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The Ambition Diaries

This is what ambition is like in your 20s, 30s and 40s

Various writers

Ambition in your 20s by Hannah-Rose Yee


I used to think of myself as a fairly unambitious person, but as I get to the end of my 20s I realise that’s not true. I am ambitious, but I don’t want to be the boss. There’s a whole world gaping open between those two pillars. But for a long time I equated ambition with ambition to be number one, when that just isn’t the case. 

I’ve only ever wanted to be the boss once. I was in high school and desperately longed to be named Head Girl; I wasn’t and thus ended my relationship with leadership. You can read into that all you want, but today I am perfectly happy not being at the top of the heap. 


Today I am perfectly happy not being at the top of the heap

This is not what some of my peers want, I know that. I have worked and studied with women whose drive could fill an auditorium. But, increasingly, I have noticed more and more of my friends have ambitions in line with my own. They want sprawling careers that dip into more than one pot – writing, editing, podcasting, photography, design, and on and on – and that fill them right up to the fizzing top. I want a career that flings me around the world and into new places and thinking new things every day. I want a way of working that won’t gobble up my life – or, crucially, become a way of life in itself – but rather is in service to living the kind of life that I want to live right now.

Maybe this isn’t ambition so much as it is desire, but I don’t think so. Why can’t I work hard to build the kind of career that fulfils me, even if it doesn’t look like the careers of any of the women that I look up to? Why can’t I be ambitious to make something of my own? I don’t want to be the boss. But I do want to be my boss. That’s my ambition.

Ambition in your 30s by Anna Saunders


When I was pregnant with my first child, I remember telling my editor that I’d need six months of maternity leave, maximum. Maybe even three months. I was very ambitious and I couldn’t imagine not working. “You don’t know how you’ll feel,” warned my editor. “You might want more time at home.”

I ignored her, and, reader, I think you can guess what happened next. 

Three months after my daughter’s birth – a time when pre-baby me had confidently predicted that I would be packing my daughter off to childcare and heading back to work – I was still reeling from shock and exhaustion. It took me months to adjust to my new reality, but when I did, my ambition – the drive that had propelled me through my twenties, compelled me to chase career opportunities in three countries – vanished, completely and utterly. And, then, when my daughter was 10 months old, it flickered back to life and I went (happily) back to work, albeit part-time.

My ambition – the drive that had propelled me through my twenties – vanished, completely and utterly, after my first baby

A similar thing happened when my son was born; I spent the first few months cocooned away from the world, applying myself to the production of purees with scientific precision and feeling weak at the sight of my son’s chubby, dimpled thighs. And then at around eight months, I found myself wanting to work again.

I am not the first woman, and I certainly won’t be the last, to underestimate the tectonic changes wrought by first-time motherhood. And I suspect that I’m not the only ambitious woman who grew up on the “girls-can-do-anything” message of the 1980s to arrive at motherhood with their sense of identity firmly entangled with their career. 

For me, motherhood – and the enforced career break that came with it – meant re-evaluating my priorities. Stepping off the treadmill meant not relinquishing my ambitions exactly, but refocusing them. These days, I have a clearer idea of what’s important to me. I’ve realised I care less about the products of ambition, and more about the process: the stretching, the striving, the learning, the constant determination to push past your own expectations. Sometimes I wish I was less ambitious, and more content. 

I used to have a plan, a series of career milestones that marked the route to success – and I was single-minded in my determination to achieve it. If motherhood has taught me anything, it is that ambition can change and deviate. And there’s comfort – and contentment – in that. 

Ambition in your 40s by Kerry Potter


When my children were tiny and all-consuming and people asked me about my career, my stock response that I was barely holding onto it by my fingertips. Now, like many women in their forties, with my offspring safely stowed at school five days a week, I’ve got a much tighter grip on it. In fact, I’ve got it by the scruff of its neck and periodically shake it up.

If you’re an ambitious person, I don’t think that drive ever dissipates. It may become subdued for periods but it’s always there, pulsing beneath the surface, ready to come roaring back into life when it’s time. I see it all around me in friends my own age and older – a new phase of ambitiousness.

If you’re an ambitious person, I don’t think that drive ever dissipates.

The extraordinary energy of women who are literally back in business, perhaps for the first time in a decade or so, rebooting, rebuilding and revelling in it. They’re thinking laterally, fizzing with ideas and creating working lives that work for them. The restaurant chef who’s started a supperclub business, the ex-banker with an ethical beauty brand, the former corporate wage-slaves who are going it alone as consultants. How inspiring it is to watch these second comings play out.

My own ambition continues to burn ever more brightly as my forties unfurl. Sometimes too brightly for my own good. As a freelancer, I suffer from work FOMO – why did that other journalist get that gig and not me? Give me all the gigs! (Even though I can’t possibly fit them all in and still sleep.)

My husband and I have reached an unexpected but happy juncture where I’m now more driven than him, following twenty years of level-pegging. “Go for it,” he’ll say. “I’m happy to pick up the kids.” That said, I’m also learning to recalibrate that ambition and to sprinkle it liberally across other aspects of my life. I’m ambitious for my family, my marriage, my health and fitness, and my social life too. There’s more to life than work, after all.


ILLUSTRATION: Millie Bartlett


BY Various writers

Anna is the co-founder of Primer. She has a complicated relationship with ambition.

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