Ambition and humility

On Saturday night I left Mr Daddy to do the bed time stuff and went to a dinner with a group of wonderful friends and friends of friends. There are so many cool people in this town! So many engaged, thoughtful and generous people who have such a lot to offer to the world. Such great conversation. Often I feel like too many of my friends are in London, unavailable for great chats – on Saturday I felt like there is a whole world full of people who have interesting thoughts I want to hear. 

I think of myself as fairly smart and capable. But that’s not a big deal – so are most of the people I know. There were a few stellar stars I met at uni, people who are just utterly brilliant and who make me feel like the future of the nation is sunny and bright. I wouldn’t put myself quite in that group. Next tier down though is a very very big tier. 

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg talks about the importance of ambition. I see what she’s getting at, but how does it mesh with reality, given the mismatch between the size of the talent pool and the number of tippy-top positions?

Ascribing career success to luck is not insecurity. It’s truth. Everyone in a top position has been lucky – of course they have otherwise they wouldn’t be in a top position. When people state modest goals, it’s not necessarily self-effacing, it might be realistic; after all there is only one Prime Minister at a time. 

What inspires me to be ambitious is seeing people at the top who aren’t any smarter than I am. Or who are less smart. Or who have remarkably poor judgement. But the converse holds – there are dozens of people I can think of off the top of my head who are supremely talented and haven’t had the same career luck I’ve had so far.

Contra Sandburg, I don’t think insecurity and a lack of ambition among smart young women is a problem. I know lots of fantastic women with enormous potential, they are all humble in the best way – they acknowledge other people. They’re not crippled by insecurity. They’re held back by external forces, mainly sexism and ageism and the costs of higher education. On the other hand, I know lots of fantastically arrogant men who think they have enormous potential, but are crippled by mediocrity and utterly devoid of wisdom. 

As we approach Anzac day, let us remember that arrogant and unwise men in positions of power are pretty much the cause of all the problems humanity has ever had. To create a better world, we have to make sure we don’t imitate them. We’re more creative than that anyway. The only difficulty will be persuading them to lean back and let us in. 

Ed: I know lots of awesome men who are also humble in the best way. Yet a humble man often gets added kudos because his humility is taken as a sign of his superiority… Male privilege is pretty cool like that. Y’know, for men. 

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