What Happened To My Ambition? with Rainesford Stauffer | Crooked Media
February 01, 2023
Work Appropriate
What Happened To My Ambition? with Rainesford Stauffer

In This Episode

Our society’s understanding of ambition is that it never stops burning, that it rules your life and every decision you make, and that it somehow lands people in some mystical land of perfect contentment. But how much ambition is too much? Or what if, after decades of striving, your ambition is just… gone? Rainesford Stauffer, author of the forthcoming All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to hear from listeners about the vagaries of ambition when it comes to work — and how to conceive of ambition as a potentially positive force outside of work.




Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, and this is Work Appropriate. [music break] Last month, I was back at my childhood home, wading through piles of saved artifacts from my junior high and high school years. And for complicated reasons, my junior high went through ninth grade, which meant that ninth grade was also like the pseudo moment of graduation. It was a big deal. We had this formal dance with the other junior high, and more importantly, we had a grade wide vote for class superlatives. Now, this was small town Idaho in the mid-nineties, and some of these categories were things like best looking, I still remember who won best looking, but there was also a category for most ambitious. The person who won this award was a close friend of mine, and the reason he won it wasn’t because he had like a five point business plan. It was because he had a very clear plan for becoming a professional basketball player, a kid in Idaho in ninth grade, pretty good [laughs] but, you know, not like LeBron James in ninth grade good. Telling everyone he was absolutely going to the NBA and to a group of 14 year old’s that was legible as ambition. It was big and bombastic, brash. And I think that’s one of our enduring understandings of what ambition has to be something massive, something that rules your life and every decision you make, something that never stops burning, and crucially, something that somehow lands people in this mystical land of perfect contentment. If you’ve ever known someone whose primary attribute is ambitious, you know there’s no endpoint. There’s just always more to strive for, which also means that there’s no such thing as contentment. And so for this episode, we’re talking to people about the vagaries of ambition when it comes to work and how to conceive of ambition as a potentially positive force outside of work. In America in particular, it’s really hard to talk critically about ambition because it’s absolutely one of our prized attributes. But here at Work Appropriate, we also get so many questions about what to do about ambition levels that aren’t, you know, the same level as a ninth grader who’s convinced himself he’s going to make it to the NBA. This is hard stuff, but I knew the absolutely perfect person to ask to be my co-host. 


Rainesford Stauffer: My name is Rainesford Stauffer. I’m a freelance writer and reporter, and I’m the author of two books, An Ordinary Age, which came out in 2021 and All the Gold Stars, which will be out June sixth from Hachette. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Tell me about this upcoming book. All the Gold Stars, because I am very excited for it. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Thank you. This upcoming book, All the Gold Stars, is broadly about reimagining ambition and what that looked like in practice. And on the page was kind of looking at the history of ambition, how it came to be, either this thing that’s very glorified in our society or penalized depending on who you are, and interviewing people about how their ambition has shifted over the course of their lives to different parts of their lives. So it’s a lot of hearing how people are ambitious outside of work and about things like community, about play, about their pets. It was one of the most interesting and uplifting reporting processes I’ve done in a while. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s so interesting because I have realized that after a flurry of very ambitious book writing and I’m still very obviously like I’m ambitious in what I want my newsletter to be, and I have this podcast, but also I just have kind of taken a step back from trying to push into brand new projects. And I’ve watched as my ambition has transferred into distance running. And so it’s just like it’s really, I think, healthy to challenge myself in a totally different part of my life than work. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Totally. And I think that even beyond challenging ourselves, I think it’s cool to apply that level of attention and intention and time to things beyond work. And that was really interesting to talk to people about how it felt like, you know, ambition had one kind of hold on your identity as a worker, but it also might manifest in all of these other parts of your identity. That turns out you really do want to invest your time and your dreams and your imagination into. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What is your own relationship with ambition. I know this is complicated. 


Rainesford Stauffer: It is complicated because it would be a lie to say I’m not ambitious about my work. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Which is definitely something I get into in the book. I am very ambitious about my work. I do have goals, I do have dreams. But I think the biggest thing that shifted about my relationship to ambition is that it’s not condensed just to work anymore. Like this is a wild example. But I was really ambitious about adopting a cat. [laughter] That was the dream that I had for myself in this phase of life, and a lot of intention went into it, a lot of planning went into it. I have two cats. I adore them and it is every bit as good as I imagined it would be. And so when I think about my relationship to ambition now, I think. From the serious to the silly. It’s just a lot more expansive than it was before. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. And I think also, at least for me, a huge part of coming to terms with ambition is also understanding that like there is an endpoint. Like ambition doesn’t mean constant growth. It doesn’t mean that like as soon as you achieve one thing, you leave that thing and then you’re like adopting another cat do you know what I mean? [laughter] Like, like you can you can adopt two cats and be like, I adopted the cats. I am reveling in this moment of two cat adoption, but I think that’s counter to what so much of society tells us in terms of like you have to always be striving towards that next thing. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Yeah, exactly. I think that we’re constantly told that we need to be looking toward what’s coming next, and if we’re not, we’re behind or we risk being behind. We’re slacking, we’re letting everything go, we’re dropping the ball, all of these things. And I think honestly, that’s the kind of striving that can be really harmful because at some point it stops coming from you, it stops being something you are striving for and is more about chasing down the next thing. And we know there’s always going to be a next thing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And on one hand that’s great. It’s wonderful to have new dreams and new ideas or new things that you want for your life and are working toward. But I don’t think we ever get the counter messaging of sometimes your ambition stops, sometimes your ambition changes, sometimes your ambition for a certain thing stops. And that doesn’t mean you’ve dropped the ball on that dream or you’ve changed your mind. And that’s a bad thing. I think it can be so much more stop and go than we sometimes anticipate it being. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I also think that there’s it’s cliché at this point, but it’s really interwoven with the pandemic and just that moment to stop and examine like, what do I actually want from my life? And I at least have seen a lot of people questioning the positive attributes of ambition like this, understanding that ambition is always a good thing and kind of pushing back and exploring, okay, what if my ambition has gone away? What if I don’t want to have the same relationship that I had with ambition? So have you. I’m sure you have connected those dots a little bit. 


Rainesford Stauffer: I’ve tried to connect those dots. [laughs] Both, both in the reporting. And for me personally, I do think I’m sure that some of it was brought about by the pandemic. I’m sure it’s an intersection of things where people, I think, collectively are pausing and going, okay, ambition, yeah, but what am I ambitious for? Who is benefiting from that? Why does it feel this way? And I think that that to me seems like a really stark counterpoint to this idea that the most important thing we’re going to do is hustle. It almost even doesn’t matter what for as long as you have a goal and you’re busting it to reach it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And I think one of the biggest shifts that comes to mind for me in terms of people I’ve talked to and just how I think about this is realizing that, first of all, the absence of ambition is not inherently a bad thing. And second of all, I think ambition can be a lot more collective and a lot more expansive than it’s given credit for. And I think that when we funnel into this completely work driven, completely output driven striving, we really miss the imaginative or community centered components of it that I think most of us are ambitious about having in our lives in some form or fashion. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right? Like what if the ambition was that no person in my community was unhoused. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Right? And I don’t understand why things like that or I think it’s really important that we have paid leave for all, or I think it’s really important that we have a union in my workplace. It blows my mind that these are not considered accomplishments or goals the same way achieving a degree or a certain title at work are considered a status oriented goal. It really blows my mind, and I think that when we broaden the definition of what ambition can be and is supposed to be and who it applies to and who gets to have it, we come away with something that doesn’t look so stiff or so rigid. It’s a lot more community focused I think. 


Anne Helen Petersen: We have a I think, a nice cornucopia of different ambition related questions for you today. So the first is from Claire. 


Claire: Traditionally, in my field, in order to be a female software engineer, you have to be absolutely exceptional and one of the top performers. Well, my ambition is to have the same privilege as my white male colleagues, and that is to be just average and be able to do my job in an average way, but still get recognized as contributing positively to the team. I want to have a very strong work life balance, and I don’t want to devote all my time to my career and climbing the career ladder. However, I feel like I’m letting women down because I’m trying to break that glass ceiling and bring more women into the software engineering space. My question is, how do I do both? How do I exist as an average software engineer without feeling guilty, without losing my job? And how do I use that to bring and make space for other women as software engineers? 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So I think a lot of people from marginalized identities will feel this tension in some way, like there is an obligation to advance the cause. And you are letting some part of your identity, your sex, your race, down if you are just happy with where you are. So, Rainesford, what are your thoughts on this one? 


Rainesford Stauffer: Oh my gosh, I’m excited to hear yours [laughter] because I think that this is I think this is a hard one. I think by now it’s obvious or it should be obvious and cannot be said enough how much the pressure to be exceptional deepens inequities, how much that trope of being the best one, the most exceptional one, the one that always goes above and beyond, intersects with racism and gender discrimination and ableism, and is despite being the talking point of being extraordinary and it being exceptional and it being great, it’s really harmful. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And we know that. And so I think we have to say that first just upfront. But when I listen to this question, it sounds like the ambition is to do the job, contribute positively, and make things better for the people that come after you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And that should not be penalized as not doing enough. I think that that’s kind of how you do both. I think making space for other people means giving yourself the permission where you can to have the kind of career and the kind of balance between your work in your life that feels good to you and in turn, hopefully giving other people the chance to think about what works for them, too. And I also wonder, I’m sure it depends on the workplace, but I think that there’s a tangible element of this that could be less about what you do in your job and with your workload and more about what you do in the workplace. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And whether there’s a chance to make tangible changes in your workplace that materially benefit your coworkers or other people who are going to enter your field. First things that come to mind. Salary transparency. Unionizing. I wonder if it’s less about like what you do with your own career and more about considering, okay, if I feel good about where I’m at and I want to get to a place where other people feel good about who I am and where I’m at, it’s more collective action on making the whole workplace more inclusive and more welcoming and I think, frankly, more sustainable. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. What you’ve said reminds me of so many examples that I’ve seen of people, whether they’re women or people of color, or they have proven themselves exceptional by really sacrificing all of their parts of their lives. They’re part of the way that they have succeeded is by modeling that the only way to succeed is to allow work to cannibalize the rest of your life. And while that is a representational win, I do not think that it is a win for [laughs] you know, sustainable management of anyone’s work life balance. How can you show that you can have a sustainable career that is not filled with striving, that is not filled with burnout, that is not like constantly evacuating all other responsibilities? How can you do that? Like, that’s a great model and that is actually an incredible skill that you can pass on through mentorship as well. So like, like you said, I think there are so many different ways that you can help other people in your organization that do not rely so heavily on an incredibly individual path because it’s also not replicable. No one’s individual path can be someone else’s path. It is not so simple as to say I did this. Now you will be able to do this instead if you make it. You know, it’s kind of like the principles of universal design. Like if you make it possible for not just white males to succeed in this organization, for not just white males to have this sort of sustainable protection against layoffs, whatever it is, you’re making it possible for the people that you are, you know, trying to make space for. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Yeah. And I just want to say on the idea of mentorship within your organization, totally. But also if there is any opportunity to connect with a student who’s studying in the field. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Or a young person, I think that there are a lot of young people who are trying to take their first steps in their careers who, in my opinion, are rightfully, totally scared out of their minds that reaching a point where they don’t feel all of the ramifications of economic precarity, feeling like they could be fired at any moment, feeling like they don’t even know how to get a job, let alone keep one, and are sitting there wondering, okay, do I trade every other facet of my life, my physical and mental well-being, my goals outside of work is that an even trade? I think being able to reach out to those people and have conversations like this one is a total game changer. It’s something that definitely would have blown my mind when I was 19 or 20 years old. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And felt like the way to do anything was to try everything [laughs] which was not a great strategy. Yeah, mentorship made me think of that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally the only people that I would think of as like people to ask to be mentors would be people who are like, who are all stars because they had no life, because all they did was work all the time. And what a revelation it would be to have someone who thought of ambition as mentorship. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Totally. And I think it’s also like, I wouldn’t have known who to, who to ask. And so I think just having that line of dialogue open, I think that is a hugely ambitious thing in and of itself. [music break]


Anne Helen Petersen: For our next question we’re going to go to the other end of the ambition spectrum. This question is from Emily and our colleague Ari is going to read it for us. 


Emily: How much ambition is too much? I started working relatively late compared to my peers at 27 because I’m disabled and I can’t help feeling like I have to try my absolute hardest to catch up. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Uff da. What do you think, Rainesford? We can answer the question for this person, but also—


Rainesford Stauffer: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —maybe let’s start larger with this question of how much ambition is too much, at least in your reporting. Like what have you seen as representations, as experiences of too much ambition? 


Rainesford Stauffer: So many places I want to start here. [laughs] I think the immediate answer is that I think ambition for me and what I’ve heard from other people over the course of my reporting is that ambition becomes too much when it cancels out all of your other needs, your needs for rest, and tending to your health, your needs for relationships with others, your need to do absolutely nothing when you can. When ambition becomes the single most dominant force that you feel like is making all of the decisions for you, that’s when to me, it tips in too much territory. And personally, I think when I think about my own ambition and when I’ve gone through phases where it’s like, oof too much, when I stop being able to answer why I am ambitious about a given thing, or when the honest answer is something that has more to do with meeting a metric or chasing down something I’m supposed to want or trying to catch up than it does anything having to do with me. That’s when I know that the scales are probably feeling a little bit out of balance. And I’m probably feeling that. I’m probably feeling really frustrated in my ambition when I stop being able to answer that question. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And this person asking the question, it seems like they don’t necessarily feel like they’re struggling in their job or whatever at this point in their career. The only thing that is making them feel deficient is comparison to their peers. And I think that’s one of those cases where it makes total sense. We are taught over and over again to compare ourselves 1 to 1 to our peers, But we’re all running our own race in so many different ways [laughs] and we just do not hear that lesson enough. 


Rainesford Stauffer: We don’t, sometimes we don’t hear it at all. 


Anne Helen Petersen: No. [laughs]


Rainesford Stauffer: And it just makes me want to scream into the void that quote unquote, being ahead, being behind those solely exists to keep us running. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: It’s kind of like we were talking about earlier. Catching up is a myth. The goalposts are always moving. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And it’s a myth that I have followed down every path. It’s led me down this idea that I’m going to catch up. I’m going to get my life on track. I’m going to do everything in this order. It’s going to turn out fine. And I think that the hard thing about that is that, first of all, we know on track doesn’t hold up for everyone because it depends so much on your preferences and on your circumstances. But I think that when we think of trying to catch up, the goalpost is always going to be moving. And I think when we’re ambitious just for trying to catch up to wherever we think we ought to be. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: It shapes shifts. As soon as you think you’re almost there, there’s always going to be the next thing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I also think this person, they don’t share anything about what their disability might be. But like at least people that I know in the disability community, oftentimes there are things that make it impossible for you to gauge your progress, to gauge your life, and ever— In any way in the same way as someone who is able bodied and who knows when there’s going to be a flare up, who knows when you’re just going to have to slow down time. There’s too many factors that are going to make this person always feel deficient. If they’re using the same yardstick as people, there the same age. Your route to where you are today took a different route than some people imagine. The like post high school career of a high achiever, how that should go. How have you grappled with comparing yourself to other people that are exactly your age? 


Rainesford Stauffer: That’s a great question. [laughs] I’m still grappling with that. And I just want to say one quick thing. I’m by no means an expert, but I think that one thing that might help is that our construction of how we mark time and productivity and all of these things is so inherently ableist—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: —that it blocks so many people out by default. I’m chronically ill and I know just even in my own personal experience, my body is not quote unquote “keeping up” the way it did a couple of years ago. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: My symptoms are completely different. It’s all over the place. I don’t know how I’m gonna feel day to day, and that has really done a number on me thinking well I should be able to do, everything that I did before. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And it’s like, really? [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Rainesford Stauffer: Says who because your body is certainly not saying that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: So I think that that’s actually been part of, of how I have thought about my path or reconfigured this sense of comparison and being behind. Honestly, I think the thing that helped me was realizing that comparing yourself to others is normal. [laughs] And I say that upfront because I spent a long time feeling ashamed that I had not lived up to whatever path I thought I was supposed to be on or wasn’t where my peers were at a certain stage of life. And then I would get sucked into feeling bad for comparing myself when I theoretically knew better than to do that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right, right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You’re like, I know better, and yet I’m still doing it. So like the shame is dual-fold. [laughs] 


Rainesford Stauffer: It is, and it’s like I’m scrolling on Instagram. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Like everybody comparing, you know, me feeling like crap alone in my sweatpants, having no idea what I’m doing with the things someone chose to share. So I say that because I think we all do it whether we want to admit that out loud or not. But I think that one of the things that’s come to light for me over the past couple years, even beyond work, there’s been a lot of personal upheaval, a lot of health upheaval, a lot of grief, a lot of transitions that I just did not see coming. And I think that that’s required me to get a lot more patient with myself about the path that I’m charting. And I think in turn, it’s made me think about all of the people I’m sitting there comparing myself to and thinking, I didn’t know this is how my life was going to look and feel even two years ago. And there’s something in that person’s life that I have no idea about that I’m sure they didn’t see coming either. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And I don’t know. I think the other thing that comes up for me in terms of comparison is that I’ve noticed that when I dig a little deeper, I’m often not comparing myself to a peer or a friend or some random standard. It’s more I’m comparing myself to who I could’ve been if I had made other choices. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. It’s like a sliding doors version of yourself. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Absolutely. It’s kind of like the what if self, who is inherently always going to be more informed and more interesting than we are, in part because they have the benefit of all the current knowledge being projected onto them. And when I sit there and I’m thinking, well, what I’m really thinking when I’m comparing myself is I could have done this or I should have done Y I should have done X, Y, Z, all of these things. I think it helps me to kind of recalibrate and think. But you made the decision you made with the information you had at the time and the circumstances you were in at the time. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And if we’ve decided that we have other ambitions and we want to make different choices, we can try to do those. But it does no good to compare yourself to a theoretical self. Because that’s not what happened. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And that’s okay. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughs] A friend of mine used to say if things were different, then things would be different. [laughs] And it’s so, so simple. But I try. I actually take solace in that understanding that, like, they didn’t go differently than they did. Right? Like, we can’t go back and correct that. So our discussion right now actually is a really great transition to our next question, which is about the ambition hamster wheel, and especially if you are running in high achieving circles and how hard it is to resist that constant comparison to others. This question is from Chloe. 


Chloe: How do you avoid comparisons with more successful friends? If you’ve chosen a career path that’s considered more of a lifestyle career? I’m ten years out of law school and most of my friends have made partner or gone in-house. I chose a career in the government to facilitate my family responsibilities. Young kids, no family safety net nearby. And much as I try to work out, write a novel, engage in other forms of self-improvement or life enrichment. There are days that I question whether I’ve shortchanged myself. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So I think that all of our advice that we [laughs] we, we previously offered applies to this situation. But I also think that this person might benefit from a reframing. And what I mean by that is that if you have been a goal oriented person your entire life, and for better or for worse, the way that you think about how your life goes is by setting goals and then achieving those goals. How could you think about the goals that are within your current life, right? Like, how can you reset your goals so that they are things that actually really matter to you? And maybe that will give you that feeling of achievement that you see off in the distance of these friends achieving? Does that make sense? 


Rainesford Stauffer: I think it totally does, and I think it is also kind of a reframing of successful, which I think is such a hard word, because I think that we’re kind of funneled into this one definition of what that’s supposed to look like. And honestly, I think that that’s why it’s so disorienting for so many people when they do hit whatever achievement box, whatever box of success they feel like they need to check. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And then kind of feel like, oh, I still feel exactly the same. [laughs] What’s next? I think that I think that success ebbs and flows so much depending on not just who you are, but the new parts of yourself you discover and you grow into across your life. I think it’s impossible to predict ten years ago what would have made you feel successful and fulfilled and ambitious, right now, ten years out. I think we try and I think that that’s a great goal to have. But I think that a lot of us would feel a lot better if we reframed it as knowing this is something that’s definitely going to change. And part of my ambition is going to be, like you said, setting those goals that feel good to me in the circumstances I’m working with right now. Because if you hadn’t made these choices ten years ago, there’s a chance that you would just question yourself in the other direction too. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: What if I had done it this way?


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Like, what if, I don’t have a family? Is that because I chose this route? All those sorts of things. I do think this goes back to something you mentioned earlier, which is that oftentimes when you feel like a failure in terms of ambition, it’s because your understanding of success is so thoroughly yoked to work as success. That work is the only way that we can think of ourselves as obtaining success in any way. There’s all sorts of people that I know who are incredibly successful in their jobs but are failures in relationship failures in their role of their family, their failures in their community. It’s like, you know, if you’re I don’t know if you’re like a video game character and you have four sources of power and like your work source of power is at 100 and everything else is at zero. Like this person has not had a full night’s sleep in years they’re a failure at sleep. [laughs] So if you can reframe and think about all of these other things that you are like totally killing it, like this person is killing it and being a well-rounded mother. [laughs]


Rainesford Stauffer: Yeah, and I think about that in the reverse all the time. I think about people who are working inside the home instead of outside the home, people who aren’t working at all. And we see that as inherently less successful and inherently less ambitious when it takes so much work and so much dedication. And so I think that what we’ve taken away from this question is our ideas of success are way too narrow. And I think that when they’re narrow, they get really boring. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Rainesford Stauffer: We’re allowed to have multiple sources of ambition or multiple kinds of dreams. They’re allowed to exist in different domains, and I don’t think that we talk about that enough. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Right. It is so boring to be like number one in sales at your job. I want to hear about your ambition to complete a woodworking project like that. That is interesting to me. [laughs] And you can be competent at your job and also ambitious at other things, is the, is the long and short of it. 


Rainesford Stauffer: You can and I’ve had moments of my own ambition where, to be honest, it’s been really work focused. It was really self focused and that’s what I kept thinking. I was like—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: —this is so boring. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Of like, you’re ambitious, but you’re boring. [laughter] This is not fulfilling to you. This is so stale. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. There’s so little of yourself to give to other people. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And ultimately for what? I mean, this is also a larger conversation about, like, what are people for? What are we here to do? How will we be remembered? All of those things. Like if you were ambitious to be the number one person in sales, like is that connected to other things? Like I am ambitious to provide a solid living for my family. Okay, great. But are you also there for your family to give them forms of stability that also matter apart from just monetary stability? Right. Like, all of this is so complicated. 


Rainesford Stauffer: It is. And it’s so bound up in everything else. Because I think that you know, because work is so materially connected to quality of life in ways that I think a universal basic income paid leave for all. I think there are fixes to that. But I think in the absence of them, I think it’s really hard to say, hey, you need to spend less time at work. You need to disconnect from this because it still feels like the harder we work, the better shot we have at security and at feeling happy and fulfilled despite all of the things we know to the contrary. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And I think that the point that it got to in a lot of conversations I had with people is that the focus had to shift from doing less at work to more, what am I going to add in? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mmm. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And as the result of adding more things in, it kind of automatically took care of the overwork that was unmanageable and needed to be put back in its place and kind of put back into balance. That’s obviously a lot easier said than done, but it did kind of fascinate me that sometimes the solution isn’t always to do less, it’s to add more of the things you’re feeling like you’re missing that you could be ambitious about.


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. And sometimes that’s inconceivable to people when they are working too hard because they’re so tired and all they the only thing they want to add back into their life is rest. And you know, you can be ambitious about rest. That is—


You totally can. 


Rainesford Stauffer: That’s a great ambition.


Anne Helen Petersen: And then you can maybe get to that place where you can think about the other things that you actually want to apply your ambition to. [music break] Our next question. I love it so much. It is about a lack of ambition that could be very aptly renamed contentment. [laughs] But also how this might cause a problem in the future. So we’re going to hear from Emma. 


Emma: How can I tell if my lack of ambition is a problem? How much professional development or networking is enough? I’ve been a post degree librarian for just over ten years now, but have worked in libraries for nearly all of my adult life. I continually struggle with being self-guided, figuring out how much professional development or participation is enough. For context, my first job out of library school ended up after about five years being the perfect recipe for burnout. Even without the unfunded mandate for professional development. But then I, in what still feels like a stroke of luck, found a well-paying job. One town over from where I grew up. It’s a good salary outside the tenured faculty librarian track, which is often unusual to find and the place is small. So the rank I am is the rank I will stay. I like this life, but what else do I tell my well-meaning family members who send me job listings that have maybe a higher salary but are halfway across the country with a lot more responsibility or stress? Moreover, how do I balance now prioritizing time for life outside my job with an appropriate level of professional development and networking, just in case the seeming golden goose ever croaks? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Okay, so first, let’s talk about this performance aspect of ambition, because Emma is happy in her job and she likes her life, but she feels self-conscious about letting other people know that, or at least like the way that she responds when they’re trying to essentially map ambition onto her. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Oh my God. The performance of ambition could be its own. It could be its own everything. Because so much of how we think about ambition when we talk about it, we are talking about how we perform ambition. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: How it looks like externally, how it shows up in our conversations or on our resumes or on God help us all, LinkedIn. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 


Rainesford Stauffer: It’s just it’s it’s in everything. I think the performance of ambition a lot of the time gets in the way of what we are actually ambitious for. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And I thought of this all the time because when I wrote my first book, I never thought I would get to do that. And I was working a job. It was in the midst of a still ongoing pandemic. It was a lot going on, and I remember just being shocked that it had happened, elated that I had got until the end and was completely thrown [laughs] by the very well-meaning question of what are you doing next? What’s what’s the next project? What’s the next thing? Are you going to apply for this thing or are you going to do that? And that’s obviously a very specific example. But I think it happens all the time. When I talk to students, it’s like the worst question that you could ever ask someone who’s about to graduate high school is what’s next? What are you doing next? It’s like there’s no grace given to the fact that you made it this far. You made it into this job, you made it into this chapter. And I don’t think we get very many moments where we can kind of like press the pause button and go, well, damn, I didn’t think I’d make it this far. I don’t know where I’m going next, but like right now, I’m going to celebrate that this feels pretty good. And I think the emphasis on performing ambition really strips away ambition’s humanity, which I kind of think is what this question is getting at. I just I love that this person said I like this life, because to me, that’s the crux of what so many of us are trying to achieve through our ambition. We’re trying to get to a life that feels good and fulfilling and how just liking your life is not considered an ambitious thing blows my mind. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Well and capitalism socializes that in us, right? The idea that, like, we’re always lacking in some way and the only way to fill that lack is through ambition. So it’s not anyone’s fault that they feel that, oh, I’m making like over $100,000 a year. Oh, I bought my first home. I have a family. And we’re we feel secure. Like all those things are never enough or they never feel like enough because we are surrounded with messages that say, you need to do more, you need to have more, you need to spend more in order to arrive at that vaunted feeling of completion when ambition will suddenly disappear. And it doesn’t happen like it can’t happen. Otherwise capitalism would stop. Like there would be no one buying new things if everyone was in, or at least our rapid growth kind of disposable capitalism. If everyone felt the same way as Emma, then we just wouldn’t be growing the same way that we do. And I think that growing, I’m talking about like the economy or whatever. [laughter] But, basically all these well-meaning relatives are just trying to give her more stability. They want to ensure a path forward that is somehow safe or immune from precarity doesn’t exist in our current economy. Unless you have tons and tons and tons and tons of money that is somehow protected in some way. So what would you say would be the wording that you would have her respond to her family members, for instance? 


Rainesford Stauffer: My first thought was to send these messages to the spam folder [laughter] which I realize is not a practical, realistic piece of advice. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And I think you’re I think your point is exactly right. I don’t think capitalism just encourages it. I think it relies on it, just like I think it relies on the idea that someone else is ahead, which means someone else has to be behind. And all that guarantees is that all of us are running toward this direction of hyper productivity all the time because we’re terrified, and rightfully so. I think in regard to response to family members who are well-meaning, who really feel like this is the path [laughs] that you should go down, I think that two things immediately come to mind. I think that one of them is, you know, to just say thanks, but I like this life. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And leave it at that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And it’s radical, right. That’s radical. But also a great demonstration. [laughs]


Rainesford Stauffer: It is. And I think that it’s it’s such a simple sentence. But when you think about it, it says so much. Because how many of us can say that? I hope a lot of us can, but I think most of us are put in a position where we are supposed to be inherently dissatisfied. And I think that a lot of the time that spun as super ambitious or super motivational. Like there’s always something better out there. Don’t you want to go get it? And I think the other way is really quietly radical to say, my ambition is for this. My ambition is to do more of this of what I’m already doing. And I think that one version of responding to your family is saying exactly that, that I like this life. And I think that when you name the things you like about it, it would hopefully create a point of reflection for other people to go, you know, yeah, this job has got a higher salary. It’s way over in the city, across the country. But look at the things that’s lacking that this person has built into their life that they love that matter to them. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And I think I mean, this is kind of a hackneyed or overly simplistic way of thinking about it, but maybe what if we also think of someone who is incredibly ambitious as someone who is always unhappy? 


Rainesford Stauffer: Totally. I think prior to working on this book, which I credit less to the process of working on a book and more to the conversations with people that I got to have as a result of working on that. I think that it dawned on me that some of the points of my life where I was the most ambitious on paper, I was also completely miserable. And I think that it made me show up in negative ways as a friend, as a sister, as a human being who exists in communities of people. And it took me a long time to come to terms with that because I also felt like I was never ambitious enough, but also like I wasn’t enough of any of these things either. And I realized that, you know, yeah, ambition. But for what? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Like, where does it end and where does do the other things, the other qualities that are important to have and cultivate in my life. Where do those start? And it sounds like this person has a really incredible balance of that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I do think we have to address the second part of the question, which is something that I have been writing about recently, which is this feeling of like, oh, I found this contentment job, but as any Gen Xer millennial and now Gen Zer knows the bottom can drop out at any moment. So how do you [laughs] how do you deal with that? Like, well, how do you live in your contentment, but also create enough of a safety net that you aren’t also stricken with this feeling of a fear? 


Rainesford Stauffer: If anyone comes up with a specific answer to this, please let me know [laughter] so I can apply it to my own life seriously. But also when I think about something like professional development or this idea that you can never entirely take your eye off the ball. I try emphasis on try because this is very much a work in progress. I try to think of two key things, and the first is whether this would materially benefit my quality of life by way of a better work environment, income insurance, things that might really materially change, circumstances that allow me to show up in my own life in ways that feel better and are hopefully more supportive of other people. And the second is if it’s something that’s genuinely optional. Like you don’t have to go to the professional development thing. You don’t have to seek out these other opportunities. If it’s something that’s not a requirement of your job and not tied quality of life. I think about whether it makes me curious, whether it excites me, whether it helps something beyond me that I want to contribute to. And I feel like if you ask yourself some of those guiding questions, whatever they are for you in five years, will you regret not doing it, are you kind of interested in it? I don’t think it’s a bad thing to try, and I don’t think it’s a bad way of keeping doors open that might have otherwise been closed. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And maybe a test too, for me would be like, would I do this? Even if I couldn’t put it in a neat line on my resume? 


Rainesford Stauffer: Absolutely. Because I think that we really underestimate those experiences. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: I think that sometimes we understandably get really attached to what can be documented as an obvious achievement or obvious goal because we’re trying to collect these proof points that we’re valuable, that we’ve done these things, and so we’ll have more safety as a result of them as faulty is that may be I get the impulse, but I think that doing something because it is something that makes you curious, even if it can’t go on the resumé, I think that those can pop up in really unexpected ways later down the line. And I think it gives you the chance to surprise yourself. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And if you think of networking as actually forming solidarity with other people with similar jobs, I think that’s useful in terms of like finding another job in your field. And then I think back on a conversation that we had about finding new jobs earlier this year and our guest host then Laura Mariani, was talking about how if you’re thinking about switching industries, the best thing to do is to reach out to all of your contacts who work all sorts of different jobs and talk to them about what their jobs are like. If you aren’t actually making friendships with anyone, right? If you are invested in your community, who do you have to reach out to? This is something that I actually think afflicts a lot of people, is they find themselves laid off and then they’re trying to do their job search and they realize I was so focused on my job that I have no network and you don’t have to call it a network, you can say, I have no friends. Right. [laughter] And I don’t like that’s a bleak thing to say. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But it also you’re you’re isolated, you’re stranded. And what our question asker has the opportunity to develop as she is in this contented job is that network both within her profession and outside of it. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Absolutely. And I think that you framed it perfectly where I think networking has this awful connotation of like very stiff handshakes and exchanging business cards and it being [laughs] very transactional. And when you look at it more is like I’m building a community of interesting people who I learn from and like being around and would ask for advice or would give advice to. I think that, number one, it becomes way more robust. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: And way more interesting. And number two, I think it opens you up to things that you wouldn’t have seen coming, you know, in five years if you’re not quite as content in this job, if you’re thinking, okay, maybe I’d like to do something else. All of a sudden, you’ve laid the groundwork for so many possibilities without having to sacrifice the feeling of contentment you’ve got right now. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. I guess for our closing, if someone is just having that general feeling of ennui around, like feeling like they don’t have enough ambition, what is the piece of advice that you give? Or maybe the best piece of advice that you’ve received that we can offer to them right now? 


Rainesford Stauffer: That’s a great question


Anne Helen Petersen: I know it’s a hard one. [laughs]


Rainesford Stauffer: It’s hard because I think it’s so layered because if you feel like you don’t have enough ambition or maybe the reverse, you feel like you have too much of ambition. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: I think the thing that has helped me and has come up in a lot of different conversations with a lot of different people, is that the best ambition Is the kind that self-defined and by self-defined I don’t mean individualistic because I actually think that’s a huge pitfall of ambition where we think of ambition or striving or work as things that happen, just us kind of isolated, alone in our little tunnel, focused on our individualistic goals. And that’s not really what I mean. What I mean is self-definition in terms of I’ve thought about ambition and how it fits into my life and the conditions that I’m in, the circumstances that I’m working with, not the ones I wish I could have. And I’ve landed on a version that feels like I’m getting enough of everything, like I’m getting enough striving over here. I’m getting enough contentment over here. I’m really savoring my ambition. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Is that sometimes we’re so busy striving through it, it becomes this really treacherous thing. Whereas I think when we slow down and we think about how do I want to be ambitious in my work? How do I want to be ambitious in my community, in my friendships and my relationships with other human beings? How do I want to be ambitious in my home and how I take care of myself and my everyday and my quality of life? I think all of a sudden when you start filling in those blanks for yourself with things that feel true to you, that feel responsive to your life as is, there’s no such thing as not enough ambition. There’s no such thing as too much ambition. When you can answer those questions for yourself, I think we walk away with a much more comforting, motivating definition of what ambition can be. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What a perfect note to end on. That’s an ambitious ending. [laughter] If people want to find you, where can they find you? 


Rainesford Stauffer: I am @Rainesford on Twitter, which I am on way too much and I am @Rainesford_Stauffer on Instagram. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you again. This has been just wonderful. 


Rainesford Stauffer: Thank you so much for this great conversation. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks so much to Rainesford Stauffer for joining me today and thanks to you for listening to Work Appropriate. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you want help figuring out. Get in touch. You can find submission guidelines at WorkAppropriate.com, or you can send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. We’re particularly interested in more of your questions about managers, how to be a good one and how to deal with bad ones. So send those our way. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen and you can sign up for my newsletter at AnneHelen.substack.com.  Next week by popular demand we are getting into unions. Be sure to subscribe to Work Appropriate in your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss it.