On Soft Ambition

Maybe you’re over hustle culture. Maybe you’re done never saying no. Okay, but first: Can we tell you about a side of the buzzy character trait that no one is talking about?

Woman at desk working
(Image credit: Future)

It wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t even supposed to say the word ambition. It was a man’s word. One article, published in a national magazine in 2010, even declared ambition the new “Scarlet A,” stating that women felt ashamed to admit that they wanted power, success, and the corner office spoils that come with it. 

Obviously, it’s not that women weren’t ambitious. They just weren’t proclaiming to be. There are reasons for that, of course. According to research published in the journal Applied Psychology, women are penalized when they succeed at tasks traditionally associated with men. Where men get to be bumptious in boardrooms, ambitious women are flattened into unlikable shrills. 

Nevertheless, we persisted. We got side hustles and leaned in and cracked glass ceilings and became the first woman to [insert a whole bunch of things]. Throughout the mid- to late-2010s we owned our ambition, letting it ooze out through a sea of classic girl boss tropes: A woman’s place is in the boardroom! The future is female! It was never a dress!

The cover of Marie Claire's ambition issue

(Image credit: Lelanie Foster)

But then another shift happened: Shortly into the pandemic, we entered the “Age of Anti-Ambition,” according to a piece that ran in the The New York Times last year. It was just one of a bazillion stories about how hustle culture is dead (heck, we wrote about it, too) and how we have entered an anti-work era. Nap dresses and cottagecore went viral. Give us our #SoftLife.

The articles weren’t wrong. In my personal life, I saw it, too. When a friend in her mid-thirties left her enviable “dream” job, her coworker sent her an email saying she hoped she was on to bigger and better things. “Smaller and better things,” my friend responded. She was leaving to raise her young daughter and work part-time at a gardening center. Another friend quit her job as a high-profile attorney to kickstart her art business. Her Instagram is now filled with pictures of her in paint-splotched overalls in a light-filled studio. Someone else I know is thisclose to quitting her gig as communications director for a politician I’m certain you’ve heard of. She has no Plan B. 

These days it’s not that we don’t want to say the word ambition. It’s that we don’t want to be ambitious. At least not in the traditional sense.

It’s impossible to ignore the seeds of this malaise. Part of it is that we’re tired. It's estimated that 2.3 million women dipped out of the workforce in 2020. And a McKinsey study from last year found that 42 percent of those women were burned out, compared to just 32 percent in 2020. 

“Ambitious working women are forced to adapt—painfully and at great cost to their wellness—to a path to success defined by the prototype of a dude with a stay-at-home spouse,” says Rachel Simmons, an executive coach and author of Enough As She Is. “At home, they judge themselves against an impossible, always-on standard of caregiving. Under these conditions you can’t really ever win, because there is always another box to check. Ambition has become a transaction where women feel they must trade their mental and physical health in exchange for [career] success.”

But the other part of it is that we began to realize we were fooled. All of the glittering baubles women were promised if we just hustled a little harder, worked a little more, leaned in a little further—equal pay, equal opportunity, better family leave, better childcare, workplaces free of harassment—were nowhere to be found. The magical thinking that if we did more, we could have more, well, it was no more. 

“We’ve been told and conditioned through capitalism to fall into this trap that individual achievements are the antidote to systemic failure,” says Rainesford Stauffer, author of All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive. “But during the pandemic, people were still expected to go to work, people were still expected to perform, and structural crises compounded on top of personal ones. And people realized that these systems they poured themselves into had failed them.” 

And so, 50 million people quit their jobs in 2022, according to a federal report. Others opted to do less. (Quiet Quitting, anyone?) Government data released this month showed that the number of people shifting down to part-time work by choice was up by five percent. And those who couldn’t resign, sure did dream about it. That same McKinsey report showed that 1 in 4 women considered leaving the workforce. All signs that our desire to be ambitious was gone.

That all seems so absolute, though. It positions ambition and apathy as absolute states; where the only options available are to do everything or nothing. It overlooks that both are continuums—and that there might be a third choice.  

Because here's the thing: Not only have we been tricked into what ambition can do for us—we’ve been tricked about what it can be. The fruits of ambition have long centered on big promotions and bigger paychecks. On the kind of career news you post on social media that makes your friends’ jaws drop. 

It’s actually quite limiting. “Ambition is about taking up space with your dreams and choices, hopefully to make the world better than how you found it,” says Simmons. “You can do that in any context that matters to you. Starting a family is ambitious, as is trying to build a healthy romantic relationship for the first time. So is getting sober.” 

Investing in friendships, investing in community, investing in the role you have right now because it’s meaningful work—that is ambition. “It’s fascinating because those things aren’t normally clocked as ambitious,” says Stauffer. “But they take just as much care and drive as anything else.” 

By redefining ambition to be about more than power and money, it gives us agency over our ambition and the freedom to make the choices we want—something we’ve been socialized to believe that we do not have. 

There are other perks of embracing a softer kind of ambition, too, Stauffer says. When you have multiple outlets for your desire, and not just one, you’re better able to weather disappointments. Getting passed over for partner? That doesn’t feel so devastating when your life is full of things that aren’t just work. 

All of these viral pieces about the anti-ambition movement belie one thing, though: Some of us are gripping our ambition with white knuckles. When Stauffer tells me about her own relationship to ambition—that she saw it as a quality that held together so much of her self-worth and identity and that what she lacked in talent and tenacity she overcame with ambition, those words sliced close to the bone for me. 

Ambition has been my edge. I wasn’t the smartest person in my class. I’m not the best writer I know. But my work ethic has gotten me the dream job; it’s won me awards and taken me on reporting assignments to places like Ukraine. 

“There is this idea that what we produce is our self-worth,” says Stauffer. “It’s difficult to separate those two things out. We think we’re just one achievement, one goal, one ambitious thing away from our best self.”

To help, Stauffer says to think about it this way: “For a lot of us, when we hear ‘you need to work less, you need to do less, you need to do nothing,’ that’s a panic-inducing feeling. It just doesn't seem practical to hop off this wheel. How are you supposed to pay rent? Or convince your boss you shouldn’t be laid off? But it’s not about what we do less of, but about what we do more of. When people talk about prioritizing friendships the same way they would a deadline at work, all of a sudden boundaries are possible.”

Simmons adds: “Think about ambition in terms of what it intrinsically means to us, instead of focusing on what we think it will mean to the outside world. Your sobriety may not make you more money or get you more followers on TikTok, but if it matters more to you than anything right now, and it adds value and meaning to your life—that’s an ambition worth having.”

This change in thinking is powerful, because, ultimately, a downshift in drive is about more than burnout or the quest for balance. It's about redefining a phenomenon that impacts our lives in defining ways. How ambitious of us. 

Andrea Stanley

A former features director at Cosmopolitan, Andrea is a freelance journalist who reports on politics, people, culture, social trends, physical and mental health, and more.