Somewhere along the way my goals shrank. During the destabilizing and most isolating months of the pandemic, my desires shifted entirely. Professional ambitions, for instance — sweeping, difficult, long-term things — washed away, and were replaced with smaller things under my control: taking a walk, calling my friend, meditating for, like, five minutes maybe.
I wasn’t alone. The more I looked, the more I saw it. Last year, and some of 2021, felt like years nearly void of ambition, at least of how we typically think of it.
Whatever your worldview is, it was rocked by the pandemic. It was impossible to avoid.
“Ambitions are often guided by what we do in life, which psychologists call our values,” said Dr. Luana Marques, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “And in the beginning of the pandemic, what everybody experienced was a halting in their life, one way or another. And it created a little bit of space for people to start to think about, well, what are my values now during this pandemic, and what are they coming out of the pandemic.”
The pandemic forced re-assessment. It seemed impossible to climb the ladder at work while everything was upturned. It was actually impossible to travel and see the world. There was no socialization to be had, no networking or schmoozing. Where does all that ambition redirect? Or does it dissipate?
Well…it depends. Mostly — hopefully — it shifts. Goals are sort of the output of ambition and when your goals are upended by the state of the world, the healthiest choice is often to be flexible with what you want and create new, feasible benchmarks to chase.
In a piece on her fading ambition during the pandemic, writer Maris Kreizman noted: “I still want to create and get paid for it — a necessary evil as long as we’re living in capitalism — but our opportunities seem to be narrowing, the world becoming a little smaller each time. The scope of our ambitions must be downsized, over and over again.”
Ambition, for the most part, didn’t disappear. It had to be re-evaluated, curtailed where it no longer fit. Extrinsic goals like earning more money, or garnering recognition no longer seemed to fit the bill. Intrinsic goals — internal ambitions like bonding with family, building closer friendships, feeling, in general, as connected with the world as possible — seemed far more necessary and attainable.
“There were a lot of things [in the pandemic] that thwarted our goal pursuit,” said Dr. Sheri Johnson, a clinical psychologist and professor at University of California Berkeley. “But I also think there were a lot of things that put in perspective the kinds of goals we’re pursuing. When there are questions in the air about life or death or health or well being, you think a little bit harder about meaning and how you’re investing your energy.”
As writer Kelli María Korducki wrote in the New York Times the pandemic laid bare that sometimes you have to revolt against what she called “the cult of ambition.” Winning at all costs feels pointless, even wrong, when the world is burning.
The fortunate, non-essential workers spent the year working from home, which, by its very nature, redefined ambition in the workplace. Your priorities are bound to shift when you spend eight hours at home instead of in an office. It makes sense lots of folks put a greater emphasis on caring for family, and for their mental health — since they were physically stuck — as the office faded away from life.
In what felt like hardly a moment’s notice, everything changed in the world — ambition, the thing that drives folks to success, of course had to change with the world. You had to redefine what ambition was, killing off some of what it used to mean.
But that just wasn’t possible for some people. Imagine, let’s say, you wanted to open a restaurant? You’d feel unmoored from you ambition in 2020.
“Most of the time we don’t have to pivot in our goals and our ambitions as dramatically as the world has had to in this past year,” Johnson said. “And for some people, they were just amazingly creative and brilliant and fluid about choosing different, feasible goals. Putting more focus on intrinsic goals but also thinking about OK what’s within my reach. And for other people, I think it left them feeling kind of dead in the water when some of the things they’ve been working toward fell apart or weren’t feasible. It was very hard for them to grab onto new or different goals.”
Others, meanwhile, were too hamstrung by the pandemic to even think about ambition, or feel it at all. It’s sort of a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs thing. If you need to focus on feeding yourself, or staying alive, or scraping together a few bucks for health care, then there’s simply no way to chase Big Goals. If you’re wading through depression and anxiety — as lots of folks reported — then high-stakes ambition is off the table.
Johnson posed the question: “How do you have any kind of dream when so many of your core goals in life feel like they’re under assault?”
The answer is obvious: you don’t. Ambition is a reflection of values. And if, during the pandemic, all you’re able to value is staying afloat, then your ambitions are severely limited.
Nick Couldry, a professor of media and social theory at the London School of Economics, and Bruce Schneier — a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School — wrote in CNN that many are feeling “something more troubling and harder to name: an uncertainty about why we would go on doing much of what for years we’d taken for granted as inherently valuable.”
They called it a phenomenon of being “horizonless” because the future was so uncertain.
But, in that respect, smaller, recalibrated ambitions functioned as artificial horizons. You could plan a Zoom happy hour, even if you could hardly control having a job. Yes, the pandemic might’ve canceled your wedding, but you could schedule a walk for Friday morning. Sure, you can’t travel, but you can kind of fake it with VR.
The U.S. is, of course, now trending toward something resembling normal. Does this shift in ambition last? Obviously, some folks just trying to survive will look to recover it at all. But there seems to be a movement to hold onto some of these changes. It’s hard to imagine the work from home revolution going away. I still Zoom with my parents every Sunday despite the fact that I got to see them in person recently. People are quitting their jobs to avoid being forced back into the office.
Things will shift, but maybe not back to 2019 levels. It’s to imagine people saying “screw family” or “forget work-life balance” after the year we had.
“I think about a pendulum. When the pendulum goes from one side to the other, it tends to go between extremes,” Marques said. “If we think about the natural tendencies of life, we’ll go back to the middle a little more. I think people drastically changed their lives. I think people are starting to go back [and make] some kind of an adjustment.”
Whatever world existed pre-COVID, whatever our goals were, parts of them are gone forever. Our ambition has been altered. But that doesn’t have to be bad. Because if ambition is a function of our values, maybe we just start valuing healthier things.
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