What does it mean to be ambitious?

What does it mean to be ambitious?

I recently declared to a friend that I am not ambitious.

“I’m not goal oriented,” I added. “I’m story oriented. I’m people oriented.”

Okay, so I was being a little tongue-in-cheek. I can be quite goal oriented. I am a Black woman who was raised in the South, which means I have had a lot to prove and a lot of goals to chase.

Still, growing up, I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be goal-oriented, besides making the best grades I could in high school, getting into the best college I could, and then making the best grades I could while I was there. 

“Ambition” was still a word I primarily associated with white businessmen in ivory towers.

Maybe that’s because the people I grew up around weren’t driven by ambition the way it seemed defined on 80s and 90s T.V. shows. There, being ambitious and goal-oriented seemed like a thing you did while wearing a suit and working long hours in a skyscraper so you could be “up for a big promotion,” whatever that meant. 

In contrast, the people around me wore gele headwraps, kente cloth, or work pants. Our circle included one teacher, one doctor, one real estate agent, and one engineer. The rest were artists, activists, hippies, farmers, craftspeople, and shop owners. They had natural hair and many wore dreadlocks, hairstyles which were rarely seen in professional environments and often barred from them. And besides the Black Muslims my father knew, I don’t remember ever seeing one of my parents’ friends in a suit. My father didn’t even own a suit. When he had a special event requiring formal wear, he wore an outfit made of Aso Oke, a sumptuous woven fabric from Nigeria. And if my mother owned a suit, it was buried deep in her closet behind her maxi dresses and blue jeans, a relic from her 9-to-5 days.

But had I been paying close attention, I might have looked at my parents and their friends and seen their ambition. My mother, for example, was a freelance graphic designer by day, yet still managed to spend hours each week honing her craft as a gourd artist. I still remember when my mother, a self-described introvert, made the bold move to seek out gallery spaces so she could share her artwork with the world.

My father was also ambitious. He dreamed up an outdoor festival that celebrated African and African American culture in a city park in Charlotte – and actually pulled it off. A professional storyteller, he also staged a 100-county tour, in which he performed in every county in my home state of North Carolina.

If you were Black, mainstream culture rarely seemed to view you as  “ambitious” – even if you showed more focus, rigor, and imagination than suited white men enjoying much bigger paychecks.

Their friends were ambitious, too. They owned businesses, mentored youth, taught West African dance, and gathered often to celebrate and promote Black culture.

But while I noticed their efforts, I didn’t think of them as ambitious. “Ambition” was still a word I primarily associated with white businessmen in ivory towers. White women were beginning to claim the word, too, but weren’t allowed to fully own it because showing ambition as a woman meant you risked being called bossy, pushy, unlikeable, shrill, or worse.

We had our own words to describe ambitious qualities, of course: Hustle. Grind. Baller. Making a way out of no way. And we celebrated these qualities even as they were ignored by mainstream culture. 

If you were Black, regardless of your gender, mainstream culture rarely seemed to view you as  “ambitious” – even if you showed more focus, rigor, and imagination than suited white men enjoying much bigger paychecks. We had our own words to describe ambitious qualities, of course: Hustle. Grind. Baller. Community leader. Making a way out of no way. And we celebrated these qualities even as they were ignored by mainstream culture. 

It took me a long time to understand that ambition could apply to efforts besides accumulating personal wealth or standing. While attending Duke University, I had a vague sense that because I was attending an expensive private university, I should be more ambitious in the traditional sense. So, I got a work study job at the business school and learned how to use Excel because understanding a spreadsheet seemed like something an ambitious person would do.

Around me, my peers were making ambitious moves. A friend of mine told me he got a $20,000 signing bonus for a consulting job he secured in the banking industry. Before my junior year of college, I don’t think I had ever heard of a consultant. But suddenly, almost everyone I knew was becoming one. I gathered that consultants advised corporations, but about what and for what reason, I never knew. I only knew that some consultants worked 80-hour weeks and made lots of money. Twenty thousand dollars sounded great, but working 80 hours a week for a bank did not, so I nodded my head and congratulated my friend instead of asking how I might, too, get such a financially lucrative gig. If ambition meant having 80-hour work weeks, I didn’t want it. Instead, I buried my head in books, started writing for the university newspaper, got a job tutoring kids at a community center, and hoped for the best. 

Recognizing what motivates me – and remembering the ambitious Black men and women from my childhood  – has helped me broaden my understanding of what it means to be ambitious.

For years, I felt I had squandered my time at university. I should have been more ambitious, I thought. Figured out networking. Gotten a fancy job. Interned with a senator or a prestigious newspaper. The feelings only intensified when I read the alumni magazine and saw the accolades and promotions my classmates were racking up while I was a stay-at-home parent, or teaching English to middle and high schoolers.

However, as I get older, I can see my ambition is not rooted in getting raises, promotions, or corner offices. There is nothing wrong with wanting these things or even feeling motivated by them; for too long, Black and brown people, as well as women in general, have been viewed as uppity or overstepping for doing so.

But in a society where we value nonstop work and expect employees to be passionate about everything they do, it helps to be reminded that there is nothing deficient in you if you don’t find these markers of success particularly motivating.

Recognizing what motivates me – and remembering the ambitious Black women and men from my childhood  – has helped me broaden my understanding of what it means to be ambitious. Now, I recognize that feeling true to myself and my gifts drives me. Knowing my words may help someone feel less alone drives me. Fostering community drives me. Hearing others’ stories drives me. Bringing more voices to the table drives me.

And that absolutely makes me ambitious.

3 responses to “What does it mean to be ambitious?”

  1. Thank you, Irie! It’s so nice to have the definition of “ambition” expanded and redifined. We can be ambitious without being ruthless, without neglecting the priciples and people that are important to us.

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