We need to encourage young people to define ambition for themselves

We need to encourage young people to define ambition for themselves

September 10, 2021

Two South Asian Gen Zillennials discuss the weight of “ambition.” 

By Prathigna Yerakala & Samia Abbasi

We’ve all been in a situation like this: A mentor asks us, “What are your goals and dreams? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?” For some people, they answer with ease. And for others, well, cue the nervous laughter. 

“Ambition,” according to the most recent Google search, is defined as a strong desire to do or achieve something. We both come from a South Asian-American, lower income background. As you can imagine, “being ambitious” is elusive, yet holds such a weight. In this article, we delve into two adjacent perspectives on life and ambition. We wonder:

Are some people inherently more ambitious than others? How do we define ambition for ourselves? 

We have more questions and realizations than definitive answers, but it’s worth sticking around! 

Prathigna: Ambition is present in different parts of your life — not just your career.

“Hard work always pays off.” This is an ethos I was raised to be a part of and to accept in society. This may be true in some cases, but why — as a seemingly progressive society — must we look at mediocrity as less than? When did we collectively equate “average” with being “unsuccessful” or “lazy”? I get it; no one strives to be average, but we have to admit, 

We tend to crown goal-oriented people and stigmatize those who are content with their current roles and goals. 

If we create a life that is sustainable for the lifestyle we carry, if we are kind, and if we keep a pulse on our moral compass, why are we pushed to move further? In our career? In our relationships? In our passions? 

I’ve learned very quickly coming from a low socioeconomic household that my idea of ambition, at its core, is tied to financial freedom and independence. Though I hate to justify my definition of ambition solely based on the way I was raised, I just can’t seem to shake that part of me. I guess it rests as a central part of my identity: To be ambitious is to be better than the ones that came before me. To be ambitious is to achieve something that is going to be bigger than myself.

I tend to collect achievements like the coins in a Super Mario game. 

I have no idea where this road will take me but as long as I collect the gold coins at every milestone, I’m conditioned to be happy. When we live and work towards a reward system that someone else has created, how do we break that system for ourselves before it’s too late? Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how easily I’ve accepted this definition of ambition. Assuming there is no right or wrong way to be ambitious, how can I be content and live in the moment without chasing after my next big achievement?

If it is time to reinvent the meaning of ambition, I would say that: 

Ambition can cut across various threads of your life — not just in your career and in your profit-driven hobbies. 

You can be ambitious in your friendships. You can be ambitious in your romantic relationships. You can be ambitious in your learning. You can be ambitious in your creative pursuits, without feeling pressured to do more, be more, or earn more

However, that is just one lens to look into. Holistically, it is critical to empower those who are underprivileged and give them the opportunity to voice their unnurtured dreams and desires out loud. For those across the world that lack access to basic needs, and aspire to change their current reality, to be ambitious is a power. For the rest of us, to be ambitious is a privilege. 

Currently, there exists a world where people survive paycheck to paycheck, where women and children do not have access to basic education, and where families have to work a number of odd jobs to be seen in a country that refuses to see them. And so these ideas of “burning out,” feeling “languished,” and “toxic hustle culture” do not apply. There is simply no time or space left to feel anything. Survivors go through the motions of working hard because at some point, they are promised a reward. 

In the end, I’m left feeling this: 

Everyone has a right to dream. How big or little we choose to dream is up to us. 

Samia: Not knowing what you want to do in life doesn’t mean you’re not ambitious.

I picture ambition as that older cousin who (seemingly) has it all figured out. They’re in their early 30’s, doing what they love, kicking ass in their field, helping their community, and living in a glass flat — all while having amazing fashion sense. 

I don’t really know what I’m working toward in life. I’m the person who laughs nervously when asked about career goals. I wonder: Why don’t I know them by now? Post-college, I began to accept myself as an un-ambitious person. This was partially to avoid the anxiety of career-building and to pinpoint language to how I’ve been feeling. 

A year post-grad, I craved opportunities for comfort and curiosity: taking neighborhood walks, playing with my cats, consuming a bunch of media, or writing just for fun. I’ve been trying my best to take care of my mental and physical health. And ambition didn’t seem to fit into all of that. Last year, I read an article on Restless Network by Shahed Ezaydi that affirmed my feelings. I also acknowledge that I live at home at this stage of my life, and it’s allowed me the financial means to explore the writing/creative field in different ways. 

Two years post-grad, I now realize that not knowing what I want to do in life doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious. I’m still figuring things out, and that’s okay! Our idea of ambition naturally shifts throughout our lives. I’ve seen it manifest in different ways in my life, whether that’s taking on leadership roles in different organizations or seeing vivid ideas come to life in the form of art or community initiatives. 

Young people feel so much pressure to have everything figured out. 

They have to navigate their circumstances, competing opinions on “what’s best for them,” and unlearn toxic expectations — all while trying to map out their lives. As Prathigna mentioned, people from marginalized communities are made to believe that working 10x harder will get them to success, when there are so many systemic forces at play. More often than not, it’s exhausting and confusing. It’s an uphill battle. So, how is ambition supposed to factor into that? 

I feel like we should be asking young people more questions like: 

  • What do you like to do?
  • What are you curious about?
  • What do you not enjoy doing?
  • What are you unsure about? 
  • How can I help you with XYZ?

These kinds of questions center curiosity. And more often than not, goals and dreams are present in the answers, as well. I ask myself simple questions when I feel unsure or confused, and this exchange confirms so much. 

Sometimes when I’m working, my cat Naru will bring his toy to me and “mew” at me delicately. Similarly (but in his own way!), my other cat Zayn will meow loudly until I take him outside. As much as I can, I try to stop what I’m doing to play with them. I remember reading this in Shonda Rhimes memoir Year of Yes: Whenever her kids say, “Let’s play, Mom!” She stops what she’s doing to play with them. So many realizations we have about ourselves come in the moments when we’re tuned into our inner-child and an effervescent sense of curiosity. 

Two years post-grad and in a global pandemic, I find power in the idea that: 

The beauty that comes from uncertainty is the opportunity to explore. 

​​About Prathigna Prathigna Yerakala is an Indian born, New Jersey raised self-proclaimed creative and unapologetic escapist. Outside of her corporate role as a market researcher, she is a freelance writer, amateur poet, and designer. She is passionate about the moon, film & television, screenwriting, stand-up comedy, art, lavender, mood rings, and cheese boards. In that particular order. 

About SamiaSamia Abbasi is a writer and the Editor of Kulfi Bites, based in the Bay Area. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Mills College. Her previous editorial experiences include The 1947 Partition Archive and Hachette Book Group. Samia is an avid reader, interior design enthusiast, anime-watcher, tea-drinker, and loves playing with her cats Zayn and Naru. 

Cover photo credit: Dayvison de Oliveira Silva from Pexels

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