When careers don’t go as planned, what went wrong—and how do people adjust? Seeking to find answers that would help them navigate their own paths, Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace interviewed all of their sorority sisters who graduated with them from Northwestern University in 1993. What they learned was “life-changing,” Schank says, because it gave validity to their choices, and she saw “I wasn’t just flailing here and there.”
But you don’t have to be going through a midlife crisis to be helped by their findings, which they published in The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family and the Path to Building a Life. Here are three key facts about ambition that every woman should know:
#1. Professional success depends a lot on who you marry or partner with.
Half of the women who made it to the C-Suite had spouses or partners who stayed at home or had flexible jobs. Having support, as Schank says, “in a hands-on, I-will-free-up-time-for-you, I-will-take-ownership-of-household-duties-and-children way,” is critical to women, since family responsibilities often fall to them.
On the flip side, those who were partnered with people who did not embrace that role struggled to advance in their careers. “The biggest obstacle we routinely heard was someone’s partner or spouse,” Schank notes.
#2. It can help not to pursue your passion as your career.
The women who found their jobs fulfilling did not consider them their passion. Instead, they had known as young women what they were good at and that they wanted to be successful and economically independent.
“Those are the women who ended up in the C-Suite,” Wallace says. They felt “great about going to work every day and earning a salary that can support their family, and they got validation from numerous promotions and being seen as a woman leader.”
#3. Ambition has many faces.
While some women never let up on pursuing promotions, Schank and Wallace found that many followed a path that they call “flex life,” where you choose to continue at a certain role or level because of the flexibility it gives you, say, to parent young children, and then floor it when your children are older or you feel otherwise able to take on a bigger role.
In other words, “ambition can look different at different points in your career,” says Wallace. So you should “play the long game in your career,” she adds, and make decisions along the way knowing that what you do today doesn’t lock you in forever.
This article is based on 2018 MA Conference for Women breakout session “Women & Work: The Changing Meaning of Ambition.” Listen to it here.