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Leaning Out: A Case for Letting Go of Traditional Ideas About Ambition

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Content by Eve Toomey

Getting to 40 (well done!) is a good moment to take a breath, have a look around at the work landscape, and have a hard think about what you want to achieve in the second half of your working life. Your ambitions might have subtly changed over time, but your work situation might not. Now is the time to take stock and make our next moves with greater clarity.

You will have noticed by now that many of us are not really that focused on advice about Traditional Ambition in the second half of our careers. I think of Traditional Ambition as the upward path towards a higher rank in an organization, higher status, a bigger title and responsibility, greater pay and all the trappings that go with it.

Many jobs have in-built career progression, particularly the classic professions like the law, medicine or finance, but many others don’t. And what success for the Ambitious Person looks like can be both traditional and very personal.

Just to be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those traditional ideas of success, traditional ambitions and the well-trodden pathways to get there. If anything, I applaud those women who choose to climb to those impressive heights because the way is perilous and more women need to feel that they have every right and opportunity to give it a go if that’s what they want to do.

There are plenty of books, courses, and podcasts out in the world that cover how to succeed in that traditional mold much more comprehensively than I ever could. However, if that's the path you're on and want to stay on, much of the advice boils down to a very simple set of steps that keep you on the right path. There are loads more details and nuance to go into, but it goes something like this:

Set realistic goals

Think about where you want to be in your career in five, ten, 15, and 20 years' time. What does that picture look like?

Think about where you want to be in your personal life too. Does it align with your career goals?

Build a strong network

Find mentors and or coaches within and outside of your organization and your industry to help you

Mentor others to form connections at all levels within and outside your organization and industry. It never hurts to pay it forward!

Lean in

Work hard and become valuable for your skills, knowledge, and reach.

Don’t let the bastards hold you down.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Know your value when it comes to job offers and negotiate like the champ you are.

Be open to opportunity and be ready to grab it when it comes along.

Never stop learning.

Adjust your goals accordingly over time.

Rinse, repeat.

But… I’m tired, I don’t have that fire in my belly anymore… Have I failed?

If you’ve found that the old fire of ambition is fading, you’re exhausted, drained, bored, or uninterested in work as a thing, and find yourself fantasizing about gardening, walking the dog, wild swimming, going on holiday, or simply not working, maybe it’s time to lean out and rethink what you want to be ambitious about.

How we think about our ambitions changes at different stages in life for both personal and professional reasons. Caring for an elderly parent or simply having enough in the bank, for example, can easily be a trigger for wanting a different way of living and working. It’s totally OK to step off the career escalator and let go of traditional notions of success and ambition.

Lean out if you want, it’s your life

In my experience, my focus changed after 40 - instead of always facing forward, I decided to turn to look backward and see where I had been to decide if that was still where I wanted to go next. I still wanted to feel successful, but I measure it differently now and I’m ambitious for different things - to live well, to give back, to be present (including physically instead of being on the road all the time).

The advice for reassessing how we measure our success and what our new ambition is in some ways virtually the same - set realistic goals and adjust them over time, build a network, work hard to achieve your new ambition, be open, never stop learning - and despite having simpler questions to answer they are often much harder to answer. It takes a different kind of bravery to change course and accept that traditional social ideas of ambition and success are not what we want for ourselves anymore. We might have to let go of ideas around status, how much money we earn, or how we spend the money we do earn.

Successfully rethinking what we value and where our new life and work ambitions are depends entirely on honestly answering just three key questions:

  • Where you want to be in five, ten, 15, and 20 years time? What does that picture look like?

  • What has to change?

  • Will I be happy with my choices and how will I know?

That’s it. There’s a lot of detail to work out as you identify what the future looks like and what has to change, but if leaning out is what you want for yourself, take the time to figure out how to achieve it through research and discussions with work, friends, family, and professional advisors.

Let us know what you think

Let us know what happened when you asked yourself those questions. Where did it lead you?

A bit more food for thought

At the link below is a really interesting article from The Guardian about how people are starting to think differently about what they are ambitious about and how work fits in with their lives, not the other way around.

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