Why I’m Opting Out Of Ambition

At least, ambition as we typically define it.

Woman saying no thank you, to school and corporate ladder ambition Prostock-Studio, KatieDobies | Canva

My 12-year-old daughter’s bedroom is dotted with awards. She has several academic excellence awards, various sports awards, and a smattering of other “official” accolades. Framing them and hanging them on her wall wasn’t my idea — it was hers. She’s very proud of her awards.

I’m proud, too, but I’m also wary. For years and years, I attended schools and worked at jobs that preached the importance of teamwork and collective responsibility, but rewarded individual achievement — often in ways that elevated a select few and made the rest of us feel kind of crappy. I still remember my middle school Spanish teacher, who used to write all our test scores on the whiteboard in a long narrow column from highest to lowest. She didn’t attach names to the scores, but you could still clearly see if you were doing worse than everyone else, doing OK, or doing pretty good. My score was always the one at the top. I loved being at the top.


Like my daughter, I loved my awards too. I collected them with enthusiasm. A teacher once commented on my report card: “Sometimes I feel that Kerala is out to conquer the material, not just learn it.” I don’t think she meant the comment as a compliment, but I took it as such. For me, school was a conquest. I wanted to be the best, and according to my report card, I was.

I’m Opting Out Of AmbitionPhoto: focal point / Shutterstock


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I competed with my peers to get admitted to a college prep high school, which had an acceptance rate lower than Harvard. I competed with those admitted to get financial aid. I spent most of my four years there competing, whether in the classroom or on the basketball court.

Though my high school fancied itself a progressive educational institution, the main lessons I learned were that to be successful, you have to put in long hours, prioritize work above all else, sacrifice other things that bring you joy, and be better than the person sitting next to you.

Outside of school, I played three sports, and though I learned some important lessons about teamwork, the season always ended with three of us getting awards while the rest of us clapped. I often came home with another trophy to add to my growing collection. I liked looking at those trophies from my top bunk as I fell asleep at night. They were shiny and beamed with promise.


My ravenous ambition led me to an Ivy League college with another fiercely competitive admissions process. Upon graduation, my ambition led me through the ostentatious heroics of entrepreneurship, and eventually to the hallowed walls of an internationally respected media company. At age 28, I had an office with a window and a silver nameplate on my door. It was glorious, for a time. I was out in “The Real World,” in our nation’s capital, wearing dry clean-only skirts and button-down shirts, feeling very self-important. All my hard work was paying off. Throughout my educational career, I’d been voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” and here I was succeeding. I was aspiring to do Something Greater. I was fulfilling my potential.

Up until that point, my life had been a ladder: preschool to elementary school to middle school to high school to college to startup to fancy job. I’d climbed it with raw hunger and single-minded focus. At every rung, I collected my accolades and looked up to see only a blue sky.

And then, I started asking why.

For instance:

  • Why does success mean spending more time at work than with the people you love?
  • Why is 40 hours the minimally viable magic number around which we organize our adult lives?
  • Why are companies focused on growth above all else? Why do we equate growth with success?
  • Why are you “more important” the more people you manage? Why are you “more important” than the people you manage?
  • Why are our salaries, one of our most vital tools for achieving stability and wellness, cloaked in secrecy and shrouded in subjectivity?
  • Why are people with certain strengths valued more, when we need a diversity of strengths to function optimally as a team?
  • Why do we even say “team” when our reward system pits coworkers against one another?

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As I navigated the politics and prejudices of the enormous — and enormously respected — company where I’d landed, these questions started niggling at the back of my mind. But I’d invested over 15 years climbing this ladder, and I wasn’t going to give up now.

It was when I gave birth that I started to lose my footing. The ladder no longer pointed toward the sky; it began to dip and snake. At work, I was going through the motions, but I felt like I was fading into the background. I began to grasp what it truly feels like to be undervalued and overlooked.

In the 12 years since having my first child, one might look at my resume and come away with the impression that I haven’t gotten very “far.” In my early 40s, I have the same job title as I did in my early 30s, albeit for a different company. A much smaller company. A company in which I don’t have the opportunity to interview Wyclef or shake hands with First Lady Michelle Obama.


At first, I felt forced out of ambition, forced off the ladder, forced to accept the slog of working motherhood — the endless logistical puzzles and the gyrating hoops I jumped through daily just to put in my minimally viable 8.5 hours. I was bitter and resentful. All those evenings hunched over homework, all the flashcards, all the essays, all the breathless racing from one activity to the next, all the late nights and early mornings, all the stifling pressure to work work WORK WORK.

And for what?

It’s not that I’ve gotten nowhere. I’ve had opportunities afforded to me by my expensive “top-notch” education that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I’ve achieved a level of financial stability that frees up my mind to worry about other things — like, say, the end of the world. I mostly like what I do every day, which is a lot more than most people can say. In many ways I’m lucky, I know. I’m not complaining about where I am, but I sure could have gotten here with significantly less stress, pressure, and competition. Along the way, I could have spent significantly more time building relationships with the people in my life who truly matter.

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I don’t want to see my daughter hunching over homework, agonizing over tests and essays, over-committing to extracurriculars, and pulling all-nighters just to conform to a definition of ambition dictated by an outdated white patriarchal system to which we all, still, so fiercely cling. She doesn’t need to attend a fancy college or become a lawyer to “fulfill her potential.” What I want for her is the opportunity to leverage her strengths in the service of a community that sees and values her. To understand the great beauty in smallness, the great satisfaction in staying put.

That’s what I’ve ultimately found as a co-owner of a worker-owned cooperative — I just found it the hard way. And I, for one, am done with the rest of it. I’m done trying to succeed in a system that discounts care work, that rewards competition, exclusion, exhaustion, egocentrism, sleep deprivation, and dubious morals. I’m done believing that success means bigger, bigger, bigger. That impact means breadth, not depth. That the more strangers look up to me, the more important I am. The more awards I collect, the more worth I have. I’m done with terms like “top performer” and “overachiever.” I’m done with battle metaphors and acts of so-called heroism.

Of course, it’s one thing to say I’m done. It’s quite another to be done. Being done requires unlearning years of social conditioning, untangling the gnarled knot of my sense of self-worth, and unraveling the messages that still hurtle at me from all directions, both threatening to feed my ego and to tear it down. Being done requires vigilance. But pronouncing it is, at least, a start.


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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.