The Ambitions

August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

I read a book called:

Careers Advice for Ambitious Women, meaning that I found out three things:

1) What the book said

2) How I reacted

3) How other people reacted to me reading it

1) The book

I was given the book by the author – or the woman behind the author – Mrs Moneypenny, who writes a column for the Financial Times. Writing this is partly to explain how I came across it (or to excuse? See Section 3), and partly because mentioning being given a book by its author is something of which I think this author would approve.

Ambition can mean a lot of things. I wrote these words and then stopped to wonder if they were true. For this author, it is clearly defined as striving towards career success. This doesn’t mean ‘having it all’, a concept she dismisses as particularly lacking in rationality or usefulness. It means knowing where you’re trying to get to, knowing what your priorities are and basing your decisions on them. If one of your top priorities is not career success, then the book is not aimed at you. Nor is it aimed at you if you’re tempted to sidle off down philosophical tracks, like ‘What does success even mean….’. Here, it means recognition, connection, a good salary and the ability to set the agenda; in whatever field, but probably in business.

The book, like Moneypenny’s column, where she refers to her children as a numbered set of ‘cost centres’, is straightforward, sometimes to the point of harshness. It’s practical, filled not with empowering thought exercises but with advice which is sometimes specific to the point of feeling narrow – Moneypenny suggests training as a financial analyst or accountant, but so many times as to make it almost a mantra. There are a lot of short narratives of real women, workplace scenarios described to illustrate points, and ‘homework’ at the end of every chapter.

The section on priorities, containing one of the simplest messages of the book, is also one of the most confronting. Moneypenny lists her priorities in descending order: work, children, husband, friends, self. Even for me, who has clearly put work before children so far (by concentrating on the former and not having any of the latter), this is a surprising thing to read. I imagine that for people with children it might feel shocking. We ‘know’ that once you have children you ‘put them first’; it’s what everyone says.

Moneypenny’s point about priorities is that you need them in order to make decisions. She does not dictate that work must be at the top; but asks that one recognise what is. If it were children, you would choose watching them in the school play over meeting an important deadline. These choices would ultimately damage your career. Your career, meanwhile, is not something confined to the realm of your own selfishness; on Moneypenny’s list, ‘self’ is last. In her conception, it is a way towards other important things, such as a good education for your kids.

If the building were on fire, Moneypenny is not suggesting saving the laptop and leaving the baby (at least I don’t think she is). But she is willing to say that sometimes the decision-making won’t be pretty.

2) The book and I

So I read the book. My copy is hardback with a silky, matt finish. It is hot pink and dark grey, printed to look like a sort of secret diary, manual or ‘little black book’. The title and the author’s name take up most of the cover, in the hot pink and in silver. From the look of it, it could be a self-help book or a bit of saucy chick-lit.

I was embarrassed to read it on the train. I’ve ridden trains home at 8am wearing full theatre make-up; I’ve ridden them wearing football kit and covered in mud; I’ve changed clothes on them; had intimate conversations on them; lugged enormous bags up and down their aisles; worked, slept, eaten and argued on them. I’ve never before felt embarrassed on them.

After an effort of will, I made myself read the book in public. But I then found it impossible to get it out at work. Was all this embarrassment because of the admission, contained in the title, that I am ambitious? Or because there was something already akin to admitting failure in reading such a book at all (‘if you have to ask, I can’t tell you’).

I do think of myself as ambitious, though perhaps it has a different colour to Mrs Moneypenny’s. This way of thinking constitutes a change that’s come about gradually, with feminism at its base. While doing my A-Levels (and even while aiming for top grades), I was of absolutely the opposite opinion; I thought that ambition was a dirty word, associated with conventionality, a certain kind of conveyer-belt mentality, power-hunger, greed and vainglory.

This, it turned out, is exactly what a lot of people think.

3) Me, the book and everybody else

A friend picked up the book in my flat. He asked, “Is this a joke?” – not snide, just frankly bemused. I talked about it to other friends, mainly female. The general reaction fell towards the aggressive end of uninterested. Just after I’d finished the book (on a train), I explained quite a lot of its content to a very strong, ‘high-achieving’ friend. She said it made her feel a bit sick. She told her partner about it, and we all ended up in a fractious, late-night conversation about pay scales for male and female tennis players.

I looked up the word’s etymology. Ambition comes from the French ambire, to go around, and the Latin ambitionem, which the Online Etymology Dictionary defines as “a going around,” especially to solicit votes, hence “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity.” The Oxford English Dictionary (a copy printed in 1933) gives the first definition as “The eager or inordinate desire of honour or preferment”.

Of the same-rooted ‘ambit’, it says “A circuit, compass or circumference 1597; esp a space round a house, castle, etc., the liberties, verge.” This gives rise to the image of a little king walking round the limits of his palace, pushing at the walls to see if he can make them move outwards and take in some extra ground.

So can ambition ‘mean a lot of things’? Or does it principally mean a striving to reach a position of power, which some people find inspiring and others find distasteful?

Is it possible to have an ambition that includes helping other people? Moneypenny certainly thinks so, not only in terms of providing for one’s family, but from a feminist perspective. She quotes Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.

The author probably knew she would raise some hackles by writing the book. I wonder if she knew how many would rise in response to someone reading it? I was surprised. I haven’t encountered such a strong reaction to a book since I was sacked from a temping job for reading The Female Eunuch.

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A supposedly fun thing I might do again

August 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

Before starting this blog – about the triathlon I did yesterday – there were several references I wanted to remember. The first was to a column by Simon Kuper – more below. Of the second, I can only remember this:

 A character in a book (fiction?) mentions that he has come to the time in his life where everyone starts to run marathons. I read that (but where? Never mind) with one of those sort-of-pleasurable shocks that you sometimes get from fiction – the author having hit the nail on the head – though at the same time, making you want to say ‘ah, but that’s not me exactly…

I don’t know if I’ve come to the point in my life where I need to prove something/ward off death/go the extra mile/feel alive. But I did sign up to do a triathlon – partly to make sure I carried on exercising even with a long-houred job; partly to prove (to myself) that I had recovered from an injury that stalked me for a couple of years; partly to see if I could.

And maybe, in some way, to make myself better. In his column, Kuper calls it “obsessive self-improvement”, which leads us into the mindset that: “Parties are for networking; cafés are for laptops; and sex is an opportunity to burn calories.” Oh, god.

I did wonder, as I got up in the grey 5am light, what good this was doing me, or anyone else.

One of the most stressful things about a triathlon is the sheer amount of stuff you need for it. I had a list; it ran to two pages. And it had two columns. I mentioned this to about three people – all men – who I knew did triathlons. They all felt the gadgetry was part of the fun.

Was arrival from 6am part of the fun? I arrived at 6.30 to a car park full of bike racks and tenacious preparation. From my (brief, appalled) research into buying a triathlon bike, the contents of the racks could have accounted for about £1.5m worth of bike. I got my borrowed, battered-but-beautiful racer out of the boot, and screwed the seat back on (too high, it would transpire).

Then there was a flurry of registration, racking – where you lay out all your things for the transitions, and put talcum powder on them – and the sticking on of stickers.

Already in all-in-one tri-suits, everyone puts on wetsuits.

I asked the man next to me whether to pin the numbers on under the wetsuit (I wasn’t sure they were waterproof). He asked if it was my first tri. I said yes. He said “Exciting”, which wasn’t a question. I asked if he’d done many. He said yes: “It’s addictive, isn’t it?”. I didn’t yet know. His friend lent me some safety pins. “You need a lot of stuff, don’t you?” I said. “Yeah!” he said (= Exciting).

Then we dunked ourselves in the lake and got out again, for a briefing. The sky was the colour of petals and mist hung over the water with a clear space in between. In this space were canoes, ready to help us and point out the swim course, in case the big orange buoys weren’t enough (they weren’t).

Everyone, it turns out, then gets into the water at once. And waits.

There was the eerie calm – as might, I imagine, happen before a battle – of a group of adults about to do something irrational. Then, over the PA, they counted us down, and said Go.

The lake turned into a jam jar full of massive, thrashing tadpoles. I lost all sense of rhythm, and perspective. This was the first reminder; that your rational mind can know something (‘I will not drown’), while your body reacts to something much more powerful (‘I am drownable’).

Triathlon swim start

Tight-chested, panicky and ashamed, I did complete the course (in a weirdly quick 29 minutes), but I didn’t feel invincible. One down, two to go.

The bike was better. As I (finally) got into a rhythm and realised it was a sunny day in Kent and not D-Day, the band locked round my lungs eased itself off. The hedges were high and full of bees. It was hilly. There is no better hill-detector than a person on a bicycle with gears that are not made out of spider silk and lubricated with carbon dew. The course was a two-lap loop. That meant every hill was to be revisited.

Still – there were lovely, swooping, dangerous downhills too. At a compulsory stop for roadworks, I adjusted the height of my seat, and shouted my number to the marshal, as instructed (so that they could deduct the time spent there from my total; and despite having number 149 stuck all over me and written on my bicep in marker pen).

The nutrition advice tells you to eat 30g of carbs for every half hour of exercise after the first 90 minutes. So on a long straight bit of road I tried an energy gel that was taped – as instructed – to my crossbar. It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever experienced, since my brother told me to eat an artificial sweetener tablet at our grandfather’s house. So sweet it’s almost bitter, the gels require several stages to get the whole thing down. (Get some into the mouth; hold it; move it to the top of the throat; brace yourself; swallow; recover; repeat). Was this fun? I wondered. My lungs, working constantly and hard, felt stretched, almost itchy on the inside.

After a last climb and another transition (1 min 28 seconds, it turned out) I was running. It was odd, suddenly to be doing so. The heat radiated off the white dust of the path.

The run was in some ways the strangest part. I wasn’t exactly exhausted, though a stitch clinched in around my sternum and stayed there, like a little biting creature. I knew I wasn’t running fast. I told myself to go faster. But whether because of inadequate nutrition, or because this is actually what exhaustion feels like, I couldn’t.

It was a strange mix of strength and weakness, that feeling. Perhaps you only get it the first time, since after that you’d know better what to expect.

Now two-and-a-half hours in, I bit the bullet and ate another gel, the sunshine seeming to turn sickly-sweet with it, all compounded by the fact that, unlike on the bike, I was now not carrying water. To my right, the reservoir gleamed like a hotplate; like the sea in the Ancient Mariner, close but undrinkable.

And finally the blue, inflatable finish line, like a bouncy castle, less fun but infinitely forgiving. A kind man gave me a plastic cup of water and offered me some crisps (“salt and vinegar” I managed to mouth). “Don’t forget your medal!” he said. “Did I win?” I asked (I was joking; I was last). But they weren’t joking; they gave me a medal, steel on a green ribbon.

I lay down. I wanted to cry, smarting from the swim, the fear, the having to carry on. My supporters came and held my hands, and I realised that it had also been hard doing something in such a big group (130 people in the standard distance) so alone. Was it fun?

After a few minutes, I thought: maybe.

Did it make me better? Hard to tell.

Was it addictive?

As I type, because of a glitch on my laptop, the PDF with the final times (I think they’re called ‘splits’ in the triathlon world) keeps popping back up on screen. There’s one really good thing about 3 hours and 21 minutes: it’s beatable.

UPDATE. I wrote this post a week ago, and have just checked the race site. There are new times, adjusted for the traffic lights. So I actually completed it in 3 hours and 19 minutes. I beat my original time, in the past. I always knew I could.

The title of this post is a reference to David Foster Wallace

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