It feels strange to think about setting New Year’s resolutions when so much of the world feels like it's in limbo. With a new wave of the pandemic tearing across the globe, how much can you plan for anything, really?
I’ve heard from countless colleagues cancelling their plans after testing positive with breakthrough cases. I’ve spoken to people who don’t know if they’ll be able to send their children back to school in the New Year.
In my own household, after a triumphant return to work this Fall (following 18 months of shutdowns), my husband’s work has returned to a state of uncertainty with more cancellations than not these past two weeks.
So maybe it’s not too surprising that our conversations around resolutions and goals as we approach this new year have also been disrupted.
Over the course of the last 5 weeks, I’ve sat down with 5 different women to talk through these changes, and to get their takes on approaching goals, managing setbacks and rethinking their relationships to their ambitions in the face of constantly changing realities and priorities. Here’s a look at some of our conversations (edited for length and clarity)...
Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The Cut, Glamour magazine, and ELLE. In her guest post “Why I Learned to Keep My Ambitions to Myself” she shared some of the things people have said to her over the years that have undermined her relationship to her own ambitions. That’s where our conversation started…
It’s such a sticky thing for people when you talk about your own ambition, it makes them so uncomfortable and their response can muddy your own view of your goals.
It helps to have friends and supporters who see you - just to kind of remind you you’re on the right track.
You make your 5 year goals and say, “Yeah, this is a thing I want to do 5 years from now.” But keep in mind, your personality changes, who you are as a person changes and you might want something totally different. And sometimes it’s hard because you’ve told people, “This is what I want to be 5 years from now” and then they’re like, “You said you wanted to be that and you’re not that.” And that feels bad.
Having a big byline in the The New York Times or New Yorker or something like that, that’s always going to be a goal of mine. And I wish I could just be like, “I don’t care, I write for myself”. But that’s not true, I’d love to write for The New Yorker someday and have that byline. So I think what are the goals I want for myself internally? And then I have those external metrics I want to hit.
It took years for me to let go of this goal of “I want to write for a TV show”. And part of me is still like, I might want to revisit that goal. So I went through this period of I refuse to let go of this because I don’t want people thinking I’m the kind of person who doesn’t do what she says she’s going to do. And so for the wrong reasons I kind of held onto this goal and was doing a lot stuff that really made me unhappy for years. And then I let go of it. And now I’m in this space of flexibility where I’m like, Maybe I will go back to it, leave that open as an option.
There’s this tug and pull constantly between the side of me that’s like, Just be playful and have fun and let the universe guide you. And then there’s this other part of me that’s like, No, you must plan everything and know exactly what it looks like and what is the bottom line and what is the ROI. And I think I’m probably just always going to be in that in-between space.
I think a lot of us, especially women, are kind of conditioned or taught to serve someone else. So much of our goals and our aspirations come from a place serving someone else, and that’s what I always don’t like about a lot of traditional business advice. So getting to know who I am and what I want and what I want to say is really important
We could wear the same thing, but it looks different for everybody depending on where you are in life.
I set a goal, but I’m not rigid about how I get there.
With the pandemic and three small kids, part of it is how it feels. So leaning more into what feels good. The more I enjoy it, the more things start to happen.
You typically hear, “Start with the end in mind”. And I think that’s all good, but I also talk about beginning with the beginning in mind. So it’s ok to dream big and have big goals. Like one of mine is to write a best-selling book. But if I think about just that big goal and where I am now, I’m far away from that. So what are the day-to-day things I can do to prepare myself for when those things happen?
And then also, being ok if they don’t happen. So one of the things I do often is say yes, that’s a goal. But I’m ok if it doesn’t happen. And when I operate like that, it takes the pressure off. And It allows me to take the next best step.
You can’t think you’ll always do everything well or to perfection, so I’ve also let that go. So it’s thinking about focusing on the big things, but then also realizing, where can you also let up?
And of course with the book, it’s making room to be able to write the book, making space for that. And that may mean letting other things go.
I feel like I’ve become, not less ambitious, I’m accomplishing more, but I don’t put as much pressure on myself to accomplish my goals.
Cyndi Zuniga-Sanchez is a commercial litigation attorney and founder of Zero Based Budget, a personal finance coaching business she decided to dive into full-time this past year. We started our conversation talking about how she decided to take that leap…
The pandemic happened and I started seeing a lot of opportunities that I hadn’t really considered, especially in the online space, coming up. And I decided to lean into it and just say yeah, let me take this chance.
In May I left my very, very, very comfortable, very well-paying job to say, you know what? I’m just gonna be a full-time entrepreneur.
I had a very black and white linear path to one day become partner at my law firm. That was my path and no one was gonna get me off of it. But just embracing the flexibility that comes with life is how I landed where I am now.
I have my trusty planner and it’s funny, because not once in there did I ever say, I’m gonna leave my law firm. On the contrary. I was a checklist person.
I had “go to a great law school”, “graduate the top of your class”, “get that big, fancy law firm job.” I was checking the box off of everything - that was my ambition. My ambition was just to make sure I go through my checklist, stay on the path, no questions asked.
And I have completely shifted to the point where people ask me, “So where do you see yourself in 5 years?” And I’m like “I don’t really know.”
But I’m ok with that. I have a general idea of where I’d like to be, where I’d want my family to be, but I’m not set in stone, This is what it’s going to be. I think what that’s done is it’s unlocked this completely different side of my brain that is just more creative.
I’ve always told myself that I’m not a creative person. That as a lawyer, I function in black and white. I research, I write, I advocate, I’m a rules person. I kind of feel like I’ve confined myself to those limits. And so I’ve just always said, “I’m not a creative person.” My brain just does not work in that way. My sister is the fashion designer, she’s the one that lives in color that is more creative, I was not born with that. But I feel like I was telling myself that because it’s a lie I wanted to believe.
That was me, someone who was just always a linear, straight A type of student that always denied herself the ability to dive into those creative fields because I thought I was destined for only one type of field. So that’s one of the most powerful examples of shifting and accepting this different part of you and it’s actually pretty amazing when you do.
Leaning into your truest self is the best way I can define what this whole thing is. Because when I think ambition, even still, I have to admit, I think about the woman climbing the corporate ladder. The woman that went straight from law school climbing through all the ranks. The one getting all the accolades on stage. The one being on all those lists - the Forbes 30 under 30, 40 under 40 - all of that. That’s what we’ve been trained to think ambition is, and what I think a lot of people in a lot of our generation are realizing or being open to, is this idea that there’s so much more to life.
I think a lot of it is influenced by the pandemic. Our mortality has confronted us in a way that is so aggressive that I think it’s made us think, ambition doesn’t just look like this. It looks like tapping into your truest most authentic self.
Lauren McGoodwin is the CEO of Career Contessa, the host of The Career Contessa Podcast, and the author of Power Moves: How Women Can Pivot, Reboot, and Build a Career of Purpose. In addition to talking about her own goals and changing ambitions, Lauren shared a lot of the lessons she learned from researching and writing her book, “Power Moves"...
Our expectations are so high and then we experience this thing called an expectation hangover when our expectations aren’t met. It’s this vicious cycle.
So be more compassionate with yourself. And maybe instead of saying what’s wrong with you that you can’t figure this out when everybody else can - maybe just say this is really hard stuff and good stuff takes time to figure out.
We get asked a lot, “What’s coming next? What are you working on?” So you feel like you always have to be working on something and you feel like you have to have this glamorous and sexy answer to that.
I think the best thing you can do is give yourself a little grace and patience to be like, “It’s gonna take me a little time”.
I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve never sat there and thought really hard about what’s next and it’s come to me. It always comes to me while I’m walking and listening to a podcast or I’m doing other things - when I’m engaging with the world around me vs. trying to make the world give me the answer, I kind of naturally stumble upon it.
People put all this effort and pressure and energy on themselves to find these “dream jobs” that check every box, and then the pandemic happened and their dream jobs maybe didn’t keep them employed or help them out or give them work life balance. So not only do I think people are starting to realize that the dream job is truly a myth, but that, maybe I don’t want a “dream job”
The question I get a lot from people is, “So if I’m not looking for the dream job, what kind of job am I looking for?”
So now I’m talking more about the “good enough” job. There are jobs out there that don’t have to be your whole identity, but they can pay you well.
I think people immediately go, “So I’m gonna hate the job and be miserable in it.” And it’s like no, there are jobs you can like and be really good at and it doesn’t have to be your everything.
The career identity becoming the self worth identity can be very complicated and it’s a very tangled web and it only gets harder to untangle it later on.
Last year, I switched careers into tech, started doing the thing, and then I got laid off. I’m like, “Ok, I left a secure industry, a secure paycheck to go into something that was unknown. I’m a junior in the industry now, and then I get laid off?”
In the moment it didn’t feel great. I cry about it and then I’m just like, you know what, I made this decision and figure out what I can learn from this and keep it moving. So what can I do next? What’s the next best thing I can do to get me out of this? To pivot? To learn from this? And I guess that’s why I don’t really regret any of the decisions I make.
[In this instance] I was like, “Why did I get into tech?” So I scaled back and went to back to my why, “Why the hell did I want to get into this industry?” And I started trying to work on my own thing to keep me busy and sane, but also, to have something to show potential employers later on down the road. So I started working on and coding budgetbetter.io, my own web application.
You didn’t make a mistake, this is one of the reasons you got into coding. You wanted to build something that was meaningful and useful for other people and worst case scenario, at least you’ll have a web application out of all of this when it’s all said and done. And best case scenario, this is something you can use during your interview process to showcase something that you’ve built, it’s being used by other folks and so on and so forth.
So in that moment it was terrible and terrifying - we had just gotten a house, my income had already been slashed to become a software engineer, it was just the perfect storm of everything you don’t want to happen, and then getting laid off was not great, but I pivoted and said I’m going to use this time that I’m not working to go back to my why - why did I get started in tech? I wanted to build something that was meaningful and do that until something comes along.
I’ve gotten a lot more focused. So I have two or three goals. These are next step goals. I’m not trying to think a trillion years out like I used to. It’s like the next thing I want to happen or need to make happen - those are front and center. Easy, digestible, not this long laundry list of 1200 things that I’ll beat myself up for if I don’t accomplish by the end of January 2022.
If I can not do anything else for 2022 what are the two things that I would love to accomplish? And that’s what made the cut.
Keep the main thing the main thing. If I crush those two goals earlier than I thought I could, I’ll just move onto two more goals. I’m still constantly striving for something, but it’s in a more meaningful and impactful way for my life as opposed to trying to do all of the things at the same time.
If I’m starting to feel overwhelmed, if I’m physically feeling tense about something, it’s time for me to scale back or rethink my approach.
And if it doesn’t feel good - it might not be serving you right now - in this season and point in your life and that’s ok. Give yourself some grace.
I hope these conversations were as enlightening and validating for you all as they were for me - especially in this season of reflection and resolution.
If you know someone who can relate, please share. And if you have a story about how your own relationship to ambition has shifted, let me know in the comments.
Until next time!
Image: Catherine Falls Commercial/Moment via Getty Images