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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