Live, Laugh, Labour: Is It Time We Retired The Word ‘Ambition’?

By Emma Gleason
Collage / Julia Gessler

From quiet quitting and opting out to redefining success, goalposts aren’t just shifting some of us have joined the bench, left the field, or gone to a different sport entirely.

It’s hard to resist using the advent of a new calendar year as a period of reflection and planning.

I’ve never been big on resolutions, and I’m particularly bristling at the idea of self-improvement, but most of all I’ve been questioning the idea of ambition. Is it helping us? Is there another approach?

The pursuit of ambition promised us comfort, success, safety and satisfaction. Even self-betterment and class transcendence. It presented a moralism to any achievements. Bootstraps!

For millennials (my generational cohort), not only were we told work should be our passion but that our passions should be our work — turn those hobbies into side hustles. ‘Do what you love and you’ll work every day of your life’ is a more apt twist on the old adage. Hustle culture was buzzy, sexy, caffeinated. ‘Rise and grind’ was espoused without sarcasm or irony, ‘disruption’ was (ironically) routine. Everything was commodified, and rabid individualism placed the burden of health, money and happiness on us.

This angst compounded and distilled as millennials grasped for milestones and security, backdropped by performed successes on social media, all while the corrosive nature of capitalism made the reality of achieving any of this increasingly hard. You just had to want it enough — and work, right?

Something feels different now though. It’s more than just a vibe shift. And I’m not the only one rethinking the concept of ambition.

Writer Ann Friedman addressed the issue in a prescient feature last year, ‘What Comes After Ambition?’, for US Elle. And while Friedman zeroes in on the impact ambition has on American women, there’s a universality to much of it. “Women are in the midst of a revolutionary reckoning with our ambitions. We’re not resigning en masse — because who can afford to quit her job in this economy?! — but we are trying to figure out a new set of goals and guidance,” she wrote.

Discussing the story via email at the end of last year, Friedman sees her outlook as an evolution of perspective. “I didn’t want to challenge [ambition] so much as explore its shifting meaning in popular culture and private conversation,” she tells me.

I’m not alone in this discomfort, nor reaching out. “I’ve heard from women in many parts of the world that the article resonated with them. I do think Americans are more likely to see professional advancement as an unfettered good, and are less likely to question the primacy of work in our lives. So if notions of ambition are changing even here, I’m sure it’s been happening elsewhere, too,” Friedman reveals. “The reception for the article does offer some proof that the shift is real.”

“Ambition is just a shorthand for ‘what you’re striving for,’" says Ann Friedman. "I do think it’s important to ask if you’ve considered all facets of life in that definition, or if you’ve limited it to the realm of the professional.”
“Ambition is just a shorthand for ‘what you’re striving for,’" says Ann Friedman. "I do think it’s important to ask if you’ve considered all facets of life in that definition, or if you’ve limited it to the realm of the professional.”

The past few years have forced many people to take stock and change perspective. Experiencing different ways of working revealed that flexibility could be delivered by employers. The gig economy, touted as liberating, proved exploitative. Prophets of success and ambition provided false.

We’re finally finding the words to discuss and address care work, and household management — Kate Mangino’s book Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home was published last year, with Viva calling it “an informed guide about how we can all collectively work to undo harmful gender norms and create greater household equity” — and other forms of unpaid labour that are required to facilitate career ambitions.

All this societal change also throws into stark relief the support networks enjoyed by successful people. When Kim Kardashian espoused the business advice to “get your f***ing ass up and work,” the response was overwhelmingly critical, pointing out the wealth, access and privilege that underpinned her success — not ambition alone. ‘Nepo Babies’ came under fire.

Now it’s 2023, January’s over already, and here we are. Coming up for air. Coming down from the cocktail of ambition, stress, productivity and relentless drive. All that bad news.

We’re feeling angry, duped even. The Guardian recently reported on the rising gender rage gap, revealed by a BBC study. “Women consistently report feeling negative emotions more than men,” writes Arwa Mahdawi. “There is a lot for women to be angry about. For the last few years it has felt like progress has been going backwards.”

With all this on our minds, who has the energy to be ambitious, and at what cost? There’s health, for one thing, with burnout increasingly common, and anxiety and depression normalised.

One of the buzzy topics from 2022 was the concept of quiet quitting. “You’re not outright quitting your job but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” went the viral TikTok video by Zaid Kahn, which sparked the hashtag and ensuing trend pieces — The New Zealand Herald, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, et al — and posts and discussions in office breakrooms around the world. Could we do our jobs without overtime, extra tasks or performative ambition?

The insightful Roxanne Gay, author of the best-seller Bad Feminist, weighed in. “In these early days of 2023, I’ve been thinking a lot about how who I am and what I do for a living are two very different things,” she wrote for The New York Times. “We should all take some time to reflect on who we are and what gives us meaning beyond what we do.”

While quiet quitting is far from new or revolutionary, it’s a reminder of how we can claw back our time and energy, investing them in other parts of our lives — or nowhere at all, doing nothing is important too.

How do we define success and satisfaction away from ambition and work; what do we actually enjoy doing, and who benefits?
How do we define success and satisfaction away from ambition and work; what do we actually enjoy doing, and who benefits?

Alongside the growing critical thought around the idea of ambition, there’s a wider reassessment of what work looks like and how it fits into our lives — rather than our lives fit around it.

Businesses are testing four-day weeks, to shocking (except not really) success. Following a global trial, companies surveyed by non-profit 4 Day Week Global (co-founded by Aotearoa-based Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart) reported improvements in productivity and satisfaction, and 97 per cent of employees wanted to continue. Locally, Unilever plans to continue the four-day week beyond its initial 18-month trial; employee stress dropped 33 per cent, conflict 67 per cent and absenteeism 34 per cent. While a New Zealand study by tech firm Qualtrics reported 85 per cent of respondents were open to the idea, as a country we’ve been slow to pick up the concept, something I hope changes.

It turns out that with an extra day free to fill however they see fit — caring for family, household management, rest and recreation — employees are more productive and happier. Rather than expecting workers to sacrifice ourselves for work, it acknowledges the balance needed.

And while it’s tempting to reject ambition and regress to a perfunctory bare minimum, ‘phoning it in’ or even apathy, we owe it to ourselves and others not to just give up on everything.

Beyond reconfiguring our ambitions, we support those of others — collective ambition, rather than individual — and find our own vocabulary to help clarify what we want.

“I didn’t have words for that fact because ‘ambition’ is so synonymous with ‘professional goals’ in our society. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve realised I have — and have always had — ambitions in other areas of my life, too,” Friedman tells me. “Ambition is just a shorthand for ‘what you’re striving for’. I do think it’s important to ask if you’ve considered all facets of life in that definition, or if you’ve limited it to the realm of the professional.”

How do we define success and satisfaction away from ambition and work; what do we actually enjoy doing, and who benefits?

When discerning what we want in life, and what we don’t, mortality can help you put things in perspective and make decisions. “This is going to sound morbid, but I think it’s really helpful to think about death,” explains Friedman. “If I found out I was going to die in a month, would this even matter? Would I still have this ambition? Engaging with the finite nature of human life has a way of quickly setting priorities in order.”

Life is short. But, particularly for wage earners and anyone selling our labour and time, we need our jobs. So, rather than valuing career ambitions and work as virtues above all, examine what else matters.

Consider who you are beyond your job, beyond an extractive economy. Leave work at work, don’t let it eat away at the rest of your life. Find what gives you joy, and doesn’t necessarily have a trajectory or ascendancy or goals. Do you enjoy sitting and looking out the window? Me too. Do that more! Hobbies don’t have to be hustles. You don’t even have to be good at them.

Look beyond yourself, what goals help us all and how can we reach them? How can we help others bear the load, and does everything in that load warrant carrying at all?

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: