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Lucy Mangan: being “relentlessly, tirelessly ambitious” isn’t for everyone

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It felt like getting home and finally taking your Spanx off at the end of a long evening. When former women and equalities minister Jo Swinson recently announced that she would be standing for the post of deputy leader rather than leader of the Liberal Democrats on the grounds that a) she didn’t feel experienced enough for the top job, and b) just because a man in her position would do so without a qualm didn’t mean that she should, I breathed a sigh of glorious relief.

We are taught, these days, to be relentlessly, tirelessly ambitious. To aim as high as we possibly can – always – and to live at full stretch in every way. And this is probably the right message to be sending out, loudly, in order to make up for decades of being told the exact opposite: live small, live safe, live quietly while the men go out and do all the big noisy things and make all the money.

But – as ever when you are sending out an extreme message to try and counteract in as short a time as possible a load of sh*te that has gone before – other things get lost. In this case that would be me, and the many others like me who couldn’t locate their vaunting ambition with both hands if they tried. I watched, baffled, as people at university, and then after that at law school, and later still, out in the wider world, set their eyes on various prizes and went for them with a single-minded determination that I could only have mustered if I was running from a vicious, rabid dog and the prize was not having my throat violently torn out. 

"We are taught, these days, to be relentlessly, tirelessly ambitious."

"We are taught, these days, to be relentlessly, tirelessly ambitious."

It took me years to realise that I wasn’t ambitious – or at least, not in the traditional way. I cannot live at full stretch. I need a large amount of slack in all of my systems and safety margins everywhere in order to be happy. You should see how many loo rolls and tubes of toothpaste I keep in my bathroom cupboard at all times. By the number of spare toiletries I have to hand shall ye know me.

And it took me many more years to realise that, actually, that’s OK. To aim simply for a work-life balance from the beginning is fine. The only caveat is that you must make sure it is truly what you want and need to be happy, and that you are not in truth shying away from challenges because of a lack of confidence (or, of course, sheer laziness – that’s different, and we all need to sometimes kick ourselves up the arse about that).

Confidence will come in time, and you don’t want to have hamstrung yourself earlier in life simply because you were scared. But, those concerns aside, sometimes the most grown-up, beneficial thing you can do is choose the job (or the level of job) that is right for you, rather than mindlessly aim for the absolute pinnacle because that is what you have been told is the only acceptable way to go. The dominant message of an age is rarely right for everyone, and blind obedience certainly isn’t.

For some, life is about success, about accruing money, power, prestige and powering through at full throttle, and I rejoice in the fact that the women for whom this is true now have every expectation that they can do so. But everyone ultimately shares the same ambition: to be happy. And if that means being able to leave the office at six and pick up some extra loo roll on the way home – well, let us follow our bliss too.

Images: iStock

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