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Ambition Burnout: Why Being Ambitious Isn’t Making Me Happy

© Rex

Daisy Buchanan on navigating a professional crossroad - to lean in, or to lean out

Just call me Marcel Love Island, for I have reached a professional crossroad. I’m 32 years old and I love my job. I think. I have been a professional writer and journalist for a little over nine years. I started as a features intern on a teen mag when I was 23, and I’ve written, and this is an extremely conservative estimate, approximately two million words. I’ve written for pretty much every paper, website and magazine that hasn’t been featured on Have I Got News For You. I’m about to start writing my fourth book. I’ve been on panels and radio programmes and the This Morning sofa. I’ve done a TEDx talk. I’ve also ghostwritten an entire book that was cancelled by the publisher after the subject of the book started ghosting them. I’ve been reduced to tears in a Southwark Pret by an editor who told me I’d never make it as a freelance writer. I’ve written silly things, soul baring things, things involving glamorous photo shoots, and I’ve written about the benefits of orthopaedic mattresses and special sticks to help you grab hard to reach objects.

I’m really proud of my career, from the work itself to the fact that I’ve managed to become my own boss, and survive and thrive as a self employed person without an official job title or a monthly salary. Admittedly, I think that for me, going freelance was like taking career steroids. Working for myself gave me the chance to define my role and seize every opportunity that has been offered to me. But occasionally I catch myself questioning my drive and determination, and what exactly it is that brought me here. For a long time, I’ve been obsessed with moving forward and getting to the ‘next’ stage, and I’ve started to wonder whether it’s truly making me happy. If I am naturally ambitious, or if I’m successful because I’ve never let myself wonder whether there’s an alternative. Can I even describe myself as successful when I’m only defining success as 'that which is hard to grasp or out of reach'? Do I really love my job if I’m simply striving to get to the end of every task because I’m hoping something bigger and better might be around the corner?

Lisa Miller, a writer for New York magazine, posited that the 30 something women she knew were collectively experiencing career crises, coining the term 'ambition collision'. She wrote 'The wage gap is about the same as it has been for a decade, which is to say since these women were in college…There is still no occupation in which a woman who works full time earns a lot more than a man, and few in which women have parity.' We hear constant messages pertaining to female empowerment. The pressure to be a girl boss has never been greater. Sophia Amaruso, the Kardashians, and even Tiffany Trump are held up as examples of what we could all be if we poured every atom of energy into having and realising our ambition. Yet for many of us, it’s like trying to start a car that’s stuck in a muddy ditch. We graduate, we’re told it’s tough out there, and so we work, and work, and work. We get in an hour before our bosses, we stay late, we cancel dates, miss birthdays and still end up doing a quick catch up on Sunday nights in order to take the edge off Monday morning dread. Yet the promotions don’t come fast enough, the pay rises don’t seem big enough, and we feel furious with ourselves for competing, and for caring so much.

My friend Anna*, 30, is thinking about quitting her job as a PR account manager. 'When I graduated eight years go, I was raring to go. Now sometimes I feel like screaming "Work stole my twenties!" I’m constantly pushing for progress, but I haven’t had a pay rise in three years. I act up for my boss all the time. It’s not as if I’m waiting to be noticed and appreciated - I feel like I don’t stop preparing for appraisals and asking for recognition. I’ve sought out so much advice, and everything makes me feel as though it’s my fault. I could be leaning in more, or working harder. But I don’t think I’ve got any more effort left in me. I’m sick of being single because I can never make time to meet everyone, and to be honest, all of my dates are in the same boat. My friends are in the same boat. I feel like my career was supposed to be as important, challenging and rewarding as school - and that was why we had to try so hard at school. I wish someone had said that ambition was a choice, not the only option.'

In 2008, Vodafone’s Working Nations survey found that employees aged between 31 and 35 were the least happy at work. A career consultant and occupational psychologist says that it’s not unusual to feel the mid-career blues at this time of life. 'Many people get to a point where they seriously question whether they want to continue doing the same thing, day in, day out for the next 20 years or so. This can be a really positive thing. It’s so important to keep evaluating where you are and how it makes you feel. If work is making you unhappy, it’s never too late to try something else.' Katherine Foster recently wrote about working at the Spectator as an intern, aged 48. It’s an inspiring story, but is it solving the problem ambition creates, and helping us to address our cultural obsession with success? Or is it simply forcing us to shift our focus to new ambitions, instead of resolving the fact that ambition makes us feel bad?

I talked to Helen, who is in her mid forties, and is a teacher and educational consultant. 'I was just talking to some old colleagues about the toughest bits of our thirties. It was really hard - we were as good at our jobs as we’d ever been, and we were so ambitious and frustrated. We believed we should be running the place, and maybe there was some truth in that! I think that you work with such intensity in your twenties that you get burned out quickly, but everything is new and it needs the energy you’re bringing to it. You can slow down in your thirties, you’re quicker and more confident and much more efficient - but I think this is true generally, and for your generation especially, the idea of slowing down isn’t appealing. There’s a brief period of work where your rewards happen in direct proportion to your efforts. That can’t go on forever, it starts to level off in your thirties, but it’s a horrible shock.'

What advice does Helen have? 'It’s easier said than done, but care less! I’ve cried after meetings and had big shouty phone calls in car parks - it’s taken me until now to realise that you can just stand back and let other things take priority. There is nothing wrong with being emotional or passionate, because it shows you’re committed. But commit to yourself over your job. It’s just like a bad relationship. If you’re not fundamentally happy and OK about yourself, you’ll look for validation from your work and it will just make it worse. Consultancy teaches you to stand back and be almost brutally efficient, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who feels a bit overwhelmed by the need to succeed. '

In my twenties, I was ambitious and desperate for success. In my thirties, I think my greatest ambition should be for my own happiness. I do what I love for a living, and maybe it’s enough for now to slow down and savour that feeling. When we let work define us and occupy every waking thought, we turn into professional Cookie Monsters. We’re not tasting, enjoying or experiencing. We’re shovelling, grunting, demanding to know what’s next without pausing for breath. Instead of trying to realise our ambitions through work, perhaps we should focus on figuring out our relationship to work, and how it can serve our bigger life goals.

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