By: Alaine Johnson
When I didn’t start speaking by the time I was 3, my parents wanted to test me for learning disabilities. When I did finally start making sounds, I missed all the consonants and had to attend speech therapy. But by age 4, I was reading better than I could speak.
My concept of ambition was born out of books. Unlike many of my friends in Singapore who have been doing summer internships since they were 14, I was free of parental or societal expectations of success and ambition. I have an Asian mother, but she’s not any type of Asian tiger mom. My grandmother spoiled me by allowing me to check out as many library books as I wanted; on the condition that I finished them all before the loan due date. Whatever I dreamt of doing, it probably came from the two hundred or so books I would go through in a year.
I grew up reading tales of rugged individualism. I aspired to be an explorer like Lewis & Clark, starting with the nature reserve near my childhood home in West Seattle. I started hoarding canned food and re-read My Side of the Mountain for all the tips on how to survive in the forest (minus the protagonist’s peregrine falcon). I wanted to go where others hadn’t yet gone. The explorers of the Manifest Destiny era fascinated me. I later learned how they described their expeditions with phrases like “thrusting into virgin forest” and an overall theme of male dominance and massive, continental exploitation which has been criticised by feminists like Annette Kolody as portraying the male, woodland hero with “a quintessentially feminine terrain apparently designed to gratify his desires.” But as a child, let me still revel in blissful ignorance.
To go where others haven’t gone
Amelia Earhart, the world’s most famous female pilot, disappeared somewhere over the South Pacific in 1937 and was never found. She was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The mystery of her disappearance during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe was never solved. In a letter to her husband which was opened in the event of her death, she wrote: “I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it.”
Straightforward, clear-cut, and no-nonsense. Earhart’s drive emanated not from fame or money, but simply from within.
For some of us, ambition (or competition) materialises when we compare scores after exams. Ambition can manifest in the charisma of a spoken word poet captivating an audience with her poignant expression. For others, ambition isn’t even public-facing. It can take shape in long hours spent behind closed doors, arduously poring over slide after slide for a cause that puts sleep and social life on the backburner.
Ambition works in a positive feedback loop. When you achieve one thing and receive praise for it, you become emboldened to go on to the next. The voices of haters diminish, and self-confidence grows. Becoming the first student at my dojo to reach black belt equipped me to strive to be the first to do things. So when I found a merit scholarship to send me abroad for a year at 15, I applied without a second thought. My parents found out only when being asked to sign permission for me to go – no strings attached.
This kind of ambition is lauded in the West. In truth, I didn’t know what I was in for. I was sent to Southern Thailand and quickly realised that I would need a new language to survive for the next ten months.
Malcolm X became literate by copying out a dictionary while in prison. I tried to do the same with an English-Thai dictionary to teach myself Thai. I was less successful than Malcolm X, but I did pick up many new insights on the two languages along the way. The word ambition is a noun of action from its past-participle stem of ambire; meaning “to go around, go about.”
Being an ambitious girl in Asia, and later Africa, meant adapting to different standards. I studied longer and harder until I was the resident expert on my high school subjects. I got scholarships to fund my projects and travels to dozens of countries. At last, my adventurous ambitions were being quenched! But I was repeatedly asked – you’re here, alone? What about your family? Don’t you love them? Do you miss them?
I woke up late from jet lag and general exhaustion of the monumental life shift, and my Thai host father said to me: “No man will want to marry you if you don’t wake up and do your chores.” He might have been joking, but the gender expectations shone through.
A double-edged sword
It’s a whole new game once you throw gender into the mix. This starts from the day our parents find out if it’s a baby girl or a baby boy – pink or blue, dolls or race cars, although some things are changing. A video of an 8 year old British girl haranguing Tesco’s display of boys vs. girls shirts went viral. The boys shirts say “Think outside of the box” and “Hero” and the girl’s shirt says “Beautiful” or “I feel fabulous”. We plaster gendered ambitions on our chests from the time we start socialising and reading those shirts.
The word’s [ambition] history is gendered too:
“In early use in English always pejorative, of inordinate or overreaching desire; ambition was grouped with pride and vainglory, and sometimes meant little more than “arrogance.” Neutral or positive senses are modern. Meaning “object of strong desire” is from c. 1600” – Online Etymology Dictionary
For other genders, the word still has a negative inflection. We’re still racing to catch up to men who enjoy striving for neutral or positive modern ambition. It is a tiring and often thankless crusade for equal recognition, pay, representation, etc. And as minority women, our bodies still get policed by white women. Shakira and J Lo, who are aged 43 and 50 respectively, smashed it out on stage during the 2020 Super Bowl Half Time Show. These two queens showcased all the ambition and inspiration they embody as pop culture icons. White, middle-aged women reacted with vitriolic comments on the vulgarity of the performance, expressing discomfort at the sight of women of color dancing. Cutting other women down is the least empowering thing we can do.
Ambition is a double-edged sword for women and non-binary. We publicise dreams that strain against all of history. It makes it that much easier for others to see what we hold dear, and to cut it down. Others feel threatened.
Ambition is sexy, right
Ambitious women can be unnerving. We don’t smile just because it looks nice. We don’t apologise all the time. We don’t give a shit if you hold the door, because we already swung it wide open. We go after the things we want.
In the sub-continent, I argued once with a formidable male figure in front of his peers. He later looked me straight in the eyes and said: I’ve waited my whole life for a woman who would challenge me.
You’ve met her, I wanted to say. You probably call her Mom.
In societies where women can’t openly challenge men, power exerts itself in other ways. In the Foucauldian sense, power is everywhere. Ambition might be sexy at first, but it gets tricky when gender norms shove through rudely, uninvited, to remind you that insecurities are irrational and flare up in the face of ambition.
Back in Singapore, I spent the better part of a Sunday on a call walking a romantic interest through the importance of emotional intelligence and intention setting. The conversation veered towards ending things between us, and I asked why. I expected to hear anything besides what he told me, after an hour of probing.
After a long pause: Maybe… I’m just jealous.
I know I have a lot of male friends, I started to think to myself.
He continued. Because you have all this knowledge about the world. And I just feel lost.
The mic inside my heart dropped. No matter how interesting, thoughtful, intelligent, or ambitious I may be, these insecurities of his would never let this work. You can find someone inspiring, but no other human will be the answer to finding yourself.
Lightning cracked and a deluge of monsoon rain began outside as these thoughts sank in. I pulled the windows shut after hanging up the phone. Raindrops splattered on my face and I let my tears join them. It was a collective release of frustration and disappointment.
I cried for all the women whose ambition threatened their partner, or were otherwise sidelined.
I thought of my aunt – a type A, vibrant, alpha female who dominates at anything she sets her mind to. Her laughter comes straight from the belly, filling up all the space around you like sound waves of pure glee squeezing you tight. Her type B ex-husband had an affair and could hardly bring himself to confess, so he left her. Their young family was split apart at the seams, but my aunt rebuilt an even stronger home for her children.
I thought of my mother – she threw caution to the wind and married my father when she was younger than I am now. She put dreams of becoming a marine biologist on hold to become a military wife. Her ambitions of teaching were only reclaimed two decades, a messy divorce, and a hardened lifetime later.
Hell, even Beyonce was cheated on. She might be just one of the most ambitious women in the world. We admire the ambitious for their spirit to claim and reclaim the spaces we have not yet gone, or have been forcefully pushed out of in history. Ambition is measured in the times we keep getting up, going about it, and going around the world.
This is the impasse of female ambition. It makes you vulnerable, too. To be sincere, tenacious, and vulnerable about what you want is precarious. The more you want, the more it hurts to lose. The grander your mosaic of life is, the more shards there will be if the glass shatters.
However, vulnerability is the greatest asset we have. Deep suffering is the human condition. Few of us have the bravery to pull out the universal, gut-wrenching words within us and give them form to release ourselves from the burdens we carry. We keep ourselves emotionally handicapped, at best, because it’s scary to say to our inner child: this is the world and it’s big, scary, and full of pain. But ambire; go out, go about it, go around, you must. Because you’ll experience those pains relative only to all the heights of joy.
Alaine grew up in the rainy city of Seattle and is now a Singapore-based freelance writer covering topics related to the environment, sustainability, conservation, and animal rights. She has previously written for Truthout, Eco-Business, Planet Forward, and abillionveg. Alaine was one of the founding batches at Yale-NUS College and published her research there on organic agriculture certification in the Journal of Rural Studies. She enjoys the creativity of vegan baking, trying new types of martial arts, and will never turn down traveling, chocolate, or coffee.