It’s worth remembering the origin of the word ‘ambition’. It comes from the Latin noun ambitio, which derives from the verb ambulare – ‘to walk around’. ‘Ambitio’ was used to describe the walk taken around the public space where voters in elections would be gathered. It came to mean ‘ambition for political office’. So, originally, ambition was focused on the idea of winning popularity and getting people to vote for you, what we would now call ‘canvassing’ or ‘electioneering’. By extension, it also meant ‘striving for advancement’. Interestingly, these concepts are even less attractive than the idea of ‘ambition’. (In Roman law a related term took on a more negative tinge still: ambitus meant ‘a crime of political corruption’.) Few of us want to admit to ourselves, let alone to others, that we want to be popular or that we want to advance ourselves. Or that we would corrupt ourselves to gain advantage. On the other hand, some people can get quite aggressive about wanting to rebrand ambition as a positive thing because they think that seeing it as a ‘dirty word’ holds us all back. Others embrace ambition in a contrarian and defiant way: ‘I’m unashamedly ambitious.’ The word is surrounded by baggage. It’s never neutral. In some ways, the original derivation means: ‘I want to lead.’ No wonder that until very recently people have been uncomfortable around the idea of women and ambition.
Ambition means completely different things to different people. One person’s idea of ambition is another person’s idea of flaky and limiting. Some of us are ambitious for money and power. Some are ambitious for a balanced family life. Others are ambitious about achieving peace and quiet. Some people think they can use their ambition to achieve all these things at once. (Good luck with that.) The word ‘ambition’ becomes a catch-all for ‘getting what you want out of life’. And that, of course, is something that changes constantly over the course of our lives and is also redefined according to what’s going on around us. So ‘ambition’ is a tricky beast to pin down because its meaning is neither clear nor shared. And also because negative connotations are frequently attached to it, especially for women.
It can also be a massive red herring that holds you back, particularly if you misunderstand the context you’re operating in. Back in the 1980s, there was a very fixed idea of what ‘ambition’ meant and we were supposed to embrace it. It was about doing well at school and then somehow mysteriously creating powerpoint training opportunities for yourself. It was about setting your sights as high as you possibly could and not ‘settling’. It took me many years to recognize that this is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes we don’t know what opportunity looks like until we get closer to it. We often make mistakes in our thinking about what is ambitious and what isn’t. For example, one of the first massive hurdles in my career was caused by a major error in the feminist thinking at my school. This was a result of a huge misunderstanding of what ambition is and how it is constantly being redefined.
This is the danger of defining what ‘ambition’ constitutes. It needs to be a very informed definition – and perhaps involve some ability to see into the future.