The cost of ambition 

This phrase came up for me several times this week and it stung. It stung hard.

What do I, as a coach/Career Adventurist, stand for when it comes to prioritising my multiple commitments — marriage, kids, family, friendships, work, money, leisure, the environment, my own emotional health…? And at what cost do I make my choices to work in the way that I do?

Let me take a step back and give some context around this.

I coach on an MBA program, and we not only work with the students but among ourselves as coaches — individually and as a group.

This time round, something came up for me around the competing commitments to do the work that we do as coaches. We have 4 consecutive, long days of coaching from Friday to Monday, starting as early as 7:30am and ending as late as 9:30pm. And as my husband was also away this weekend, the kids were left to their own devices to some degree, thankfully with my parents’ support and our long-time nanny who’s like a second mom to them.

Emotional availability

But then the unexpected happens — as it did last year around the same time: a death in the family. Last year it was my grandmother who was 90 and had been weak for some time; this year, my cousin who’d been in a semi-catatonic state for over a year, quietly faded away. Not entirely unexpected, but still not entirely expected either. 

This meant, among other things: 

  • My parents had to fly to the wake and funeral — I couldn’t be there

  • My kids (aged 14 and below) were less supervised than planned — I reached home one evening at 10:30pm and no one was home

  • Food preparation and bedtime were less supervised — challenging when there are health considerations that are affected by this

But I was committed to my work — it is not an assignment that comes easy, it is valuable work, and there is barely any scope for last minute replacements. 

I had to be present and emotionally available for my students and fellow coaches; but in some way, not for myself until after 10pm. I had to park my personal emotions at the door. Or so I thought. However, it was through working with my colleagues after the student sessions that I was able to give voice to my mixed emotions and allow me to do my best work in the daytime.

Is ambition a dirty word?

But during this time, someone said: “that’s the cost of ambition”. I bristled ever so slightly at the word “ambition”. 

I bristled ever so slightly at the word “ambition”.

Ambition for me is quite a dirty word. It brings to mind years of debates and frustration my family has faced over the years of juggling work, or the desire to work, with a growing family, health problems that have spanned 20 years, expectations of one another and ourselves and the “failure” to meet those expectations, as well as the unwillingness to compromise. Or even more accurately, the compromises that were made, but with lingering resentment and fear attached.

At what cost?

As I reflected on that and thought about my career — the past choices, my work as a coach and building my Career Adventurist coaching program — I was forced to answer the question at home AGAIN: what is the cost of my ambition?

Being a nomadic, freelance, portfolio career professional does NOT mean total freedom. The freedom that I do have in terms of choosing who I work with, when and on what comes at a cost — the same cost that corporate professionals face of “something’s got to give”. 

Sometimes, I think it feels like an even greater cost. Because in some ways, I have a “choice”.

A choice to say “no” to projects.

A choice to ensure the home is in better order than it currently is.

A choice to focus on my kids.

A choice to prioritise differently.

But I do not. Not always. I love my work. I love how I work. I really do want to be seen, and recognised for the work that I do. It does not define me, but it is part of my identity. It keeps me sane, and makes me whole. 

Does that make me a bad person?

This is a question I have asked myself for years. Not a bad person in general, but a bad wife and mom. Logically, I don’t think it does. I believe the only thing bad about this question, is that I have not really been truthful.

I took a risk this week and spoke my truth. From the list of mutual priorities for the family, I finally owned up that I don’t prioritise them in the same way as my husband does (right now). For the first time in years, I said what I really felt. 

Was it taken well? No, not really. But I was relieved that my truth was out and although I still felt a little dirty, I can now admit (after so many decades of denying it) that I do have ambition. Ambition to work, impact others, be at my best doing so, and being true to how I feel whole.

A balanced portfolio

But here’s the distinction — I have ambition, but not at the expense of other priorities. That’s what freaking work-life balance is about. Being able to balance and rebalance the portfolio of priorities that are omnipresent in my individual life, and our life as a family.

That’s what freaking work-life balance is about. Being able to balance and rebalance the portfolio of priorities that are omnipresent in my individual life, and our life as a family.

That’s why I have had the weird career that I have had. That’s why I believe strongly in being able to choose, as well as not to choose. This journey of “Career Adventuring” has taught me that. While I might tip the balance scales the wrong way at times, that is all part of the learning process

As a friend said to me today, “Be gentle with yourself.” 

And this is my heartfelt message to anyone. In particular, someone seeking a path less taken. The road is bumpy, but along the way you learn more about yourself, you’ll find the courage to face your shadow and speak its truth so it clears cobwebs and you can deal with what’s underneath. You will build the tenacity to keep going. And hone the ability to balance and rebalance.

Avalyn.