17 July 2019

Having read an article about Senator Kalama Harris, I started wondering about highly ambitious people. It seems as if Harris’s whole life has been dedicated to getting to the top, which in her case, means becoming the president of the United States*. She became a lawyer and gained relevant experience as a prosecutor. She dated Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco between 1996 and 2004, and he appointed her to two influential, high-paying jobs.  She stood for and won positions as district attorney and attorney general. Now one of California’s two Democratic senators, she is running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

Do ambitious people minutely plan their lives in order to achieve their lofty goals? Did the teenage Kalama plan to study law with the end goal of becoming attorney general (or even president) or did she study law because it interested her and the other goals came later?

A young professional woman told me recently that a high achiever, who she saw as a potential mentor, said she should have a clear idea of where she wanted to be in five years, in ten years, and so on, then strategically and purposefully achieve those positions. This particular woman was repelled by the calculating, almost Machiavellian, process being recommended and promptly ditched the high achiever as a mentor.

In my experience as an administrator I’ve come across the attitude that the egos of people on committees and boards need massaging so that they keep attending. If not, they may decide there’s no reason to waste their valuable time on something for which they either don’t get paid or get paid a token amount – why would they bother? My immediate response is because it’s worth doing! However, for those of the ilk of Senator Harris, the above-mentioned high achiever and board directors, things are only worth doing if they get you closer to where your ambition tells you you should be or if they attract a sufficiently high fee.

Catrina Davies has written Homesick to explain that because she teaches cello part-time and composes music, she cannot afford to live anywhere other than a Cornish shed. She says she was “taught that if I worked hard and lived an honest and generous life then I would be rewarded”. The high achiever could have told her that was misguided – she would never get anywhere by being honest and generous. “I should have been taught to grab hold of that ladder and stamp on the people below me” concludes Catrina Davies and the high achiever would say “That’s exactly what I recommend to the people I mentor.”

Surely there is a happy medium between doing what interests you or what is worth doing for its intrinsic value and doing only that which gets you further up the ladder on your way to achieving your ambitions. And since the jury is still out on which of these extremes brings the most happiness, the fact that most people go through their lives doing the best they can with whatever crops up means they’ll get to the end of their lives with no more regrets than those who failed to achieve the heights of their ambition.

*Update 24 August 2020

I wrote the piece above more than a year ago. Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for Vice President this month. It remains to be seen whether she will become Vice President, which will only happen if Joe Biden is elected President (and considering the alternative, this outcome is to be hoped for!), but if she is, she will be the front-runner for President in 2024. So she is on the cusp of achieving her ambition. She is only the fourth woman to be named on a presidential ballot and the first black woman.