A former classmate who was married but didn't have children so that she could devote more time to building a career, told us she’d left her job at IBM, where she’d been steadily climbing the ranks. Had she ever aspired to be CEO? “I saw at IBM what those people were like, what they sacrificed,” she said. “Most of them were divorced, grossly overweight, exceptionally ill. They were good at their jobs but that’s all they did. They had no other hobbies. They never went on vacation because they didn’t know what to do when they had free time. So I do not aspire to that. I aspire against it.”
Another woman who had never planned on having children so she, too, could focus on her work and love of travel, spent several years as a global management consultant based in Aspen, Colorado, always flying to a different city for client work. One day, admitting that “there wasn’t enough meaning for me in making big corporations bigger and more profitable,” she quit, returned to the mountains, took up skiing again and became a life coach. There is “power” in helping transform people’s lives, she told us. “Power has always been a big driver for me.”
These women hadn’t lost their ambition; instead they’d changed the definition of the word. They saw that ambition takes many forms, only one of which is becoming CEO. While everyone may have started out with lofty career goals, many also had lofty personal goals; ambition doesn’t stay in a neatly contained career-goals-only box. Just as many of our classmates had previously aspired to be the best in their chosen field, they now wanted to be the best mother, the best partner, the best everything else.
“If you’re going to study, study hard. And if you’re going be a mother, be a mother. If you’re going be a lawyer, be the best lawyer you can be,” the former Justice Department lawyer told us over Skype, in between home-school lessons and nursing her new baby. “If that makes me ambitious, I guess I’m still ambitious.”
A former-Ph.D.-candidate-turned-sales-training-executive who sometimes worked 80 hours a week, achieving promotions and praise, described how her ambitions had, after a while, made her life untenable. “I commit fully to anything I do, so I was happy to answer the phone at 9:30 at night anytime someone needed me,” she said. After nearly a decade of supporting her family with her career, she found herself exhausted and, also, with a few unexplored areas of ambition. She moved her family from Connecticut to Indianapolis, where life would be cheaper, and started an Etsy boutique offering handmade art. She still commits fully to everything she does: creating artwork, writing op-ed pieces for local blogs, being politically and philanthropically active.
Continuing to be ambitious doesn’t mean our subjects haven’t sacrificed some of their dreams over the years. Some would have liked to have been a CEO, a full-time mother, and a novelist all at the same time. “In my fantasy, I get to stop the clock, go to work, and then start the clock again,” said a former banker-turned-full-time-mom. She’d like to return to work, but acknowledges she can’t do everything on her list, at least not at the same time.