What do you want out of life?
For me, the answer to this question has always been small and big at the same time.
I don’t want a mansion. I don’t want a big, shiny car. I don’t want to be president, or to walk on the moon, or even to be anyone’s boss. I most certainly don’t want to be rich.
But I do want to make a positive impact on the world–to connect with strangers. To lessen the burden on the planet. To communicate the challenges that the marginalized (of all species) face.
I first understood what I wanted out of life when I did a science writing internship during undergrad, writing about the potential impacts of climate change on the Mekong Delta.
I loved my unstructured days–the ability to spend a morning deeply absorbed in information, finding ways to weave a narrative out of data and charts and facts, and my afternoons walking along the lake, or going for jog in the nearby cemetery.
But what I loved most was the sense that my work might benefit someone. That the literature review I helped conduct might contribute to policy decisions that could save people’s lives in Vietnam.
It represented dual benefits for me: I could make a positive difference and also have the freedom to live my life.
It also helped me realize that I wanted to be able to sink myself into life outside of my work, too. I wanted to be able to savor mugs of tea. To go for runs with a dog at my side. To spend time with my family and friends. To think deeply about the world and the best ways to live in it.
I understand that this is a deeply privileged stance–it sounds a lot like wanting to have my cake and eat it too. How many of us get to both have a career we love that is impactful to the world, and also have a full life outside of that?
Certainly not single parents, who are working two jobs just to be able to afford daycare. Definitely not the 2.2 million people in the United States who currently make minimum wage, and have to take on side hustle after side hustle to make ends meet.
While I can see my own privilege in wanting it all, my solution isn’t to give that up. Rather, I’d like to fight to extend it to everyone. So that everyone has the opportunity to live a holistically fulfilling life. It’s written in our Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
Happiness isn’t working at soul-sucking job that doesn’t pay you enough, so that you can run off to your other awful job. Happiness isn’t, at the end of that long, long day, not having enough money to afford health care.
American culture sells this narrative that career and the rest of life are two disparate things. Women who want to work and also have kids are said to be “trying to have it all.” People talk about living for the weekends.
Or they brag about the long hours they keep–about how their career is so important, it has eaten up their personal life. Ambition for ambition’s sake is celebrated. It’s seen as a good thing when you work a 60 hour week, as the bar to which others should rise to.
After being raised by my mom–who centered so much of her life around her work with the New Jersey Department of Education–I sometimes felt ashamed that I didn’t have a stronger drive to do the same.
She used to leave before the sun was up, and get home long after it had set. There were whole stretches of time where she slept at the office, popping back home at random intervals, delirious and slaphappy.
I was so proud of her–she was writing these massive grants, that were going to benefit millions of children. But I also knew, from the ripe age of 11, that I absolutely did not want to follow in her footsteps.
She–on the other hand–never doubted that I would. She had such a specific views of success. There was no question that I would go to college. No question that I would wait until after college to get married. No question that I would go on to pursue a secondary degree, and a degree after that too.
There was an unspoken expectation that I’d get a job–either in academia or something with similar cache–that was the center of my life and do-gooding in the world.
My mom used to always say, with pride and satisfaction, “Studies have shown that daughters tend to do at least as well as their mothers in the amount of education they receive and the salary they bring in.”
My mom has an EdD, the equivalent of a PhD in education.
Within my family, deciding not to pursue a secondary degree–and deciding instead to get married and have a baby and do an assortment of odd jobs (like work at humane societies and as the communications person for a deer lab)–was a form of rebellion.
And while I’d love to go back to school eventually, right now getting a PhD isn’t a form of ambition I want to tackle.
Even in this most privileged of settings, academia is full of unhealthy work-culture. People seem to be in competition about who is the most harried, busy and stressed–even when actual productivity suffers in the face of those things.
I don’t feel the need to have a title in front of my name. My definition of success doesn’t require advanced education or a job that calls for pantsuits.
Unlike my mom, I don’t want my life to be centered on my job, and I don’t believe that higher education is the magic portal to success.
I think it’s super important, and for a lot of people, it’s the only doorway into the lives they want to lead. But I don’t think that dedicating your whole life to higher education or a career is the only way to live an ambitious life.
I can do good in small ways, too.
Striving to be the best communicator I can, so that people understand the challenges the natural world faces. Volunteering for humane societies. Being kind to the people I encounter in daily life. Voting, calling and rallying for causes I’m passionate about.
Writing my feelings publicly, so that–maybe, just maybe–someone will read my words and feel a little bit less alone in this beautiful and sometimes hard world that we live in.
I also do not believe that going back to school is the only way to continue education, especially in this age of information.
Since leaving the classroom as an undergrad, I’ve picked up more textbooks–and engaged more fully with them. My curiosity about the world drives me to read primary literature, to understand the science behind how things work. To learn more about how I can be the best parent, the best employee, the best person that I can be.
I weave my life’s work–which includes making the world a better place–into the fabric of my home life. I read books that force me to question my beliefs. I engage with people–real people–whose perspectives of the world are radically different from my own.
But even as these convictions grow, I still sometimes feel embarrassed by the life choices I’ve made. Like because I have different priorities, I am lesser than my more ambitious peers.
I feel ashamed that we opted to get married so (relatively) young–against the advice of my mom. That we decided to have a baby so soon, when everyone told us to wait (even though it’s been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me).
Kids and commitment are so often spoken of as the end of ambition. “I wanted to go back to school, but then we had the baby…” or “I wanted to write that novel, but then you know, parenthood…”
But what if we flip that perspective, and begin to look at our lives holistically? At all the parts that actually form a fulfilling and happy and healthy life, instead of just our careers.
Jordan said something the other day that, for the first time since I was a kid, put that sense of shame for prioritizing a husband and kids into perspective.
We were sitting on the couch, talking through the New York Times’s 36 Questions to Fall in Love. One of the questions was, “What has been the greatest accomplishment in your life?”
My mind immediately went to the manuscript of my book sitting on my laptop, or the hundreds of dogs and cats I’d helped save at the humane society through photography and careful wording and late night calls to fosters and overnight drives up north.
But Jordan, thankfully, spoke first. “Marrying you,” he said.
“You consider that an accomplishment?” I asked, skeptical.
“Of course. Finding and marrying the right person for you? That’s one of the main pillars of living a happy life. That’s an incredible accomplishment.”
I’d never looked at it that way, but it made sense. Our partner is the person we go through each and every day with. Having a wonderful person next to you through both the joyous moments and the challenging ones can make a huge difference in the quality of your life overall. It can be the difference between happiness and misery.
That statement gave me permission to recognize ambition in non-career related portions of my life.
For me, ambition is growing old with a cherished life-partner. Ambition is watching my children grow up, and giving them golden childhood memories to bolster them for the rest of their lives. Ambition is having a job I enjoy that allows me to prioritize my family while also benefiting society–even if it doesn’t make a lot of money.
It comes in smaller forms too: it’s exercising daily. It’s making life-long friends in every place we’ve lived throughout the country. It’s journaling every day. It’s being a good daughter and sister. It’s making the people I interact with regularly feel good. It’s living sustainably and getting out in nature and eating well and feeding my kid vegetables I’ve grown and flossing.
It’s staying engaged in the politics of our country, even when it is soul-crushing. It’s shouting out about topics I’m passionate about, voting, holding signs. It’s donating to people who can make the changes I want to see.
My ambitions are small but many. They are as diverse as the many facets of who I am.
(To be clear: yours don’t need to look just like mine–there isn’t one best way to live. Yours may not include a long term partner and kids. Yours may be more career centric, or friend centric, or dog centric. Or you may be at a phase in your life where career takes the center stage. That’s great too. You get to define what ambition looks like to you).
Jordan’s response shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me.
When my grandpa died last year, at his memorial, people didn’t talk about how good he was at his job, or how driven he was, or how much money he had. They talked about the relationships they had with him. About how well he loved my grandma, his kids, his grandkids, his colleagues. About his gratitude for life and his generosity to those around him. About how his kindness helped shape the course of their lives.
My grandpa lived the best life I can imagine. It was full of warmth and love and wonder and gratitude.
He taught me that the best lives aren’t lived in mansions. That they aren’t filled with yachts or billions of dollars sitting untouched in an overseas bank account or private airplanes or any of the excesses that the ridiculously wealthy in our country can’t seem to live without.
(To be clear again: there are wrong ways to live. What greed–to have those things when other people are hungry and cold and sick).
My favorite books also emphasize the small, good lives that people can live. Little Women and the Blue Castle both delve into the millions of small things that add up to create a good life–the quality time, the generosity, the hard work of coexisting with other humans.
And also the small things that add a shine to life–the fresh picked flowers and moonrises and warm, purring cats on your lap. The comforting weight of a baby in your arms. Steam curling off a mug of tea in morning sunshine. A shoulder to lean against, when times are hard.
Ultimately, our lives are made up of small moments and the people who are in them. While I might go through many different jobs and careers through my life, Jordan will always be by my side. And I have found so much love and meaning in having L that it astounds me on a daily basis.
My day is bolstered by the little things–our tiny brick house, a run through the wooded lot behind our house with the dogs. L’s thrilled laughter as I chase him around the corner. Sitting in the sunshine with my sister on a Saturday morning, our journals splayed out in front of us. The chill of the air coming through our open window at night, my feet pressed against Jordan’s calves for warmth.
So few of us have opportunities to do truly great things. Not everyone grows up to be a president or astronaut or famous author. Ultimately, most people live small lives.
The trick is to live those small lives so well that they loom large for the people and places that we impact. So that we are forces for good both within our careers and our lives at home.
Ultimately, I guess the argument I’m making here is this: be ambitious, but not greedy. Use your successes to raise others up. And remember that your career is but one small part of your life, one small facet of who you are–you can wield kindness and generosity and passion for the benefit of the world outside of your job, too.
What are your small ambitions?