Do you hesitate to define yourself as ambitious, even though you want a career where you can excel and be fulfilled? You’re not alone. For many women, having professional ambition is one thing, but proclaiming it is something else entirely.
Above all, avoid being viewed poorly
To this day, the word “ambitious” still carries negative connotations in some circles… and in the dictionary. In the Oxford English Dictionary (Lexico.com), the first synonyms given for “ambition” are quite inspiring: aspiration, intention, goal. However, when it comes to the qualifying adjective, terms like “forceful” and “pushy” come up very early in the list, along with “zealous” and “power-hungry” further down. Quite a change of tone!
As though having ambition was a bad thing, or even “dangerous”.
It’s clear that some women don’t identify with this label, even if the desire to succeed and take on challenges drives them. This was the case for Paris-based Human Resources Director Émilie Saulnier, a graduate of the Défi 100 jours, the French equivalent of the Ambition Challenge. She describes a certain fear of putting herself out there too much and offending others: “As women, we sometimes lack self-confidence and are afraid to put our professional plans into words.”
To explain, Émilie Saulnier mentions her upbringing, the kind many girls typically receive: “We’re told to stay inside the lines, fit the mould, and not stand out too much. So, using the word “ambitious” is defying norms, taking the lead. This can be frowned upon.” A trip to Quebec was the catalyst for what she describes as “a whole process of making [this word] her own”.
“I started using this adjective for inspiring women that I saw or met, but I still wasn’t ready to use it for myself.” Then, after the Défi 100 jours, she realized that she truly was ambitious. “I understood that I could take my place. It’s an adjective that suits me and I’m comfortable saying it.”
“But I’m not a careerist!”
Here’s another way to explain the rejection and confusion around the meaning of the words “ambitious” and “careerist”. “While these two terms demonstrate a desire to get ahead professionally, they differ in underlying motivation and, often, in the methods used to achieve that ambition,” explains career development coach and psychologist Monique Soucy.
Indeed, in the collective imagination, the word “careerist” usually refers to someone who would do anything in their power to gain the prestige and success they covet.
They’re competitive and often act alone, establishing themselves by brushing others aside to impress anyone who can promote them. They sacrifice their personal lives and anything that doesn’t contribute directly to achieving their goals. Sometimes, to position themselves, they use low blows, manipulation, or behind-the-scenes games. It’s no surprise that people want to steer clear of them!
This is where nuance makes all the difference. A woman who is dedicated to her career is not a de facto careerist. It’s possible, even advisable, to live your professional ambition in a healthy way.
This is confirmed by Evangelia Gialamboukis, Information Security Specialist at CN and graduate of the Ambition Challenge. For her, it’s all about developing your full potential and continuously becoming the best version of yourself.
Ambition all your own
Even if we step back from the excessive individualism of careerism, it’s important to remember (and accept) that ambition involves a profoundly solo and personal aspect. “We have a little fire, we have to feed it all the time to get where we want to be. This is what ambition is for me.” Evangelia Gialamboukis clarifies. For Émilie Saulnier, “it’s paying attention to our own desires, our own development.” She adds: “It’s important that it comes from you, that it not be at someone else’s prompting. Otherwise, it won’t work!”
Indeed, “forcing” ambition so it responds to the others’ expectations isn’t a good idea. Neither is shaping it to resemble society’s image of professional success. Executive Coach Cloé Caron agrees with this: “The best way to live your ambition, is to be aligned with what you want and who you are. It’s why the first question to ask yourself, the most important one, is: what do I really want?”
The question is harder to answer than it seems. In her work, Cloé Caron observes that women must first let go of the social conditioning that prevents them from identifying and naming their own wishes. This is a deep-rooted limitation, a filter that blurs our sense of what we can or cannot accomplish: “Too often, we let our limiting thoughts hinder us and we don’t even realize it! We invent stories to tell ourselves: it isn’t attainable, there’s too much sacrifice, I’ll never make it.”
Through introspection and personal development, it’s possible to transcend these limiting beliefs and let your true ambition emerge. “With awareness and clarity about what we really want, we also define the conditions in which we want it to happen,” adds Cloé Caron. Being aligned and consistent with reality is vital to owning your ambition, making the next step inevitable: declaring yourself ambitious!
The Ambitious Person’s Five Keys to Success, According to Cloé Caron
1. Be clear about what you want
“This means having specific objectives. Take ownership of what you want and how you want to get it.”
2. Make a plan
“What are the steps for getting where you’re going? This doesn’t necessarily mean doing an MBA! Yes, acquiring skills can be a step, but it can also be: ‘Who should I talk to? What meeting should I attend? What kind of visibility should I seek out?’”
3. Believe in your abilities
“You must believe that you have what it takes to succeed. Don’t insist on being perfect. Instead, strive for excellence.
4. Talk about your ambition
“Surround yourself with people who know your goals, encourage you, and help you. They can be supporters, sponsors, mentors, coaches… You don’t have to go it alone.”
5. Stay open and curious
“Sometimes, along the way, opportunities that come up aren’t part of the plan. Be flexible and go for it!”