The wrong kind of ambition

It has been a running joke throughout my life that when you pray for humility, God will answer your prayer. The joke was usually on someone else, so I never had much trouble laughing at it.

But even as I was laughing, I was also praying — or begging — “Lord, do make me humble, please, but be nice about it.” Translation: Make me humble, but don’t let me make a complete buffoon of myself in a public place.

That’s what I thought I meant, anyway. I thought I wanted to avoid falling down the stairs, ripping my skirt in an awkward place, saying something completely stupid in the office, or finding spinach in my teeth after a long conversation at a party or a business lunch. Marilyn Monroe

All of those things are true, of course. Recently, though, I’ve been forced to acknowledge the deeper meaning in my prayer: I’d like to be humble, but I’d really rather the rest of the world not know what I have to be humble about. I will privately admit my faults and failings and whisper my sins through the confessional grate on a regular basis, but I’d like the matter to end there. Surely my fallenness, characterized by so many rough edges and biting words and debilitating sensitivity and a temper that flares up at the slightest infraction, never hurts anybody but myself. Surely I can be humble without my friends and family members and roommates and co-workers knowing that I have faults.

This is a crippling way to live. It’s also lonely. And looking at it in light of our month’s theme, what does it do to a career?

Believe it or not, trying to appear perfect in order to succeed at a career is something of a non-starter. I say this looking back at two jobs in which I should have put myself out there, or stood up for myself, or even suggested ideas with more courage, but held back for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and jeopardizing my own advancement. I put myself through the ringer in both those jobs because I was afraid of looking foolish or incompetent. It makes sense to want good references and a solid performance record, but those things should never come at the expense of your sense of self. It got to the point where being really, really good at my job was where I derived most of my sense of worth. And that led to me working 12-hour days and throwing in weekends for good measure because that soul-sucking need for validity drove me to take on things I should simply have refused.

Pride kills ambition, oddly enough. That was my lesson, and one I’m still grappling with as I try to establish a more balanced relationship with my career and my future goals. It’s good to want to do great things, to have dreams and plans, but a person is always more than her greatest aspirations or her carefully honed five-year plan. “Doing” only accomplishes so much. And quite simply, even the most competent individual has limits, and yes — areas where she could improve. Going after that image of perfection becomes an ambition in itself, and since nobody’s perfect, it turns into a futile, exhausting endeavor.

I didn’t realize how much I’d succumbed to this bizarre mutation of ambition until one Sunday afternoon this past March. Those of you who know me know that I’d hit a pretty low point by then. I was driving home from church (and skipping out on a brunch with friends) because I had about four hours of work to do, and a phone buzzing with emails from writers wanting to know when their pieces would go live, and if I could please change the third sentence in the fourth paragraph to say “x,” and would it be a huge problem to take out the second to last graf entirely, because it’s too political…etc., etc. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, unappreciated, and incredibly lonely. I’d been feeling all those things for months, really, but it just hit me like a ton of bricks on that cold afternoon. I had never been so miserable in my entire life.

This realization brought on a bout of hysterics that I’m embarrassed to admit out loud, let alone put in writing. It’s a wonder I made it home in one piece, I was crying so hard. I cried my way through the first full hour of the afternoon’s work. That night I cried myself to sleep. And I realized over the course of the following few weeks that I needed to change direction. This iPhone-cradling, crazy-eyed aspiring career woman with a job that looked great on paper and an interior life that had gone to pieces was not the person I wanted to be.

1999WorkingWomanWhich inevitably led to the question, who exactly do I want to be?

I’m still working that out. I’ve taken a job that leaves me more room to be and I’ve set about re-establishing a toe-hold in endeavors aside from work and I’m trying very, very hard to cultivate a sense of self-worth that has nothing to do with a solid resume, or strong references, or what other people think of me. I’m not perfect, in work or anywhere else in life. And the only way I can move forward and accomplish anything of value is by getting my head wrapped around that fact, letting other people see it, and taking each new day as a brand new opportunity to work on my rougher edges and continue to strive to become the best version of my imperfect self.

–Mabel

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