Why are so many women losing their ambition?

Why are so many women losing their ambition?

With long-term impacts of the pandemic emerging, what has triggered an age of anti-ambition as women seek fulfilment beyond work?

Before March 2020, work was at the centre of my existence. I had spent years climbing the career ladder in the community services sector and finally had a job I loved.

While the stressful conditions weren’t great, my passion and sense that I was making a difference made it worth the struggle – for the most part.

When the pandemic hit, and I found myself trying to run programs that bridge inequalities from my cramped home office, my drive and determination were among the first casualties. Once routine tasks felt obscenely difficult, and the most minor setbacks were enough to derail my day.

I later realised I was experiencing poor mental health and a severe case of burnout, and fortunately was able to make changes to protect my peace and energy.

Yet, more than two years later, I still don’t work as much or as ‘hard’ as I once did. Am I losing my ambition?

Merriam-Webster defines ambition as “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power” or “desire to achieve a particular end”. I have never wanted rank, fame or power, but I once had a pretty good idea of my career’s ‘end goal’. This goal no longer felt right for me after more than two years of change and uncertainty.

I am now more concerned with being present enough to fully experience my life’s journey. If ambition means constantly grinding towards a fixed outcome, then perhaps it’s something I’m okay with ‘losing’.

Dr Lillian Nejad, a clinical psychologist at Skills for Life, explained that women everywhere have been re-evaluating their priorities, determined to have more time and energy for other, often-neglected parts of their lives.

“The shift is not only about wanting to live life on our terms. It’s about realising that we can. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re slowing down. It means we are taking stock,” she said.

How the pandemic changed our relationship with work

The global disruption to our working lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic shifted everyone’s attitudes towards work.

For some, working from home freed up more time and energy to spend with loved ones, care for their wellbeing, or nurture a long-lost hobby.

But for others, the boundaries between work and home life became blurrier than ever. Many women worked more hours during the pandemic while juggling childcare, home-schooling, and increasing domestic loads.

Dr Nejad explained that this contributed to an evolution of how women define success, achievement, and ambition.

“People are moving away from the narrow view that success equates to achieving a certain professional and financial status to a broader view that encompasses the quality of their relationships, the state of their physical and mental health, and their own personal values,” she said.

Choosing to improve your quality of life does not mean you are losing your ambition. It is simply a transformation to a more holistic type of ambition that doesn’t require chasing success or status at all costs.

Clinical psychologist Dr Lillian Nejad

Clinical psychologist Dr Lillian Nejad.

Mental health matters – in reality, not just rhetoric

The apparent ambition crisis is also driven by toxic structures and systems that erode our individual and collective psychological wellbeing.

While we now talk more openly about mental health, glaring issues remain in actually getting people the support they need.

Most people struggle to find the time and money to regularly see a mental health professional, even with rebates available. These barriers are further compounded if you live in a rural or remote area, have a disability, or are not a white, middle-class, cisgender, straight man.

Dr Nejad said that the pandemic highlighted the dire importance of mental health in a new way. We now understand that mental health issues can affect anyone, especially if they perpetually run themselves ragged at work.

“People are more aware that hustle culture and the sleep deprivation and stress that comes with it leads to burnout, relationship difficulties, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression,” she said.

“What people are looking for now is a well-balanced life that includes meaningful work.”

Reviving ambition without relapsing workaholism

If you are one of the many women struggling with low drive and motivation, don’t despair. But before making any drastic changes, it’s important to reflect on why you feel the way you do.

“Conditions like burnout, depression, anxiety, and physical illness or injury can affect your mood, thoughts, and behaviours in a way that can leave you feeling unmotivated and apathetic, even hopeless,” said Dr Nejad.

“If you find yourself in this state of mind, it’s important to ask for help so that you can start feeling like yourself again.”

If your lack of ambition persists, it may reflect a fundamental change in what you want for yourself and how you want to live and work. Try to remain open to these changes and respond to them with curiosity and flexibility.

“It’s natural for your drive and ambition to wax and wane based on what’s going on in your life, and it makes sense that you will have different expectations of yourself at different stages of your life,” Dr Nejad said.

“What you want today is not likely to be the same as what you wanted 10 years ago, and what you will want 10 years from now. It’s important to be aware of where you are at and adapt flexibly to these changes that happen within you and around you.”

This might look like taking time off to reflect, exploring new career options by seeking mentors in an industry you’ve always been curious about, or engaging in further studies. Or it might mean taking the leap from your current job to the exciting world of entrepreneurship.

“Many women are leaving well-paid positions to start their own businesses,” said Dr Nejad.

“I can assure you, as someone who also went out on my own, it’s more work, not less. So perhaps it’s not ambition that is waning; it’s just now we don’t view climbing the corporate ladder as the ultimate desired outcome.”

No matter how the pandemic has impacted your personal and professional life, it is important not to judge yourself for how you feel or the struggles you experience.

“Sometimes, when women want to make major (or even minor) changes in our lives, we fear that others will judge us,” said Dr Nejad.

“So, we pre-empt this by judging ourselves, labelling ourselves as lacking ambition or asking for reassurance or apologising for our choices. My advice is to back yourself.”

It’s normal to experience worry and imposter syndrome during periods of significant transition. Confiding in trusted friends and colleagues can help break out of unhelpful cycles of self-doubt.

“Consulting with a coach or psychologist can also be an effective strategy to help develop a healthier mindset and get back on track,” said Dr Nejad.

De-centring work from your identity and life could be your most ambitious step to date. Backing yourself to create a career that allows you to thrive both professionally and personally takes courage, creativity, and resilience.

It requires knowing what you want, understanding your needs and values, and then taking steps towards the life you want to lead.

“Recognise that this path may change direction from time to time, and that’s what makes life interesting,” said Dr Nejad.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.