to be the pretty face down the block, or the smart girl who is thirteen and has the IQ of your average 40 year old. I want something more in life, but I don't know how to get it.

Antonia M.

Oh hell yes. I'm definitely ambitious, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. If it weren't for my ambition, I would stagnate, never get anything done, never get better at anything.


I am always amazed at the older generation.. my gran and others. They are at peace with life, just doing the same things they do everyday. And I keep wondering, why am I so ambitious? They look perfectly content. But I guess, there will be a time for that.. but right now.. I want everything!! (Great post)


This is interesting, because I feel like I have to HIDE my lack of ambition. All I want is to have a family, be a good partner and mother, and live my life well. But my mother (in particular) disapproves -she wants me to have a career! I think society expects more from women these days, and I feel guilty that I'm not living up to these expectations – I don't even have a university degree, for heaven's sake!


Words cannot express how grateful I am for having found this post. I completely identify with the shame that often accompanies ambition. It's nice to hear that I am not the only one who feels this way. Excellent post!


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