The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Worker wants success but has ‘no desire to hustle’

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
5 min

Hi Carolyn! In 2019, after 10 years in another industry, I switched to the industry I had always aimed for before pesky things like the Great Recession got in the way. I have been relatively happy with this switch and decided I wanted to gain a better perspective by getting a graduate degree. I truly believe in the kind of work I do and I want to make sure I do it in the most knowledgeable way possible.

Simultaneously, I am starting to realize just how unambitious I am. I have zero desire to be the try-hard I once was. I want to keep work in its box so that I can have a full life outside of work.

This feels incongruent to getting a graduate degree, even though I am enjoying my experience immensely — and it is free because I have a fellowship. I hope I can have a successful career post-graduation, but it feels like I might have to hustle a bit to do so. I have no desire to hustle.

Do you have any tips on how to lead a meaningful and successful career without ambition overrunning my entire life? How can I be successful without being ambitious?

— Maybe I Suck

Maybe I Suck: Recognize they’re two different things. Success is reaching your goal, whatever that goal is. CEO, supporting a family, supporting a personal life, making a difference, making enough to get by. Ambition is reaching for ever loftier goals.

You can be unambitiously successful by finding your niche; pushing yourself hard enough to succeed in that niche, by your definition; and doing your job well enough to stay there. (Unless you change your mind again, and again, which happens.)

This is not an obscure formula; it's everywhere around you. There are a few stars and a lot of character actors. There are a few CEOs and a lot of workers. There are a few deans and a lot of instructors. Every good team counts on its utility players, its third line, its bench. Not everyone below the peak level represents a failure to reach the top.

A hierarchy where everyone is ambitious, meanwhile, sounds more like a feeding frenzy than a productive and welcoming workplace.

If you’re inclined to work eagerly and well at a profession that means something to you, and to skip the whole middle stage where you try to push yourself up the pyramid only to watch in frustration as you get passed over by the competition, then more power to you, I say.

Not only is there honor in good work at any level, but there’s also serenity in choosing it vs. being relegated to it.

This isn’t to say ambition is bad; we need some to progress as a society (and some to keep in check). We need leadership and competition and hunger. What we don’t need, as individuals, is pressure to reach for things we think we’re expected to want instead of what we want. So, unleash your inner tortoise. Put your degree to moderate use.

Dear Carolyn: As much as I’d like to, I can’t seem to find a way to get close to my mother-in-law. Her big thing is food and cooking — she’s very adventurous. Due to sensory issues, I have a very limited diet. Because of this my husband and I don’t get invited over for dinner other than holidays, when she always includes something I can eat.

She’s always really nice to me and her not inviting us to the dinner parties never used to bother me, since the focus is on food I can’t eat. But now my new sister-in-law is always posting about the fabulous parties and learning cooking from my mother-in-law. I’m frankly jealous.

Would it be okay if I asked my mother-in-law to start including us in the parties and let me bring something I can eat? My husband said we’d be putting her on the spot, but I’ll gracefully accept a no.

— Sad

Sad: That is sad! I’m sorry.

Do talk to your mother-in-law, yes, but not (just) about getting invited. That’s too narrow. Instead, say you’ve known all along it’s just a bit of sad planetary alignment, nothing personal, that you’re physically unable to share in her biggest joy — but you’re realizing now that it’s bonkers to treat this as the end of your story.

Say you regret not thinking of this sooner. Say you’d like to spend time with her in a different way that doesn’t involve food. Does she enjoy music, theater, fantasy sports, needlework, museums, astronomy? Spelunking? Stick-and-poke tattooing, backyard metallurgy, drag racing (either kind), BASE jumping? Anything?

Say out loud — admit it — that your sister-in-law’s joy awakened you to the fact that your food issue morphed into a togetherness issue, where you’re missing out on her company, and you hope to remedy that. She’d need a pretty hard shell to deflect an appeal like that. Good luck.