First grade was a big year for me. My teacher was notorious for “being mean” at my elementary school, which may be the least desirable quality of any adult though the eyes of a six year old. I can say with full confidence that Mrs. O was not mean at all, she just had high standards. An unexpected side effect of being in Ms. O’s 1st grade class was the elementary street cred you garnered among your peers for being in the mean teacher’s class and being alive to tell the tale. Ms. O facilitated my Big Year in a few ways. I started writing for fun that year and she praised me for it, which was a great motivator. Performance-based praise continued to be the great motivator for the next 15 years, and for better or for worse, I felt very defined by those reinforcements. One of the other things that happened that school year was my first failure. “Failure” being very loosely defined here – I got a D on a spelling test.
I know a D on a spelling test when you’re six isn’t Enron level failure, but for first grade Liz it was a big deal. And clearly it stuck, because here I am writing about it at the age of 32. Spelling was my jam back then, and after having overcome the great lowercase b versus d confusion of kindergarten, I felt like being a good speller was a triumph and often resulted in stickers and/or “Excellent!” stamps, which is very gratifying. As you can imagine, no such gratification accompanied the 60% on my poorly executed weekly spelling test and I was crushed, but determined to kill it going forward. Focus. Color inside the lines with NASA grade precision. Read a chapter book (Charlotte’s Web). Write a story about a unicorn.
1991 was my year, spelling test be damned!
That cutesy memory of the first time I was disappointed in myself is just a snapshot of a single life in this universe and a microcosm of the collective existence of my peers who are driven by ambition. I always thought of ambition as a really important and positive force in a person’s narrative. About two years ago I started reconsidering the idea that this constant thirst for something better, higher, stronger, more prestigious is anything more than an ego driven hamster wheel.
A year into my first corporate gig (after a decade in nonprofits) I was promoted from a front line staff role into training. Suddenly I was part of a very strictly defined corporate structure with a culture to match. If I can borrow the cliché, I was feeling very much a fish out of water. The things that used to fuel and gratify me (doing a “good job”, serving others) did not seem to be highly valued. (That was my perception at the time.I am not saying that it was reality.) I felt the pressure to be ambitious – fiercely ambitious. Prove your worth. Go to the happy hour and make sure that a certain person sees you. Talk to people strategically about your intentions. Be aggressive. Be vocal. Be visible. Everything is intentional! It’s just business.
It’s hard not to get swept up in the undertow of comparison. The titles. The salaries. The judgment. The reviews. I was suddenly looking at myself and feeling the way I did when I was looking at my spelling test in 1st grade. Why didn’t I do better? Why wasn’t I more professionally focused right out of college? Why did I continually seek low/no paying positions?
After college I joined organizations where I could be of service rather than jobs that served some sort of ambitious agenda and I was very fulfilled, so why did I feel suddenly unsuccessful?
After a few years in this new environment I started to sound like a version of myself that existed in an alternate universe ran by the boss from Office Space. I am sure I annoyed some of my friends, and please be assured that I annoyed myself as well.
I have had the opportunity to put serious thought into what’s next for me. I hereby decide to forego the baggage that comes with blind ambition. Making goals is immensely important, of course, and growing is still essential to my existence. But being laser focused on climbing a rock wall that never ends is absolutely useless and supremely exhausting. Some may call this simplistic or naïve, but I am going to give myself the same advice I would give to my little sister – just do your best and always be people-oriented. You can’t really go wrong with that.