Anything but Ordinary: twenty-something ambition explained with Disney

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Is all this hard work really what I want?

I suspect a lot of twenty-somethings have asked something similar at one time or another – at uni, in careerland, whilst scraping mould from the shower curtain.

For example, it might be the question that pops into your head one Friday evening when you’ve had a busy week and you have to cancel all your weekend plans because you’ve caught the Office Lurgy. Or when you hit the wall with your project like Hiro Hamada (above). Or when you patent is rejected or your funding pulled.

But here’s the thing: the other day I read a blog asking: “what if all I want is a mediocre life? What if all I want is a small, slow, simple life? What if I am mediocre and choose to be at peace with that?”

Reading it, you can almost sense the sigh of relief from the author as she writes, letting the pressure go.

Here is someone expressing their desire to step back from the hustle and the voices telling us all to work hard, play hard, be bold, change the world. Who wonders whether she can embrace her limitations and stop railing against them and accept her life for what it is.

Cue my overthinking brain:

Why am I not content with living a so-called mediocre life?

What is the driving force behind my hustle?

Is it millennialism? Some misguided special snowflake syndrome?

Is it superficial? Simply desire for success? A hangover from school where good grades and recognition went hand-in-hand?

Is it the hustle? The rally cry of the #girlboss clique being so loud? The lure of hashtag-led campaigns telling women like me they can be powerful if they want to be?

Looking at myself, even when I’m questioning “why am I doing this”, I’m never seriously considering stopping. I’m definitely not content with a mediocre life.

So there has to be a reason for why I keep aspiring.

Here are some thoughts (illustrated by Disney just because).

A little Belle Syndrome

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Millennials. We’re an ambitious generation.

In other words, we suffer from Belle Syndrome. We all want to know there’s more this provincial life.

Why? Because a lot of us haven’t settled yet. The lines between work life and personal life blur as we mix day jobs with side gigs (music, writing, solar energy, whatever it might be). Moreover, still at the beginning of our careers, we’re not content to settle for roles where there’s little progression or development: we want to learn and grow and face new challenges along the way.

Of course, we like success – who doesn’t?! – whether that’s pay rises and promotions or some other form of acknowledgement. And yes, we’re relatively fickle and likely to run away from the Beast’s castle if we feel trapped or unfulfilled.

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But our twenty-to-thirty-something ambition is a good thing (mostly). It makes us curious, passionate, a little bit weird sometimes. We might live for the weekend but that’s because we have other things we want to do, places to explore, passions to live.

Our special snowflake, Belle Syndrome (and let’s face it, Belle totally thinks/knows she belongs beyond her ‘quiet village’) only becomes an issue if it makes us feel entitled. We’re not. We have to work for it. Most of us recognise that and will plough on until the Beast is tamed, the Castle is curse free, and we own the world’s best library. Or something like that.

Help Have I Got the Herc(ules)?

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Ambition is one thing. Desire for success in the eyes of others is another, which is why going from zero to hero ‘just like that’ is a tantalising prospect. Vague promises spelled out in neon lights, plastered on the front covers of books and billboards – fame is the ultimate form of social recognition.

But as Zeus told Hercules, there’s more to being a hero than celebrity. Equating the two puts us into dangerous territory.

Brené Brown, a vulnerability and shame researcher, said that when we don’t believe in our self-worth, we start looking for it elsewhere. We beg those around us to give us our value; we seek approval outside of ourselves. Brown calls it “hustling for our worthiness.”

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We’re all vulnerable to it in different ways. For example, it’s what Strauss describes in The Game too. Negging, qualifying (or disqualifying), takeaways at emotional spikes – these aim to make targets seek validation, to hustle, to appeal to certain standards.

And wow, like Hercules, can we hustle with the best of them (and by we, I definitely mean “I”).

Fact is, insecurity can be a huge motivator for ambition. When you’re a little uncertain, when you feel the nagging need for validation, when you’re new to something or you’ve been through a rough time and you want to know you’re doing something right – that’s when it strikes.

Care is therefore integral. You don’t necessarily need to have an endgame in sight (who do you know who really has their crap together?). But knowing why and who you’re hustling for is important. Don’t do it for your parents, or your coworkers, or because you want to make it to Mt Olympus, or because it fits on your Instagram feed. Do it for you and not rewards.

The Anti-Sleeping Beauty Brigade

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We’re told to hustle from every angle. Google it. There are articles everywhere from Elite Daily to The Art of Manliness to Fast Company and so on. And ok maybe this won’t resonate so much with the boys – but ladies, who hasn’t how brands are now full-steam-ahead when it comes to female empowerment and the hustle.

Overall, it’s a positive move (albeit a tad weird on those occasions when you have sanitary pads sold to you like they’ll somehow help progress your career).

On the other hand, whilst wanting to be a bit more Tiana and a lot less Aurora is no doubt a good thing, it’s still smart to take a step back once in a while. Think about what you’re working for and whether you’re being busy for the dream or for the sake of looking like you’re busy.

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Because “being busy is not the same as being productive,” says Tim Ferriss, “…and is more often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions. Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

Moreover, there may be a thousand and one voices telling us what success looks like. Your success may look completely different. Maybe you don’t want to be queen, or marry a prince, or become a restaurateur. Take inspiration from others but don’t let their success colour or detract from your goals.

What about Happily Ever After?

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Personally, I know that my main aim is to write. I’ve turned my dream into a plan and I’m working on it every day to ensure that I can call myself a writer without caveats.

I also know that I love my job. Do I want to be successful in my career too? Of course I do. In the immediate, that’s because I believe in this business. I can’t wait for all of you to see what we’ve made. And looking ahead, it’s because my ambitions also include the positive application of fintech for good.

So no – I’m not settling for a mediocre life but then I don’t think the author of that blog was suggesting it’s what she wanted either. Like her, I’m defining my own happily ever after.

Part of this, in my case, is through hustle – hard (but enjoyable) work and lots of it – but mostly, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, it’s about striving and thriving doing ‘so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.’

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Feel the same or have something to add? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

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2 thoughts on “Anything but Ordinary: twenty-something ambition explained with Disney

  1. A good read, but everything you’ve written is framed around the assumption that life satisfaction depends upon a series of pre-set Disneyfied social tasks and goals to be achieved. Suppose it doesn’t? Suppose that person’s “small, slow simple life” is better because s/he has managed to reject or redefine those assumptions?

    There’s nothing wrong with any of the Millennial traits you’ve identified. In fact I can’t think of any previous generation that hasn’t also been ambitious, insecure and desperate to escape to the (metaphorical) big city.
    But some of those previous generations said, “Fuck you” to the cultural framework that they were presented with. Millennials seem to lack any revolutionary zeal. They swallow that whole Disney narrative. Don’t fall for it! It’s a trap.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can totally see where you’re coming from – I think this is exactly what I was trying to get at with the “Happily Ever After” point about defining our own endings and not just letting the hype define our path.

      As for revolutionary zeal – it’s definitely there. But I think that might be another blog post.

      Like

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