A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about this column. “It’s about ambition,” I said. She stared at me blankly. So I kept talking, explaining the ambition penalty, referencing the discomfort so many women, people of color and gender-nonconforming individuals have been taught to feel around their ambition, and so on.
Finally, she responded, “I’m just not ambitious. I’m not willing to give up my whole life to get what I want. I don’t want to work weekends or fight my way to the top.”
“Umm… do you think I do?” I said.
But really, I wasn’t all that surprised: I hear this kind of pushback a lot when talking about ambition. There’s a whole genre of cultural critique seemingly dedicated to the idea that ambition is only for people willing to ruthlessly work themselves to the bone.
As Halle Butler writes in one such piece, “What do the strivers think they’re gearing towards, I wonder sometimes; those who snort at your sparse schedule, who have worked every weekend since Christmas and aren’t shy about saying so, those rise-and-grind capitalist fever dreamers. Where do they think they’re headed?” writes
But make no mistake, hustle culture and ambition are not the same thing. And oftentimes, hustle culture actually harms, not helps, our ambitions.
What is hustle culture?
Even if you’ve never heard of hustle culture, you’ve probably seen, heard and felt its presence.
Maybe it was a quote on social media reminding you, “You have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyonce,” or a #riseandgrind hashtag, or the word “Hustle” adorning a mug in your co-working space.
A modern take on the “American Dream” — the idea that if you work hard you can achieve anything — hustle culture celebrates long, hard work days as a kind of moral imperative, regarding anything less as a fundamental character flaw.
Hustle culture is productivity turned toxic, overwork glorified. And it doesn’t work.
Past a certain point, working harder and longer actually leads to decreased productivity. And all that extra #hustle — sacrificing hours of sleep, rest and leisure for another hour of work — can backfire.
A growing body of research finds that overwork can contribute to all kinds of health problems, from depression to diabetes to heart disease. So it’s not surprising that long work days have also been shown to lead to a deterioration in work performance. Researchers have also found that too much work intensity can negatively impact a worker’s well-being, as well as their career progress.
But that doesn’t stop mantras like “No one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week” from going viral.
When we confuse hustle culture and ambition, women are the ones who suffer.
By measuring performance, character and commitment in work intensity and hours, hustle culture also disproportionately harms women, who still shoulder the vast majority of unpaid labor and are more likely to require time away from the rigid structures of the paid labor force to take on the unpaid work of caregiving.
Even the 40-hour work week — historic win though it was for workers’ rights — doesn’t benefit women. It was developed about a century ago by majority white, cisgender, heterosexual men under the assumption of having a partner at home full-time managing the unpaid labor of housework, cooking, cleaning and care work. In other words, even existing work structures are antithetical to supporting women’s ambitions.
And by conflating ambition with hustle culture we perpetuate deeply entrenched (and flawed) beliefs that women are inherently less ambitious than men.
A 2017 study of more than 200,000 respondents show that women start their careers with as much ambition as men. When women’s ambition levels do begin to vary, they vary by company, not by family status. When employees felt that gender diversity at their organization was a priority, the researchers found no gender ambition gap, but when employees perceived little progress on diversity, women’s ambition dropped considerably.
A recently released IBM study supports these findings, showing that between 2019 and 2021, the pipeline of women in leadership decreased. “Part of the reason for these declining numbers is that despite more companies having diversity and inclusion initiatives, very few have actually taken the steps to prioritize these initiatives and few have worked to change the mindset and culture at their company,” Bridget van Kralingen, IBM’s global markets senior vice told CNBC Make It. Noting the study's other finding that gender equity is not a top priority for 70% of global businesses.
Given those findings, it’s not surprising that for women of color, who were most impacted by job losses during the pandemic, also had the steepest declines in ambition over the past year, with 54% of Black women and 42% of Hispanic women in 2021 describing themselves as “very ambitious,” compared to 75% and 65% respectively in early 2020.
In other words: It’s work, not ambition, that’s not working for women.
Time is finite, ambition is not.
When we link our ambition to how much we can cram into a day, or how many weekends we can spend working, per the hustle culture model, we can start to feel disenfranchised from our own ambitions.
But ambition is not an amount of hours worked. It's not waking up at 4am. It's not a diet, an exercise or a productivity hack. It’s not a lack of boundaries or a perpetual state of stress and busyness. It is not a single-minded hypercompetitiveness, chasing goals for the sake of checking things off a list — climbing a ladder that might not even lead to where you want to go.
To be ambitious simply means to have ambition: that drive to create a life that reflects your skills and potential. To be valued for those qualities and abilities that you experience and value in yourself.
The ambition to feel that your work and the rest of your life actually work together, the ambition to enjoy your days, the ambition to help others, the ambition to have time to relax and have fun: all still ambition. And I believe ambition is a drive worth exploring and tapping into, even (maybe even especially) when what you’re driving toward isn’t what our culture expects you to want.
What are your thoughts on ambition and hustle culture? I’d love to hear from you: Leave a comment below or send me a reply if you’re getting this in your inbox.
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