Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour

Ep. #19. Rethinking Ambition

June 10, 2022 Jean Balfour Season 1 Episode 19
Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour
Ep. #19. Rethinking Ambition
Show Notes Transcript

What does ambition mean to you?

It has often been associated with only the ambition to climb the corporate ladder.

But ambition means many different things. We may be ambitious to make a difference or to care for our family. 

In this episode Jean shares her view on ambition and how we can reclaim ambition for ourselves. 

Hi everyone. And welcome to making sense of work. In last week's podcast. My guest Vanessa talked about ambition and aspiration, and it got me thinking for quite a long time. I've been thinking about the concept of ambition and about all the assumptions we hold about the word. And so in this episode, I thought I would share some of that, thinking about the idea of ambition and aspiration and see if there's a way to rethink it. I'm curious about what ambition means, not in the way that we often think about it, but what does it mean in other contexts and how can we express our own ambition? How do we work out? What we're ambitious for and how do we bring this about. And this podcast is about rethinking and reclaiming ambition in our working lives. And in our broader lives, I started by going back to the dictionary, which describes them Bhushan as a strong desire to achieve something. I noticed when I saw that, that it wasn't a strong desire to climb the corporate ladder, but particularly in my experience, this is what I hear it defined as it's often translated to a strong desire to get a promotion, to get to the top or to be better. We've held a very narrow definition. I think of ambition. It's come to mean climbing the corporate ladder in a really strong way or getting the next role. And even in some cases we observe ambition and see it as being something that involves us having to achieve it and get there at the expense of others. But ambition means so much more than this. It says it's a strong desire to achieve something that that could be a strong desire to make a difference, or to keep learning. These are strong resides to. I also did a Google search and the types of things that came up were an ambition to achieve great things. And again, I thought, well, what if I have ambitious to achieve small things? Does it have to be great? I might have a strong desire to make a small difference, and I would still define that as ambition. I've also heard senior leaders say, well, that person lacks ambition, like it's a terrible and a bad thing, but what if I'm not ambitious in the way they perceive it, but I am ambitious in other ways that doesn't mean I necessarily lack ambition. You might not see it, or it might not be expressed through your definition of ambition. What if my ambition at the moment is to be at home? I'm still ambitious, just not for the job I'm doing at the moment, or maybe I'm doing a good enough job. I just don't want to be in the next job. I'm enjoying what I'm doing. Or what if my ambition is to be the best analyst this organization has ever seen, I don't want to be the CEO or a director, or even a senior manager, but I am ambitious to do a really good job in what I'm doing and let's face it. Very few people are actually going to make CEO. And so holding that ambition seems to be good for me if that's right for me. It may be that my ambition is to be fulfilled in something outside of a corporate job. I may have a passion that I'm willing to work on and to create something. It may be that my ambition is to be an athlete. I have a good friend who wanted to be a team GB triathlete in her fifties and sixties. She achieved that, but that it was an ambition that was outside of the ambition that we describe at. And so if we go back to the original definition, a strong desire to achieve something, maybe we can rethink how we see it and maybe begin to reclaim our own ambition. I have a personal story about the discovery of my own ambition. As I've previously said on the podcast, when I was growing up, all I really wanted to do was to be a teacher. I was really clear about this. I knew that I would go to teacher's college and then I would start teaching. I also imagined that at some point I would stop teaching. I would have children and be a stay at home mum. Well, things certainly didn't turn out like that. I did go to teacher's college and I was teaching by the time I was 20, I had a classroom of seven year olds, 37 year olds in becoming a teacher. I didn't even go to university. And in fact, nobody even suggested it. I was doing really well at school, but nobody's suggested that I go to university. So I went straight to teacher's college and that when I would train wasn't a degree program. I went on to teach in Auckland for a couple of years. And then I moved to London and I taught in London for nearly three years about. Two years into the job in London, I started to feel something was really wrong. I actually got quite bored. I couldn't see myself teaching five-year-olds for the rest of my life. I love kids, but there was something about being with 35 year olds in a classroom doing the same things every year. There's a rhythm and teaching that wasn't suiting me. Right. Had the opportunity fortuitously to start doing a little bit of teacher training in the evenings after school, which was quite a challenge, but it was such a good thing. I did that because I found that I loved it. I loved teaching adults. I loved working with teachers. And so I boldly left teaching with a plan to go into sort of corporate training roles. That also didn't work very well because then there was a big recession and the job market just collapsed. And for the next two years, I really. Uh, did any job that I could get basically to make ends meet? I did a series of different jobs. At one point I was literally typing postcodes into a very basic computer for the Royal mail, but never once during that period. Did I think about going back to teaching, I guess. Some form of ambition. And then I knew I needed to find something different and, and that feeling of wanting to find that something different was really powerful. Finally, I found a job in a training department in south London, and then my. Career in organizations actually took off quite rapidly. And I really did to get a sense of ambition. I suddenly wanted to do a lot. Um, I wanted to be senior in the organization and that's what I thought I wanted. I was in a, quite a small organization at that point. We were about 200 employees, but I created a world-class leadership program. I worked really hard. I thought about work all the time, and I really felt that. Feeling that kind of sense of growth and ambition. And it was good. I really loved that feeling. I actually, during this time found a career coach and during that conversations with her decided I wanted to move into health care and to health service management. And I became really intentional about this really focused and ambitious to do that. And, and they achieved it. I got a reasonably senior role in a health service organization. And in that organization then got other roles and carried on, but only for about three years. Because by this time I was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable. First of all, I was beginning to feel something weird about my ambition. It felt like I shouldn't be feeling ambitious. I think probably this had been rumbling along all the time, but I suddenly became very clear about it. And then I had a conversation with my mother who said, yeah, that would be. I, when you were growing up, I believed that it wasn't very nice. It wasn't a very nice thing for girls and women to be ambitious. And that looking back, she said, I see that I really raised you like this. And I now see that I was wrong. Her worldview had changed enormously. And she really said to me at that point, go beyond. But how many of us have had stories like that, that we've internalized without even being aware of it it's come from society or it's come from our families that either ambition needs to look like something, it needs to look like this, or we shouldn't be ambitious because whoa, that's not a nice thing to do for a while. I really embraced that. I really did embrace that sense of ambition. But not too long after that, actually I realized that I, the ambition for me, wasn't actually to be on the board or to be a CEO. As I got closer to those roles, I looked at them and I thought, I don't think there's a right for me. I had to stop and redefine what was right for me. And I realized during that period that actually. My ambition. Wasn't really a traditional form of ambition. I. I am ambitious. I'm still ambitious to this day, but it's about doing work. I love it's about growing myself. It's about helping others grow. It's about doing meaningful work and it's about getting better and better and better at what I do. I am ambitious to be financially comfortable. I grew up without much money and that's important to me, but actually that's not my number one ambition. It's much more about expressing my values and living what's important. Yeah. So at this point, I began to see that and I had an opportunity to move into an organization that took me into consulting and coaching and what I'm doing now. So I'm really happy about that. And as I said, it doesn't mean I'm not ambitious. It's just that I've found a way to describe what ambition means for me. And I'm really lucky. I've found a way to express that, to do work. I love to be helpful to others and to still express that empty. So understanding my own ambition journey has been really, really helpful. It's um, helped me to channel it. And I've also during this process, come to see that I think this is important for us and for others to understand what is our ambition? Where does it come from? What drives it? What are the personal stories that we have about ambition and how can we channel it in a way that is good for us and good for our career? It's about a way of having a working life. Suiting us that has helping us to feel fulfilled and happy. And in my role, as a coach, I do often find myself helping people to decode their ambition. It's sometimes comes because somebody didn't get a role that they thought they were going to get, or suddenly their motivation has fallen through the floor and they want to come and work out what that means. And for some, it means actually I'm really clear. I want to get that job. I want. The senior in the organizations, but for others, it's about owning up to the fact that they have a very different ambition. It may be that they would like to care for people as they're dying, or it may be that they want to put all their effort into raising their kids and that's their ambition. It may be that they want to express themselves through art. So we have a fabulous podcast guest coming up soon. Who's going to share that journey and it's really about getting to the nub of what is ambition for me and how can I express. A good starting point. I think for this is actually to go back to our childhood or our early career experiences, because so much of what our ambitions are or what drives them or how we express them is informed by that it's informed by our upbringing. That's informed by society. It's informed by our education and it's informed by what we perceive to be expected. And if we can dig into that and understand that. We can then work out is the ambition that I have maybe to move into senior leadership roles, for example, is that my ambition or is that what I think is expected of me? Because of the people around me, my upbringing, all the stories that society is telling me. And if I'm able to listen to that and truly understand. Then I might make choices that are going to be good for me. I can understand how I can channel my energy so that I can work it out in a way that's really good for them. And usually underneath our ambition there nearly, always is some story. If we're really honest with ourselves, there was some story that happened that gave us the energy to channel it that gave us the DNA to take it on and, um, to have a passion. And so it's about really finding the right way to channel that passion. One of the things that may have happened in our early career and our upbringing was that we had role models and these role models often form the definition of what ambition is. I can remember there was a person who I really looked up to who went on to be an organization consultant. She's Australian. And she helped the civil service to look at leadership models and organizational models. And I really looked up to her and I think that informed some of the work I wanted to do early on, particularly. But we can also have negative experiences that leave us feeling that we might have to prove something we may grow up without much money. And so our ambition is to make sure that we provide for our fan family and that we ensure that we are comfortably off, or we may have seen and experienced a lot of suffering and our upbringing. And we are very ambitious to relieve suffering. Not knowing what these drives are or these triggers. Can cause us a problem down the line, because we can end up on a career journey or a working pathway that is about what we want to show others or what we think we should be doing based on what happened in our childhood or in our early years, rather than what's good for. I mean, for example, a really classic one of course is feeling that I need to prove something to my parents or my family. And so my drives and motivations are about, I need to prove that, but that's my story. And I may or may not achieve it first of all. And then they all may not be watching and they may not even care. And it's, so it's so important that we reclaim it. We reclaim our ambition as what's important. Us, what is it that we want to achieve? What are our internal drivers and what is it that we want to say to ourselves and to others? I'm proud of that. I'm really happy. I did that. Of course, as we explore our ambition, we will see that it has different stages. In different points of our lives. So for some of us, we may actually be very driven early on in our career. And actually that may tail off later in our career. I certainly have had coaching clients who have said, you know, I'm in my mid to late fifties, actually. I'm really happy to stay in this job now and be fulfilled. And I've had coaching clients who were in their mid to late fifties and saying, well, Hey, the kids have left home. I'm ready for a new level of careers, some new ambition, and I'm going to go after it. We may find that there's times where we need to put a lot of energy into our personal lives. I met somebody this week who spent a lot of time with parents recipe, and that was really important. That was their ambition for that moment. So part of this is really just acknowledging that we won't all be Richard Branson, who appears to me to have been driven from day one and never stopped. We will have seasons in our ambition and our drive. And that too is good. There'll be times when we need to take our foot off the gas and sometimes we're, we're full steam ahead. Another aspect of this, is that what seemed really obvious when we were younger, may not seem so relevant now, you know, my own story, it seemed really obvious to me at 16, that I needed to be a teacher. I guess I am still teaching in some form, but I'm not teaching five-year-olds. I've known doctors who, after 20 years of training, I have decided to move out of medicine into something else. That's an enormous leap out decision because of all the time and energy and ambition that it's taken to get there. But that ambition, it left them and it was time for another ambition. It was time to engage some other drives some other way for them of being fulfilled in their career. And so it's okay to stop and say, you know what? My ambition has changed. I thought I wanted to go over there. Actually. I'm not sure now it's time for a real. So I really encourage you to think about this ambition, to think about what's underneath it. What drives it, think about when you first notice it, is it still true now? And where, when now would you like to be. If as you're doing that, you think, oh, well I really want to go over there, but I'm not sure this may be a confidence question or an imposter syndrome question creeping in. And if that's the case, it may be worth, first of all, inquiring into that, asking the question, is this because I don't think I can or is it because I'm lacking the confidence to believe I can. And when. It can come up really as being quite secretly ambitious for something, but really not wanting to express it or even to go there. We may be worried about what people will think if they hear it, or even whether they'll think that we can achieve it. But I really believe that if you inquire into that and you discover that, then see if you can lean into it for awhile, you actually don't have to tell anybody that that's what your ambition is, but you can. Think about it, you can begin to feel the fear if you like and do it anyway, you can feel that fear and, and keep claiming it and keep aiming high. Now, all of this is all very good, but what happens if you are really ambitious, you know, what you want, and you're really struggling to make it happen. And for most of us, this happens at some point in our working life. We can't get the dream job we want, or the promotion, or we have a passion project, but we can't afford to leave our corporate role. It's tricky. How do we express it? How do we ride through that challenging time? And how do we come out? The other side, still feeling good about our working lives and our career. What happens during this period is that we can often lose the ambition or BD motivated or demoralized. It can feel like a major loss of drive. And actually, if this happens, we often stop putting focus and energy on our work or on the thing that matters to us. And we go off and do something else. We lose sight of it. We lose a connection with it, and I've certainly coached a number of people who were either not getting the promotion they want, or weren't able to express themselves through their passion projects. If this is happening to you, there's a number of things that you can do. Firstly, talk to a coach because it may be that something's blocking you or stopping you from getting. Jobs. And you can look at those blockages and see if you can unblock it. You might want to take a cold, hard look and say, I'm not getting that next role. Is it right for me really? Is this because actually this role isn't going to suit me, isn't it? Is it not really a good job for me? Or is it not the right job for me in this organization? Do I need to move organizations to be really honest with yourself about. What the reasons are that you're not able to get there. You're not able to achieve your ambition. I mean, it may be that when you look at it, actually you need to do some other things. You need to get some new experience, take a sideways move. Maybe it's about taking some form of long game that can help you get. And while you're doing that, you can look for ways to channel your frustrated ambition into other things, maybe mentor some younger people and help them achieve theirs, or go and seek out some feedback and do some big, deep, personal growth on areas that you could be moving forward in. Maybe even be open to rethinking your ambition and explore other possibilities. Go on a journey of discovery and see what. Be possible. If at this point, you know that you have a passion project, you want to be an artist, but actually you really can't afford to move into that. Full-time make time for it in your personal life. Grab time. I'm reading a wonderful book on writing by Julia Cameron at the moment. And she talks about how we often wait for that big expanse, expanse of time to do something. And she said, dad, it's not like that. We just need to grab time and take time when we get. As you've heard, I've come to see that ambition as defined by the dictionary, which is a strong desire to achieve something is good. It's good for most of us. And it motivates us. It gives us a purpose and a sense of direction. And so take time to. Become clear about it, to understand what ambition means to you and to find a way to express it can really help us to create the working lives we seek. And I wish you well on a discovery of your own ambition.