When Your Ambition Doesn’t Line Up With Your Friends’

We frequently talk about the burden of unsupportive partners, and how important it is for ambitious people to choose partners who support their aspirations. Sheryl Sandberg went so far as to say that “the most important career choice you'll make is who you marry,” and she attributed much of her success to her egalitarian partnership with her late husband, Dave Goldberg. And there’s nothing wrong with this idea — I can’t imagine taking on life with a partner who didn’t get it, or who asked me to tone down my ambition.

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But this conversation is incomplete when we stop at significant others. What about those of us who are unpartnered (a group that makes up America’s most powerful voting bloc and should hardly be ignored)? Or when your romantic relationship is hardly the only important relationship in your life? What about the support of non-romantic intimates, soul mates, or friends — where do they fit into this dialogue?

The friendships I have outside of my romantic relationship are crucial to my well-being and sense of completeness. In a story likely familiar to most people reading this, with age comes more critical taste toward friendships. And while some of my friendships have deepened, others fell by the wayside. There simply isn’t room in life for people who aren’t nourishing. And part of being nourished — for someone like me, at least — is support for and understanding of my ambition. Ambition means different things to different people, but I’m ambitious about my career. Between my job and extracurricular projects, I have plenty of goals and plans to meet them. Like a lot of people, that means working after I get home, sacrificing some leisure time, and constantly hustling.

And so, gone are the friends who sneer, “You couldn’t pay me to work like you do,” instead of understanding that I like to work a lot, and that it’s moving me toward my goals. Or the ones who say I should be doing something more than just “climbing a ladder” with my life (what they have in mind, I have no idea). There’s no place in my life for people who belittle my desire for more.

What does this say about people with different levels of ambition? Surely relationships can form, but it takes effort from both sides. I’ll ’fess up: I worry I won't get the support I need from people whose ambitions don't match my own. I struggle to understand some people’s lack of ambition — and honestly, I’m concerned that I'm edging people out based on a difference that maybe isn’t as fundamental as I think it is. It's still something I have to work out for myself, but I stand firm that I need actively supportive people to make up my friend circle.

So while parsing that element is complicated, the friendships I look for doesn’t have to be. A friend who supports your ambition doesn’t have to be cool with you canceling happy-hour plans at the last minute because you have stuff to get done — ambition isn’t an excuse to be rude.

But this friend understands what you do and why you do it, and can have a conversation about work and career that doesn’t just revolve around the day-to-day job stuff. This friend is someone who understands that your career fulfills you and supports you in achieving your goals. Someone who will talk through what you want from work and life, who can comprehend what success looks like to you.

It should be said that this goes both ways. I want to hear about my friends’ goals and ambitions. I want to help them achieve those goals, support them when things are tough, and celebrate their triumphs. It should be mutual.

It’s okay to want this support from your friendships. In fact, you should demand it. It’s okay if you want promotions parties instead of birthday parties. It’s okay to want to talk about work. It’s okay to want. It’s okay to see goals and grab for them. And it’s okay to want a foundation — beyond your partner, if you have one — to hold you up and cheer you on.

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