Why You’ve Lost Your Sense of Ambition (And Why That’s OK)
Illustration by Mr Calum Heath
When the pandemic hit last spring, Mr James Routledge experienced some familiar symptoms. Anxiety. Stress. A nagging sense that life hadn’t turned out the way he dreamed. As the CEO of Sanctus, a company that advises businesses on mental health strategy, he was all too familiar with these signs of burnout. He had seen hundreds of professionals floored by the demands of “hustle culture”. And he had actually been there himself before. After founding his first business, a social network for sports fans, at 21, he shut it down three years later after struggling from working in a hustle culture which led to anxiety and panic attacks.
The experience prompted Routledge, now 29, to create Sanctus with the mission to promote mental health within the workplace. Sanctus is a growing business with multi-million pound revenue and a product that many people find genuinely transformative. “It’s something I feel really connected to,” he says. “On paper, it all looked so good. But ironically, I still found myself stressed and anxious and consumed by it. The pandemic made me realise that I was being a CEO because I just thought it was what you should do.” He stepped down as CEO to take a more ambassadorial role last spring and says he is all the happier for it.
Coronavirus has disrupted pretty much every area of our working lives – but perhaps the most profound disruption has been to our ambition, that intangible thing that makes us get out of bed and start working in the first place. Many of us have had time to ask questions that were buried in the daily blur, questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers. Who am I? Why am I doing this again? What do I want? If not this then… what?
It’s not so surprising that some of us are making radical reassessments, says occupational psychologist, Ms Joanna Wong. When the first lockdown arrived, our “psychological contracts” with work were rewritten overnight. “Beyond the written contract, we all form psychological contracts that are to do with what we expect from work and what work expects from us” she explains. Once upon a time, we might have taken it for granted that a work deadline would take priority over a family event; or that success meant chasing promotions, bonuses, awards. “With this cataclysm that we’ve all been experiencing all the balls have been thrown up into the air,” says Wong.
“I used to be ‘bring in the money!’ Now I’m far more focused on caring for the people we employ”
For Mr Max Daniels, a senior account manager at a London PR firm, the pandemic has been a useful wake up call. “If you’d spoken to me at the beginning of lockdown, I would have been hugely ambitious about career milestones,” he says. “I really wanted to be on the PRWeek’s 30 Under 30 list. I wanted to create my own division within my agency. But after lockdown, I realised that wasn’t for me.”
He says he has come to see awards and promotions as other people’s measures of success – not necessarily his own. And he is no longer particularly fussed about managing his own division. “I realised I actually wanted to have people above me,” he says. “I didn’t want to feel it was all my own shoulders. I’ve really relished having someone directing me and I think the quality of what I’m doing is better as a result.”
In some cases, Wong warns, what might feel like a loss of ambition might simply be burnout. It has been an exhausting time – many of us could simply use a holiday. But in other cases, there has been a more marked shift. Men have spent more time at home and many of us like it that way. “For a long time, the door has been a little bit open for women to be honest about their shifting ambition when they have children,” says Wong. “It’s only more recently that it’s become socially acceptable for men to have those conversations, too. And people have in some cases been forced to live with less, which has raised questions about how much you really need.”
For Mr Jake Third, managing director at digital marketing agency Hallam, the pandemic was a useful prompt to stop thinking about money all the time. He had initially opted for a career in sales as he experienced financial insecurity growing up. He saw big commission payments as a way to overcome this anxiety. But when his father died a couple of years ago, he found that this was no longer motivating him in the way it once did.
“I was living in this fragile shell of my own success,” he says. “You can live there for a while when things are going well. But then it collides with reality. And what you find when things go bad, it’s not your commission payment that you’re worried about. It’s your colleague who’s just had a baby who you might have to let go. Or your coworker who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Nothing puts things into perspective quicker than that.”
The pandemic happened to arrive just as he was promoted from a sales role to a senior management role. He is no longer eligible for the big bonuses that came with sales, but he now has new priorities. “I used to be ‘bring in the money!’”, he says. “Now I’m far more focused on caring for the people we employ.”
One of his innovations was to put in place a miscarriage policy, so people who experience miscarriage can be given time off and counselling. “It might sound trite but I find that 10 times more satisfying than my commission payment. I’m earning less and my job has more responsibility. But I’m happier. I still want to be the best. But I am not motivated by traditional measures of success anymore. I just want to do my best by my team.”
“We’ve been given this message that you have to be ambitious. If you’re not ambitious, what are you? You’re a waster. You’re a nobody. It’s completely ego-driven”
The urge to “get along and get ahead”, as the American psychologist Dr Robert Hogan has put it, is hard-wired into us by millions of years of evolution. But, as author Mr Will Storr writes in his forthcoming book, The Status Game, there are many types of status we can seek – social status, financial status, sexual status, moral status, etc – and we can play more than one game at once.
In the early part of his career, Routledge was playing a fairly crude status game, measuring his success in crude metrics of money and growth at his “crap social network for sports fans” (and failing pretty badly at all of them). But even when he was succeeding in the second phase of his career – running a successful business that earned him both money and esteem – he was still dissatisfied. He thinks it’s because he was ultimately motivated by ego.
“If you look back at this social media gold rush, it’s been very individualistic,” he says. “We’ve been given this message that you have to be ambitious. If you’re not ambitious, what are you? You’re a waster. You’re a nobody. It’s completely ego-driven. People dress it up in all sorts of ways – but that’s what it is. Now people have genuinely realised how connected we all are. We’ve all got a massive dose of perspective.”
Routledge sees the past 16 months as a global version of what often happens when hyper-ambitious people reach burnout. “I’ve worked in mental health for years now and I’ve heard the same stories time and time again,” he says. “People mindlessly overwork. They get ill. They go travelling or get divorced and do some yoga and eventually they work out what their new priorities are and transform their life with a new focus on health. That’s pretty much what has just happened to the entire planet.”
His own transition has been, he admits, a privileged one. He has appointed a new CEO and stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business – but he does intend to write a book, which is hardly the act of someone who has completely given up ambition.
“I don’t think we’ve reached the end of ambition,” he says. “People are still going to want to solve problems. The world has some massive challenges ahead: mental health, the environment, social injustice and people have become a lot more aware of them. They have realised they are part of something bigger. People will continue to be ambitious in terms of what they can achieve. But I hope it’s the end of ambition for ambition’s sake.”