editor's letter

The Half-life of Ambition

Photo: Stella Bugbee

Sometimes New York feels like a whole city of people who live to outdo each other. So when Adam Moss announced he was going to step down from his post as editor-in-chief of New York, and he told the New York Times, “I want to see what it feels like to live with less ambition,” many people I spoke to picked that line out as a surprise favorite. I can understand why. Here was a man who reveled in the manic energy of this city for decades, electing to change his pace. In this era of heightened anxiety around work, who among us hasn’t yearned for permission to chill a little?

When I close my eyes and think about my own ambition, the same weird comic-book image always pops into my mind: a radioactive substance that chases the blood around in my veins. I have no idea why this X-Men picture always materializes, and it feels a little silly to admit it. But it captures some of the complicated feelings I have about ambition: that it is somehow in me, but not of me; that I have less control over it than I’d like.

Growing up, I was taught that if a woman lacked ambition it must be a sign that feminism had failed to reach her. But I could always see that some of my friends were compelled to compete while others were perfectly content never to enter the race. Some were intensely driven in their youth and suffered just as intense burnouts after hitting glass ceilings.

Enforced hibernations over the years have taught me where I want to put my energy. I’ve been laid off. I’ve been too sick to work. I’ve sat on the maternity-leave sidelines wondering if I’d ever find a way back into being a meaningful part of a team. I’ve lost my bearings and had to reorient. And I suspect that might happen to me again at some point — because contrary to what they teach you in high school and college, life is not a graph on which the line goes up up up. During those hibernation periods, ambition was both a blessing and a curse. I suppose it always is.

Ambition is a subject I’ve thought about even more since coming to the Cut — in part because it’s one of the central subjects of the site, but also because working for Adam Moss made it impossible not to. I was always a self-motivated person, but never before coming to work here had someone enabled me to push past what I thought I was capable of. That was thrilling. I wish that experience for all ambitious people.

So when he told me he was leaving, I shared what I knew about living with less ambition: There’s nothing quite like stepping off the treadmill to teach you which direction you want to go.


The Half-life of Ambition