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Amid the era of ultimate girl bosses and side hustles, I fell out of love with my greatest love: ambition.
After becoming tantalisingly close to securing a dream job I had set a strict timer for ten years ago, I realised I did not want it. Saving for a mortgage, a well-paid 9 to 5 and a consistent income suddenly became suffocating, not liberating. Ambition, which had evolved into a defining element of my persona, no longer directed me to new heights. It had shifted towards an abyss of burnt-out desperation.
During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people quit their jobs and the UK workforce shrunk by an estimated one million workers, according to the institute of employment studies. Instead of pursuing higher tax brackets and fancy job titles, more people are choosing to disconnect from the matrix and prioritise a more relaxed lifestyle characterised by ‘anti-ambition’.
“I have always been known to be an ambitious person,” echoed Erin Parnell, the founder of Eternally Cherished, a jewellery company specialising in bespoke breastmilk, ashes and DNA pieces. “I always wanted to get to the next rung of the ladder, the next stage and keep climbing. In January 2021 I decided to quit full-time employment to give myself a break after the pandemic, and refocus my life.”
Leaning away from ambitious dreams and impossibly high targets felt like the natural path after the pandemic shook the world to its core. And we are far from alone in shifting our priorities, one 360Learning survey revealed that 48% of people are now happiest outside of work, and 37% acknowledge that work became less important following the pandemic.
“I think the great resignation was triggered by the vast amount of time we had to actually slow down and re-evaluate our priorities,” says Irene Anggreeni, a mental wellness coach and psychotherapist. “The lockdowns served as disruptions in our autopilot, hustle mode. With much fewer distractions, we finally came face-to-face with who we are inside, what we find important in our lives, whether our illusion of success or happiness was still holding up to the reality of the moment.”
Personally, I've fallen in lust with a new mistress: self-care. I'm still figuring out what makes her tick but I've never been more sure of my path. I am no longer compromising my health to achieve goals, and my interest in hitting career milestones vanished overnight.
Up until the end of 2021, life was built around a series of ambitions. Once I hit one, the next shifted into focus. I never celebrated the wins, caring more about checking them off than achieving the goal. After losing nearly all my work in 2020, I went into overdrive and worked seven days a week trying to catch up.
It wasn’t until the burnout had already reduced me to a charred crisp of a human that I stopped to ask, what or who am I trying to catch up to? “No one and nothing”, came the answer. That question triggered a divorce from hyper-ambition and reshifted every aspect of my life.
New priorities reigned and I became a digital nomad, working minimally and travelling the world. While I still have goals and dreams to pursue, I do not need to achieve them within a strict timeline. I no longer live to work, I work to thrive.
Setting aside the pandemic as a motivator for embracing the rising culture of anti-ambition, a shift in society’s relationship with ambition was already rising. Perhaps motivated by rising living costs or the realisation that working ourselves into the ground does not equal happiness, this cultural rebalance is changing the face of work.
Not all of us are obsessed with reaching the pinnacle of our fields anymore. Thanks to the rise of wellness culture, more of us can see the merit of self-care over self-flagellation.
“When I was younger, ambition fueled me,” says Sravya Attaluri, an illustrator and creative director. “I pushed myself harder and harder, setting goals that kept me moving forward. It got to a point where it was really challenging to meet my own high standards. Now I have to remind myself to be kinder and slow down.”
Among the rising rejection of hyper-ambition is the refusal to submit to the toxic influence of hustle culture. Monetising every side hobby and rising earlier to cram in more work was once the toast of Instagram but the tide is changing. When the internet debunked Kim Kardashian’s claim that “people just don't want to work anymore”, I knew our culture had taken its first steps towards rejecting the 'grindset'.
Despite leaning into anti-ambition, resisting societal pressure to ramp it up again is exhausting. I hear it telling me to prioritise goal-ticking over wellness. It triggers alarm bells because I might get to 30 without becoming a full-time editor. I taste it whenever a peer achieves a goal I once felt was a marker of my success.
But it is all so much sweeter on the other side of hyper-ambition, nestled in the cosy nook of anti-ambition and reliant only on self-fulfilment for career satisfaction.
While I would never dismiss the validity of healthy aspirations, falling out of love with the hustle culture has been a transformative experience for me and many others. Resisting the rat race is an ongoing process but I am at ease in this new era of anti-ambition. It feels like a home built on a foundation of safety and security, where burnout is barred for life.