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The M Dash

Live with purpose.


Is it Time to Reset Our Ambitions?

By Caitlin Abber

The world we once knew has shifted tectonically, and so has our perspective on what really matters.

In February 2019, my friend Cleo invited me to a “dinner party for women who want to do cool shit.” Cleo and I had spent the last few months meeting up every couple weeks to discuss our careers (we were both unemployed at the time) and our goals (obviously finding employment, but also advancement), so a networking dinner with ambitious women seemed like a proper way to spend a Saturday night.

When I arrived at the dinner, I was greeted by a very put together, beautiful woman named Nisreen. Wearing a two-piece dark green crop top and a pencil skirt, she looked so professional but also so cool—the physical manifestation of everything Cleo and I had been talking about wanting to become. 

Over the course of the evening, I was introduced to eleven other women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-something who were ready to make big changes in their lives. There was a social media director, a lawyer, a cookbook author, a filmmaker, a CEO, and women from various other professions, all in a place of wanting more. As we went around the table and shared our highs and lows of the last year, as well as what we hoped to achieve in 2019, I saw each of their inner selves emerge. Some of the women wanted to leverage a promotion; others wanted to transition to a whole different field, write a book, or start their own company. Still others had more personal goals—to find a better apartment, a partner who was worthy of their affection, justice for racism they had experienced in their industries or communities, or a sense of peace after a heartbreaking loss.

“I move through life a little more slowly, more thoughtfully, and I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about what is important to me and the impact I want to have in the world.”

After that first dinner, we met once a month at a different woman’s apartment and reviewed how the last month had brought us closer to or farther from reaching our goals. The evenings were filled with raucous laughter, wine, and tears. We held each other accountable, offered connections and support, and watched as each member of the dinner party stepped into her power, shifted her priorities, or simply survived another grueling month in New York City. 

I imagine that, before the world shut down due to Covid-19 in March of 2020, there were dinner parties like this happening all over the country. Women were sitting around tables, filling each other’s glasses, listening intently as each one spoke her dreams out loud, sometimes for the first time. It’s hard to even picture such a thing happening now—the intimacy, the optimism, the sharing of a meal in a tiny apartment, and especially the dreams and ambitions themselves. Between a universal health crisis, a tanking economy, and a steadily increasing unemployment rate, the world we once knew has shifted tectonically—and so has our perspective of what we thought possible for our own lives, at least for the immediate future. 

I was thinking about these dinner parties recently while reading Maris Kreizman’s Medium piece on how the events of the last year have changed her own sense of ambition. “Where does ambition go when jobs disappear and the things you’ve been striving for barely even exist anymore?” she writes. The last time I met with my eleven confidants was in February of this year. Things still felt normal then, and we had no idea how quickly everything would change in just a few short weeks. So, where are our ambitions now?

I wanted to check in and see how everyone was doing. Of the women I spoke with, all pointed to a newfound sense of clarity. It wasn’t that their goals before weren’t legitimate, but they were perhaps built on a framework that now seems faulty. I move through life a little more slowly, more thoughtfully, and I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about what is important to me and the impact I want to have in the world,” says Laura Welch, a health and leadership coach who also works in talent management at Flatiron Health. Before the pandemic, Welch was hoping to get engaged, and by March of 2020, she was putting the final touches on her (now postponed) May 2020 wedding. “The pandemic has changed the nature of my ambition…I think the goals I had were appropriate for that particular time in my life, but in many ways, they were a bit too rigid, superficial, and time-bound. I couldn’t see it then, because I was operating at 10,000 miles per hour, but I have a greater perspective now that I’ve had a moment to take stock of things.”

For Welch, that greater perspective includes downsizing her wedding and focusing on helping others. “Prior to the pandemic, I wasn’t involved in anything outside of work and my personal life,” says Welch. “Now, I’ve started to advise an early stage start-up; I’ve re-focused on building skills and getting certifications to support my coaching practice; and I started to volunteer with my undergraduate and graduate institutions. My five-to-ten-year professional goals haven’t changed, but my confidence in my ability to meet those professional goals has increased over the past few months. I realized I simply wasn’t giving myself enough credit to start what I have felt called to do for some time.” 

Mmachukwu Afoaku, a lawyer, is also re-prioritizing and shifting her goals. In addition to advancing her career, she was looking forward to a year full of travel. The pandemic obviously put a halt to all that, but if anything, the uncertainty of the pandemic forced Afoaku to double down on what she cares about most. “My goals in 2019 were to continue to expand professionally, enhance my overall well-being, and grow intellectually and culturally through travel to destinations I had yet to explore. But I think my goals [in 2019] were not as bold as they are now,” she says. “I’m trying to control what I can, knowing that it will be important to be flexible and nimble as the ‘norm’ continues to evolve. On a high level, my philosophy is the same—continue to leverage and build upon my skills to empower others and effect change. But working from home has given me more time to devote to speaking with young professionals about their career paths, passions, and purpose and help them think about ways they can utilize this time to invest in themselves as well.”

“I still want to be able to grow in my career and provide for myself and my family, but I honestly can’t even think of the next five to ten years outside of hoping I’m healthy and alive.”

For some members of the dinner club, just surviving the pandemic is the singular goal. Alanna Bass was unemployed and working freelance jobs in early 2019. Her goal for the year was to find full-time employment, which she did just as the shutdowns began in March. “If anything, [this year] has taught me to focus on the now, because clearly we cannot predict the future,” says Bass. “I still want to be able to grow in my career and provide for myself and my family, but I honestly can’t even think of the next five to ten years outside of hoping I’m healthy and alive.” 

Bass, who is immunocompromised, is feeling the strain of isolation in addition to uncertainty about the future. “At first, I was very glad to have a job and have something that would keep me busy during the first weeks of the pandemic. But I also had a ton of anxiety about getting sick, because I’m immunocompromised and was in the hospital in January 2020. I was extra cautious and barely left my house due to that fear, and being stuck in a small apartment with two roommates didn’t help my mental health at all.”  Still, she is hopeful. “A year from now, I hope I’m on the vacations I had planned for 2020, and I’m living in an apartment that I love—alone. In five years, I’ll mirror what I said before—my biggest hope is that I’m alive and healthy.”

There’s another side to this story, too. Women are often doing more than they think they are. Even when we say we are slowing down, we are often doing so with intention. “There has been a beautiful pregnant pause in my life,” says Welch. “This has given me a deep sense of peace amidst the chaos and uncertainty in the world around me.” Even when we think we are taking a pregnant pause, we are still growing something inside ourselves. 

When I reached out to the members of the dinner club about this story, I got a few delayed responses, and a few women said they’d love to be interviewed, but they were too busy. The filmmaker was shooting a campaign (“This was a goal I had for 2019!” she wrote in a quick email). Cleo was welcoming foster dogs into her new home in Colorado. On social media, I saw that Nisreen was hiking a mountain in advance of her birthday. I saw other women from the group launching big projects or getting engaged. And while I know Instagram doesn’t tell the whole story, it made me so happy to see them this way, because it felt both like a relic from the past and a glimmer of something optimistic on the horizon. Even if it wasn’t a goal we could have predicted at the beginning of the year, we aren’t just surviving a pandemic, we are alive and achieving in spite of it. 

Caitlin Abber

Written By

Caitlin Abber

Caitlin Abber is the Brand Editor at M.M. LaFleur, and an award-winning writer and content creator. Over the last decade she has held senior editorial positions at MTV, Women's Health, Public Radio International, and Bustle, and has bylines at InStyle and OprahMag.com.

See more of Caitlin's articles
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