I think a lot about the topic of ambition, especially when I was recently at a political science conference. In looking around those I know in the discipline, easily the biggest difference between those who publish the most and are at the most prestigious universities versus those in a more humble position (I’ll put myself somewhere in the middle) is not intellect, but ambition. I had a great serendipitous discussion while there with an OSU professor I used to work for and he reflected on the fact that he really had accomplished quite a lot, but that his current family situation was not the greatest and perhaps the two were related. As for me, I’ve always felt that NCSU is a perfect place because it is a solid program where I have good students and plenty of respect in and out of the profession, but allows for a much more reasonable work-life balance, i.e., lots more time with those four crazy kids, than if I were just a few miles down the road at Duke or UNC. Anyway, very interesting piece in the Atlantic recently about the trade-offs between ambition and relationships:
The conflict between career ambition and relationships lies at the heart of many of our current cultural debates, including the ones sparked by high-powered women like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter. Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold people back. Which is more important? Just the other week, Slate ran a symposium that addressed this question, asking, “Does an Early Marriage Kill Your Potential To Achieve More in Life?” Ambition is deeply entrenched into the American personae, as Yale’s William Casey King argues in Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue — but what are its costs? …
When I asked about the connection between ambition and personal relationships, Kammeyer-Mueller said that while the more ambitious appeared to be happier, that their happiness could come at the expense of personal relationships. “Do these ambitious people have worse relationships? Are they ethical and nice to the people around them? What would they do to get ahead? These are the questions the future research needs to answer.”
Existing research by psychologist Tim Kasser can help address this issue. Kasser, the author of The High Price of Materialism, has shown that the pursuit of materialistic values like money, possessions, and social status-the fruits of career successes-leads to lower well-being and more distress in individuals. It is also damaging to relationships: “My colleagues and I have found,” Kasser writes, “that when people believe materialistic values are important, they…have poorer interpersonal relationships [and] contribute less to the community.” Such people are also more likely to objectify others, using them as means to achieve their own goals.
So if the pursuit of career success comes at the expense of social bonds, then an individual’s well-being could suffer. That’s because community is strongly connected to well-being.
In a similar vein, I also really enjoyed this take on Sheryl Sandberg from journalist Elsa Walsh. Here’s what I think is the key bit:
And third, I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.
Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep.
“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”
Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.
That is not how I want my daughter to live, and it is not how I want to live.
Boom. Now, I don’t want to judge Sandberg, because if she is happy with her life, than more power to her. But I think Walsh’s idea of balance sound more like happiness to your typical human being. I’m pretty sure I could be a Harvard Professor instead of an NC State professor if I had truly dedicated myself to that goal. But I have no desire to be up two hours before my kids are so I can answer emails. Nor to simply see way less of them. I’ll take the trade.