Is It Honorable For Women To Give Up Their Ambition? Part II: Let's Get Real


When it “sunk in that mainstream schools shortchanged her severely autistic son”, Amy, 39, closed her thriving medical practice to help start charter school. For a long time, it seemed to be working out. “Then I found my husband in bed with a woman on the school committee. We went through a horrific divorce. I had to try to revive my career; at 49, it’s finally starting to take off again. But at my age, with everything I had to deal with, it was f_­­_g hard.” 


What If? Could this be you?

“You go into marriage, make agreements. The decision was: “I’m going to put my career on hold; my husband swore he wanted to support us while we do this. I believed in him. At the end of the day, he didn’t give a damn about what I’d sacrificed. I should have never shut down my practice, never. The school was going to get started whether I was involved or not. It would have played out the same for my son, except, had I kept working, his mom would have been a hell of a lot less stressed financially and emotionally.”

Nan, 29, was like many talented women who express disdain for company politics: they discover it is because they’re afraid, don’t know how to take credit, disable bullies, and influence with power they’ve earned. Backstabbed and passed over for promotions, Nan wised up: “I shouldn’t have been so willingly naïve, hiding behind the guise of taking the moral high road. Now I educate myself about ethically navigating politics instead of playing doormat.”

Rusti, 26, and her fiance didn't end up getting married. Because she'd spent much of her savings relocating twice, first to New York City with him, and then back to the San Francisco Bay Area, she  hasn't yet been able to get herself back on track to go after the top-tier M.B.A. degree she dreams of earning.  What would she have done differently? “I should have entered Stanford’s M.B.A. program and insisted that my fiancé be willing for us to simultaneously pursue our ambition dreams, even if that meant having a long distance relationship. Who knows? Maybe we even would have been less resentful had I stuck to my guns about my own dreams. Maybe my career disappointment wouldn’t have had such a corrosive effect on our relationship."

We Can't Blame the Guys

Sometimes, like Amy and Rusti's stories above, there is a marriage or engagement pr partnership that unravels. Sometimes we get involved with partners who betray us. Sometimes it just doesn't work out; it was a bad match.

In any case, we have to take responsibility for allowing ourselves to get into such a vulnerable position to begin with. Leaving our ambition behind or making it a lesser priority was our choice. Those guys we loves who ended up not caring about us didn't put a gun to our heads and say, "Leave your ambition behind for me." And even if there was coercion involved that swayed our decision, we could have said no. We could have stood our ground where our ambition dreams were concerned.

And there's not always a bad guy involved in a woman's decision to go for honorable ambition at the expense of her own big career dreams.

Frequently I see professional women who say, "You go do your career dream first; then I'll do mine later. That's what I want. It's fine." And her partner or spouse says, "Okay." Wouldn't you do the same if someone were offering it up to you on a silver platter?

Then sometimes the relationship ends up being wonderful and she stays with her man, but life gets in the way of her plans and her turn never comes. She has kids, so she puts her ambition on hold for a few more years. Or they rack up debt buying a house, putting their kids into private school, driving SUVs--and suddenly it no longer seems feasible to her, or maybe to her partner, for her to go after that M.B.A. or law degree. Or it no longer seems realistic for her to leave her steady-income job with benefits to launch her own company, or to make a move to a riskier but more rewarding opportunity.

Whose fault is that? It's not always a guy who derailed our ambition. And if there is a bad guy involved, it's never completely his fault. We have to take responsibility for our complicity in allowing our own ambition to get waylaid.

Lesson for ambitious women? Reconsider all of those things that you do for others, all the time, day in and day out, at the expense of your ambitious dreams, because you think putting yourself last makes you a good woman. And ask yourself--and be truthful--does this really make yourself a virtuous person? Are you still confident that this value system, this setup you've bought into under social duress, makes you the best person you could possibly be?

Maybe, just maybe, in order to do the things you think you must do to be your best self, you are, paradoxically, sacrificing a core part of who you are, an essential part of your being--your ambitious, big-dreaming self. And in doing so, you may actually be shortchanging yourself--in a big way. You may be sabotaging your efforts to be your best self; you may be settling instead of contribution you were born to make.


[Read Part I at or at]

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These stories are not about women who are "settling instead of contribution [sic] you were born to make." Rather, they are about women who made difficult choices where the results, at least in the short term, were suboptimal. But who can say that the valuable lessons learned weren't worth the price paid?

Amy, a full-time OB/GYN with a "high profile" practice, was working 60-70 hours a week seeing patients, doing charts, making rounds, and taking call. The same for her husband. On top of all that, she had a severely autistic child to care for. No doubt she was exhausted, mentally and physically. She must have thought a career change would help her achieve life balance. But she hadn't invested enough time in her marriage, and when her husband had an affair she was blindsided. Amy's husband would have cheated on her regardless of her career change. It wasn't lack of ambition that wrecked her marriage; it was his infidelity first and foremost, but also Amy and her husband's mutual failure to tend to their relationship.

The moral of Amy's story: You can't be a full-time physician and a conscientious mother while being married to a scoundrel. Yes, Amy's life turned "f***ing" hard. Life is like that sometimes. Welcome to the club, Amy.

Nan was young and was held back by her inexperience and idealism. She chose an aggressive career (marketing) but was unwilling to play hard enough to get ahead. One of the qualities of successful people is not that they don't make mistakes, but that they learn from their failures. Nan learned an important lesson and is smarter and stronger as a result of it. Maybe she will reconsider whether this is the right career for her. Or perhaps she will go on to start her own marketing firm and run it according to her own important values.

Rusti was a young fool in love and she blew a fantastic opportunity. Part of being in your twenties is making stupid mistakes. If she was smart enough to get a scholarship to the Stanford MBA program, she'll find a way to pick herself up and start over again. She has a long life ahead of her.

Life is full of uncertainty and compromise. Very few people have the luxury to accomplish everything they ever dreamed of doing. What makes life interesting and gives us character is not so much what we achieve as the failures we overcome along the way. The person who hasn't failed hasn't experienced life.

There is nothing dishonorable about making choices. The key is to establish a healthy balance between caring for ourselves and caring for others. And to have compassion for yourself when the inevitable screw-ups happen. Everyone who writes a self-help book wants to promote the idea that there's a simple formula that makes everything easy. The most honorable and fulfilled people I know understand that life, quite often, turns into a complicated mess. They seem to take quiet satisfaction in muddling through as best as they can, and if they can do a bit of good for others while they're at it, all the better.

By the way, here's how things turned out for Amy, Nan, and Rusti.

Amy stuck with her charter school. While the divorce was underway, she ended up meeting Bryan, 48, the Director of Fine Arts at a local public school district. Byran was also divorced. When the court battle was finally over, Amy and Bryan married. They bought a "modest" 2300 sq. ft. colonial in an affluent but not overbearing community. Amy eventually returned to medical practice half-time as a partner in a group of women obstetricians. She continues to serve as an advisor to the thriving charter school and publishes a website,, that promotes awareness of the importance of childhood vaccination and dispels myths about links between vaccination and autism.

Nan did eventually start her own marketing firm. She has balanced out her youthful idealism with maturity and experience. She is a strong mentor to the younger members of her staff and regularly posts to her blogsite,, with articles about how to deal fairly and ethically in business.

Rusti eventually got re-accepted at Stanford Business School. In her application essay, she reflected on what the past two years had taught her. The admissions staff were impressed by her honesty and willingness to learn from earlier mistakes. Although Rusti didn't qualify for a full scholarship the second time around, with her Stanford MBA she landed a great job right out of school and paid off her student loans within two years. She married a wealthy surgeon and moved to a McMansion in Portola Valley. Ten years later, she discovered he had cheated on her. She sued him for all he was worth. Between her own savings and the money from the settlement, Rusti is now financially independent. She quit her corporate job and is now the finance director of a San Francisco non-profit trust that provides services for autistic and learning-disabled children. She and her partner, Cheryl, live in a condo overlooking Golden Gate park. Rusti runs a website,, that provides advice to wives of cheating husbands on how to strip their former mates of their wealth in court.

Greetings HowdyPartner: Interesting revisions. The only problem is that mine are true stories. I interviewed 500 women while writing this book; their stories share common themes with countless women I worked with as founder of the Women's Business Alliance, an organization that has served as a motivational think tank for 2500 women over thirteen years and was recognized with a U.S. Small Business Association "Women In Business Advocate of the Year 2000" award. To see how Amy, Nan, Rusti, and other women's stories *Really* ended up, see Chapter 3 ("Honorable Ambition?"), page 32, of my book "Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word: A Woman's Guide To Earning Her Worth and Achieving Her Dreams", Broadway Books, Category: business and economics, FYI, not Self-Help). Chapter 3 begins with a Muriel Rukeyser quote: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." Operative word: truth (vs. fiction).

Hmmm. I was hoping for a more thoughtful response.

I believe it's understood that my "How they turned out..." story endings are fictional, but intended to illustrate a point. And the point is this: Life often forces us into hard choices, and we don't always make the right decisions. But every decision, whether it turns out for better or for worse, is an opportunity for improvement if we are open to learning.

I saw Part I of your column on the "Metro" this morning and I thought to myself, "Amy's husband will divorce her, Nan will be passed over for promotion, and Rusti's romance will fizzle." And I thought, "Amy, Nan, and Rusti will survive because they are three talented and resourceful women."

Now, I don't intend to buy your book so I will never know how things really turned out. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be learned just from the information given in your columns.

Let's talk about Amy's situation. I know a thing or two about the medical profession because my own wife is a pediatrician. She works "half-time", which is about 35-40 hours a week. We are middle-aged, have two children, and would dearly love to own a larger house. If my wife were to work full-time, we could afford the $1.2M for a McMansion in our neighborhood (not that we'd want one). But my wife has decided, and I fully support her, that she simply does not have the stamina to work 60+ hours a week while also being a caring mother to our children.

You seem to be saying Amy made a dishonorable decision by changing to a career that would allow her to focus on her needy child, and by making herself financially dependent on her husband. Obviously, in this case the decision turned out poorly. My concern is that for people who are simply reading your column but not buying the book, the message you're sending is that a woman's career should always trump her family responsibilities. Amy's real problem was that she had unreasonable expectations and a jerk for a husband.

Now I said I was disappointed with your reply, and that's because you've committed the logical fallacy of non sequitur. That is to say, it does not follow that because my story endings are fiction, so are my conclusions. Nor does it follow that because you are an award-winning motivational thinker that there is no other valid perspective on these stories than the one in your book. It would be more convincing to address the argument than to fall back on credentials.

So, based on nothing more than the brains in my head and 45 years of life experience, I will tell you my life philosophy. Each of us is born with a set of gifts and a set of handicaps. We go through our lives having experiences, some of which build us up, and some of which cut us down. Eventually, we grow old and die. Along the way, we struggle as best as we can, mustering the resources we have, to make the best of our lives and bring some good into the world. We constantly change, and learn, and grow. Life begins and ends with a mystery. It is the wonder of that mystery that makes life worth living.

I have nothing to sell, and no agenda. Your thoughts appeared to me during my morning commute, and now thanks to the miracle of technology, you have my thoughts in return.

Good luck with your book. May you live a balanced life.

Greetings again HowdyPartner:

A "more thoughtful response" is possible in 300 pages than is posible in 300 words; ergo my recommendation to read "Honorable Ambiton?" /Chapter 3 in my book, "Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word". I took 7 years to research and write it, so take the opportunity to read it and/or to pass on to your wife and daughters.

You wrote: "Now, I don't intend to buy your book so I will never know how things really turned out." I hope you'll reconsider!

You wrote: "Life often forces us into hard choices, and we don't always make the right decisions. But every decision, whether it turns out for better or for worse, is an opportunity for improvement if we are open to learning."

Exactly. However, women have myriad societal pressures that bias our "informed choices"; this is why women telling each other our truths and learning from each other's shared, common blind spots can inform and prevent us from selling ourselves short--now, and in the future.

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I am a business psychologist, researcher, author, executive coach, and career advisor. I lead workshops and lecture frequently on women’s need to embrace our ambition. I founded the Women’s Business Alliance, a motivational think tank for more than 2,500 women. For more details, see my about page.

I’d love to hear your story. Ambitious women owe it to ourselves—and the world—to make the contribution we were born to make. Let’s keep the dialogue flowing.


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