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Since When did Ambition Become a Dirty Word?

Image courtesy of MerriamWebster.com

I still remember that performance review: I had done my usual 2 hours of preparation, writing out in detail the projects that went well, the projects that needed improvement, and how I ranked in a simple numerical scale. I did additional salary research and had all of my sources outlined: Glassdoor.com, Payscale.com, and many others. I was as ready as I ever could be, and went into the conversation with two goals: review the past year, and ask for a raise.

At that specific corporate job, I was given everything I could manage: I was swimming in work with clear goals and reasoning behind it, and I truly believe that what I did and what I pushed for mattered. Multiple employee surveys say that having their work matter to a specific end goal or line item is crucial for their work satisfaction, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always been a conscientious worker, and I try to leave each position as equal or better than I found it.

So why wasn’t I happy?

It wasn’t the money or the fringe benefits. It wasn’t the work/life balance. Ultimately, it was the company culture that killed my motivation and caused me to snap in frustration. Never before have I been so conscious of the fact that I have a uterus than in that position. And it was that single phrase: “Maybe you’re too ambitious” that made me lose any faith in the organization than I had before.

Every word that we choose to think, write, and say has a purpose, a connotation, and a nuance. It’s the reason why a locker room speech can rally the team to climb out from defeat and win the game or the reason why an audience member cries during a theatre performance. It’s why turning our music up loud allows us to feel the beat and emotion deeper, or how it’s easier to read poetry in silence.

This nuance is what gives words power, and skews a single word one of three ways: positively, negatively, or neutrally. Usually, when we think of formal office communication, we think of neutral phrases: following up, circling back, meeting objectives, project goals, etc. When we’d like to be persuasive in some way, we’ll add in the additional positive or negative words: money-saving, time-suck, per my last email, etc. Those positive words can help rally the troops, while the negative connotations add stress, disrespect, or mushy boundaries. To me, “ambitious” is one of those words that could be used either way. I’ve always been proud of my ambition since it got me to where I’d needed to be in life. I’ve always worked hard, showed up, and reached my goals from childhood to college and beyond. It was scrappiness and ambition that helped me move from cleaning horse stalls and spreading manure to working in a drive-thru, making sandwiches, sorting files, leading projects, and building a business.

Going back to that day, when told “Maybe you’re too ambitious”, I wholeheartedly agreed. I’ve always been a bit intense, and I know that. It wasn’t until the conversation ended that I realized just how negatively it was used. Why?

I still don’t think ambition is a bad word. It allows women to survive, when we still make less to every man’s dollar. It allows us to see how the game is rigged and figure out how to play so that we can still come out on top. According to Merriam Webster, the first definition for ambition is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power”. An ardent desire: a pit of passionate fire, a glow of energy, a fierce sense of caring.

If you say that ambition is a dirty word, perhaps caring is one too. If we never cared about something, we’d probably never have states or territories; legislation or laws. We’d never have anything that unified us or separated us. We would all simply be apathetic nihilists.

Now, that’s probably a bit too far: we all have different cares in our worlds. For me, that’s always been doing my absolute best and expecting other people to do the same. It’s about honesty and finding fulfillment in what we do: whether that’s working for ourselves, for someone else, or volunteering.

Perhaps it was down to the undercurrents of misogyny that were rampant in that industry and company. Perhaps it was simply not finding the right words or tone in a message that should’ve been more well-received… at this point, what was simply doesn’t matter.

I care more about what will be: and hopefully, what comes to pass are more ambitious women, like myself, willing to fly their ambition flag proudly. Hopefully what comes to pass are less performance reviews that don’t spin having ambition as a bad thing. Hopefully what happens are more equal salaries per job title. Hopefully what comes to pass is more ambition: all in its ardent desire.

Megan Miller
Megan Millerhttps://www.aprovecharlanguagesolutions.com/
As one enamored with deep thinking and deep conversations, Megan Miller shares her findings and experiences as a word nerd and language lover worldwide. With more than 2 decades of Spanish under her belt, Megan has experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingualism. Megan is the founder and owner of Aprovechar Language Solutions, a translation and Spanish/English language coaching business that focuses on mindset, habit, and real-world examples to improve people’s confidence and comfortability in speaking and communicating. When she’s not coaching or translating, Megan uses her communication skills as an IT Project Manager to produce technological solutions and likes to travel and bake in her free time

2 COMMENTS

  1. Here is a translation: “I don’t care spending my political capital on / know how to be moving you forward on that trajectory.”

    I am so sorry you were treated like this, Megan, that I was, that anybody is. Sometimes one has to throw the book at them.

    Fortunately I have also experienced managers who understood how the system worked and if they couldn’t give me what I asked for right away, could find alternative solutions so we both could be happy with the outcome.

    • I guess those are the differences between the “good” managers and the “bad” managers, Charlotte – the good ones care about the political capital of the organization, which can sometimes be a delicate balance with trust, integrity, and faith.

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