Ambition Shame

Today BlogHer asks the participants in the March NaBloPoMo, "What is getting in the way of you reaching for your dreams?"
I remember a beautiful early summer day when I was five and convinced that anything I wanted was possible. It was hot enough for me to make up my mind that it was time for swimming. It may well have been 60 degrees but I made the call that it was summer and swimming was what I wanted to do. I went up to my bedroom, put on my wonder woman bathing suit, and like a stage actress, ran into the kitchen yelling, "It's put up the pool time!" I know in the planning stage this seemed like a sure thing. Dad would see me all ready to go and drop everything he was doing to assemble and fill a swimming pool just for me.
Instead, as he worked on something else, my father took a quick look my way and laughed. Just like that, my dreams of swimming went from sweet to a joke. I must have been just crushed enough by the way it turned out that I can still remember it to this day. I'm sure my dad was busy that day and we had a metal sided pool that required quite a bit more to get me swimming than pools today but to me, what I wanted was the most important thing in the world and if that meant he needed to dig a trench, bury the pool sides, find and roll out the liner, attach a filter, and fill the pool with a hose, that is what I expected to happen at that very moment. At five years old I believed that nothing was impossible. I wasn't just wearing wonder woman's suit. I was wonder woman.

Twenty years later, as a college student, I sat in a meeting room listening to a faculty member go over paperwork with a small group of other students applying for a government affairs internship in the State Assembly. Our group happened to be all female and the professor jokingly made a comment about how he thought "women came to school here for an MRS degree." Instead of encouraging students he was making fun of our ambition and suggesting we give up the charade as we were only in college to marry well. I'm not sure which is more shocking to me in hindsight; the fact that he said that, or the fact that not a single one of us said a word in reply or stood up for ourselves. For the same internship I needed to have an advisor sign paperwork approving my application to the program. He looked at the paper scornfully and asked why I wanted to do it as if it would be a terrible choice. I was taken by surprise by his reaction and made up a story about needing to get the credits. I was ashamed to own my choice, a brilliant choice, to learn something new and to better myself. I was too timid to ask him to give an explanation for his reaction to my choice.
Something happened along the way between five year old me and twenty- five year old me. Why would my kindergarten self have yelled at my advisor,"Because I WANT to!" when he challenged why I wanted the internship but my twenty-five year old self just looked at my feet and sheepishly muttered a phony reply? I am certain that if someone were to make a joke about my ambition now, I would have a lot to say but I don't know just what has changed. If it were clearer to me would I understand what it is exactly that stands between someone and their dream? It has to be more than age.
In my opinion, I fell vicitm to ambition shame. Not to drag my poor dad and the pool story back into this, but how many more people laughed (or worse) at my declarations that I wanted something before I began keeping to myself what I really wanted and instead, started asking for what I thought it was expected of me to want? The last thing I'm trying to say is that my parents weren't supportive. They have three daughters and they encouraged us to succeed in everything from biddy basketball to motherhood. The thing that has stood in my way in the past and what might stand in the way of others is being embarrassed to admit a goal or a dream, to own it.

My First Day of Kindergarten
Sometimes the ambition shame happens when a person doesn't believe they are worthy of the dream or is worried that others don't view them as worthy of the dream. Sometimes it's easier to keep what we want in life from others so that if we don't get it, no one has to know and our failure is private. What stood in the way of me reaching for my dreams and what still stubbornly stands there sometimes is my lack of confidence at my chances of reaching them. You can't teach someone to be confident in their dreams. That confidence can only come from the sweet feeling of working toward and achieving a dream and wanting to feel it again at all costs, even at the risk of public failure.
A friend's six year old daughter recently had an art project at school where she was asked to draw a picture of what she would look like as president. Her drawing was a self portrait as accurate as a child can draw with big bright earrings. When I asked her about the drawing she mentioned the earrings. I love that to a six year old girl, president looks, "exactly like me but with fancy earrings." I hope that from her six year old self to her twenty six year old self she finds ways to fight off the ambition shame that might whisper in her ear that president looks nothing like her at all.


  1. Such sweet pictures of you! I think confidence does play a major role in our ambitions. I am rather shy at putting "myself" out there, but I am finding my blog is helping with that. I love the story you shared about the little one with big bright earrings. Hoping she keeps that self awareness throughout her life.

  2. This is a fantastic realization. I have a five year old, and I revel in her self confidence. I have always done this thing where I stop short of my goals and dreams because they may be too risky or not what a responsible mother is supposed to do or be. But it is a good lesson to rediscover the audacity of our youth. My five year old believes she can be and do anything she wants, and I hope she never loses that. I wish I could bottle that up for myself.


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