The not-so-subtle eye roll.
The quiet, behind your back whispers.
The direct, in your face scoff.
If you've ever confided your ambitions in someone past the age of 12 (when you can still get away with saying just about anything you want to do or be when you grow up) you've probably encountered one of these reactions - especially if you're a woman or person of color or someone in pursuit of a particularly big, hairy or audacious goal.
As someone whose ambitions have ranged from starting a business to writing a book, these responses have often felt like the background track of my adult life. "Oh, you know Stefanie and her "projects" [or insert not-so-generous euphemism here]".
Even when I don't see and hear them, I can feel them. And it's hard for those feelings not to creep in and change my relationship to my own ambitions.
Which is why I'm pleased to invite Emily Guy Birken to Too Ambitious today to give us a peek into her own ambition, and how she's managed it in spite of everyone who questioned it along the way.
Sometime during my senior year in high school, I realized that my then-boyfriend didn’t take my goal of being a writer seriously. Writing was a dream I’d had since I was a tiny child – but I also wanted to have children someday and struggled to imagine my life without kids. These dreams seemed mutually exclusive.
My boyfriend, who had his own ambition to become a doctor, seemed to think I was worrying about nothing. “It’ll be easy,” he once assured me. “You can finish up a chapter of your book while the baby’s sleeping.”
This infuriated me for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate at the time. I wish I had told him, "Why don’t you work on curing cancer while the baby’s sleeping?”
Then came my first year in college. While chatting with a friend’s father—a minister who wrote a new sermon every week—I said I was majoring in English with an emphasis in creative writing. “That’s great,” he replied. “You’ll be the most educated person in the unemployment line!”
Several years later, when I was pregnant with my eldest child and planning to take a year (or more) off from teaching high school English, my dad reminded me of the importance of meaningful work and asked me what I planned to do with myself in addition to parenting. When I told him I would write, he responded, “Writing isn’t real work.”
Dad’s response came from a place of personal pain. He had dreamed of being a journalist and had to put that dream aside. So he needed to redefine writing as “not real work” to feel more comfortable with his own choices, never mind how it affected his daughter’s ambitions.
Still, if I had told him or any of these men — or any of the other people who routinely patted me on the head — that my dream was to write a book that makes it onto the New York Times bestseller list, the response would have been a patronizing suggestion that I have a backup plan (at best), or outright mirth at my audacity (at worst).
Writing sounds outlandish to many people because there’s no clear path to become a writer. Successful writers seem to appear fully-formed out of nowhere, despite the fact that nearly every writer who has found any success has toiled for years in obscurity. Saying I was working toward becoming a writer probably sounded to them like I was working toward becoming a princess. Sure, Grace Kelly and Meghan Markle may have done it, but did I really think I was a Grace or a Meghan?
What they ignored was the fact that writing is a skill I could hone, a business I could learn to navigate, and a craft that is improved with mentorship. I could not convince them that I was as serious about my ambition as my boyfriend was about becoming a doctor, or my friend’s father had been about becoming a minister. To them, it sounded like I was fantasizing about something impossible (or at least wildly implausible), rather than planning.
Unfortunately, this meant I internalized the idea that my ambition was outlandish. Though the passion and the urge to write never went away, I pursued more practical ambitions. I got a master’s degree in English education and started teaching high school. I tried to fit writing in, too, but there was never enough time or energy or resources.
When I started freelancing in the personal finance sphere in November 2010, just two months after my eldest son was born, I ironically found that working when the baby slept was easier than trying to write while teaching. This was the first time I had room for my dream, because my “real work” was on a pause.
Even so, this work still seemed like nothing much to many people.
It was blog posts about things like "The Top 10 Credit Myths" that paid $25 a pop.
It was something I did in my baby’s down time.
It was a subject I had not been trained in.
It wasn’t the Great American Novel.
It wasn’t "Real Work".
But financial writing suited me down to the ground. I had always been a money nerd and now I got paid to indulge my geekery. I loved the research and the writing and connecting disparate ideas and making silly jokes in service of helping people feel less stressed and more empowered. I loved learning and improving on my writing skills. I loved feeling in control of my career, rather than beholden to my administration or my school district.
Despite pushback from some areas of my life, I kept at it and my client list grew. After about a year, I started fielding requests for interviews as a financial expert. Within two years, I made enough money to pay off my student loans. When I had been writing for three years, I was contacted by a publishing company who wanted me to write a book on retirement, which went on to become an Amazon bestseller.
I’m now eleven years into my writing career. I am the author of four books on personal finance, with a fifth book due out at the end of 2021. This book, Stacked: Your Super Serious Guide to Modern Money Management, which I wrote with my friend Joe Saul-Sehy, was my first agented book. Joe and I were fortunate, savvy, and talented enough to land an agent who believed in our project and who helped us sell the book at auction for a 6-figure advance.
It is entirely possible that I may realize my lifelong ambition of making it onto the NYT bestseller list with this book. I hope I do.
But I know if it doesn’t happen with Stacked, it will happen for me with another book I write. Because there is nothing outlandish about wanting to do something that few people succeed at. Our ambitions aren’t the pie-in-the-sky dreams of silly girls who haven’t thought through the difficulties, the consequences, or the practicalities.
The path I took to get where I am isn’t the one I expected. But the girl who planned to be a writer grew into a woman who made it happen, because I took it seriously.
Imagine how much easier it would have been if others took it seriously, too.
Emily Guy Birken is a former educator, lifelong money nerd, and a Plutus Award–winning freelance writer who specializes in the scientific research behind irrational money behaviors.. She is the author of five books including The 5 Years Before You Retire and Stacked: Your Super Serious Guide to Modern Money Management, written with Joe Saul-Sehy. You can follow her on twitter @emilyguybirken.
Image: Westend61 via GettyImages
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