There she sat—literally. In the bathroom. The cold, sterile environment didn’t provide any comfort.
Her stomach seized up in pain, and she doubled over. When the spasm/searing pain/internal fist clenched around her intestines minimized, she started typing an email again, saying yes, she’d get the copy for that over today, no, this registration hasn’t come through, and yes, she will follow up with him. Pull it together, she’d tell herself. The room would feel like it was Tilt-A-Whirling, and she’d lie flat on the bathroom rug that needed to be vacuumed, trying to remember how to breathe, then get on a Zoom call and talk about a deadline. It’s okay; it’s okay, she’d shush herself. Then on god knows what day of working from the bathroom, she elbowed her laptop off the counter and cracked the allegedly uncrackable case, somehow erasing the document she’d been working on.
The pain was conquering most of her mind.
While Rainesford Stauffer lay on her office bathroom floor, she assumed ambition would earn her rest and peace. Her whole worth depended on it now that work had monopolized her identity.
But the only thing the constant striving and stress provided was for her chronic illness to worsen.
I’ve never had to hustle through high levels of pain, but reading about Rainesford’s experience with work and ambition made me realize all my goals were linked to my profession when I want much more from life than an appealing CV. It felt like I spent years preparing for the Olympics when I had no real interest in becoming a professional athlete.
Through her words, I could finally accept it is OK when our ambitions don’t fit the default path and, most importantly, that it is okay for a job to be just a job–a means of living a fulfilled life in other ways.
The Insecurity Trap
I’ve been, just as Rainesford had, surrounded by people that strive for success as a means of proving their worth. I was once one of them. A few years ago, I would sit while eating lunch, scrolling through LinkedIn, immersing myself in streams of inauthenticity, and comparing my job experience to those of my school and university classmates.
Surveying, evaluating, criticizing.
My internship was far better than his; how did he get that job? There’s no way she’s leading a whole team already. He’s getting a Master’s Degree? His experience fits in a napkin.
If someone looked at my opinions closely, they would arrive at the core of my personality: Insecurity. Insecurity I couldn’t get far on this path, insecurity I didn’t have what it takes, and insecurity about not really wishing this to be my life but feeling that it had to be.
So as Rainesford writes, examining what it is that she is truly striving for and whether her actions align with her values and desires, I take her words as an invitation to reflect.
“Only in writing about ambition did I give it up. And only in giving it up did I realize that saying, “No, thank you—these are not my dreams,” is at least as aspirational as all that sweaty striving.”
Jobs and their Monopoly on Identity
Still, some habits are stubborn and resistant. Whenever I meet someone, I hear myself asking, “What do you do?” as if the question was a requirement for a decent conversation. I inevitably roll my eyes at myself reading from a script.
The answers, like my question, are never surprising. I have yet to experience someone answering that they are making a crochet map of the world or that they are building miniature replicas of famous landmarks using toothpicks. Most of us automatically mention our job titles, which is a waste of a potentially good and authentic conversation.
While researching for her book An Ordinary Age, Rainesford pondered, “Who are we when all that stuff that “makes” us falls away?
“As work dominates more of our waking hours, it also monopolizes more of our identities, meaning career transitions, job losses, or financial strains often double as identity crises.”
My job has been the initiator of big personal predicaments: Should I care more about this? Am I wasting my time in this position? What would younger me say about my job? which only ended when I realized that not finding fulfillment through my work didn’t mean I had failed at success.
And while I was on the path of that realization, I felt a soothing calm embrace me as I read Rainesford’s words: “It’s worth side-eyeing why work is the place that’s supposed to house so much of our self-esteem, meaning, and identity.”
As I freed my professional life from that burden, I felt I was on the right track. Letting go of the expectations of obtaining fulfillment through my job not only improved my approach toward it; it also made me realize that it's the other things I do in life that define me.
Building a new narrative for achievement
I guess most of us come to the realization in life that the pursuit of the traditional meaning of success isn’t enough to make us happy. It took Rainesford a total breakdown of her physical and mental health while questioning herself about what on earth all the striving is for.
It only took me to read her essays. That’s how powerful her writing is.
With a new narrative about achievement, fulfillment is much more reachable.
It’s not a checklist close to being completed; it’s not a shiny CV with pompous titles or a LinkedIn profile with hundreds of connections.
It may look like having time to write during the day, taking a walk in the morning, or having the opportunity to engage daily in eager conversations that fuel the imagination. What I’m sure is that it comes from the simple act of pursuing what sets the soul on fire.
It’s a shift from external validation to internal satisfaction.
Rainesford Stauffer had to let go of the belief that what she produces is the worthiest thing about herself; I had to do the same. Her work strikes a chord with me because I was yearning to renew my relationship with work and achievement. Now, thanks to her, I know that there’s a difference between ambition rooted in personal meaning and one about proving external worth.
When we make our goal to collect approval like children collect trading cards, we trade away our own satisfaction and self-acceptance in pursuit of fleeting validation from others.
When I meet people these days, the “What do you do?” question rarely comes up. I owe Rainesford for that.
Big thanks to, and for the thoughtful feedback on this piece.
Excerpt from the article Letting Go of My Toxic Ambition by Rainesford Stauffer
From Letting Go of My Toxic Ambition for Catapult Magazine
From Dream Jobs Are A Myth for Teen Vogue Magazine
From Dream Jobs Are A Myth for Teen Vogue Magazine
She writes about this in her upcoming book “All The Gold Stars”
Great points Catalina! This shift of not asking that question forces us to get to know people we engage with at a much deeper level.
Really enjoyed reading this. You did a great job articulating this problem and it certainly makes me interested in reading this book.