Losing My Ambition: A Conversation with Rainesford Stauffer

Ambition has always been a dirty word for women. To consider Working girl‘s Tess McGill and the original Fatal attraction‘s Alex Forrest, who stomped through Manhattan with thick hair and shoulder pads so sharp they could cut you like a knife – literally, in the latter case. Or the Millennial pink She-EOs with perfect accessories from the girl boss era. Or really anything to do with Hillary Clinton.

Women should effortlessly slay every presentation, rock the no-makeup look that takes an hour to apply, breeze from work to happy hour home with the change of a shoe — but as soon as we show any effort, we’re slandered because we are “too ambitious.”

Stauffer writes about rethinking ambition and work and her relationship with both. Photo: Hannah Kik

Author Rainesford Stauffer felt this so acutely that the classic symbol of the eternal pursuit of external validation was the title of her new book on rethinking ambition: All gold stars.

“I spent an obscene amount of time trying to verify whether or not I got a gold star while reporting this book,” she says. “I don’t remember getting one, but I remember it was this thing that revolved around our ideas of what it meant to achieve and do a good job: this shiny thing at the top of the paper.” Considering what I learn about her from our interview, aside from the fact that we’d be fast friends if we met in real life, something tells me she definitely got a gold star.

This preoccupation with “juggling multiple jobs and trying to earn my self-worth through bylines, timelines, and going it alone,” she writes, caused her to burn out and “lose” her ambition.

Stauffer tells me that ambition let her down during busy periods and persevered, not least because of her OCD, which she wrote about The cut. “The more I held myself together with work, the less time I had to crumble,” she writes All gold stars.

But in the end, ambition as a coping mechanism failed her. “I didn’t have a project that I really felt like working on,” she says. “I had no purpose outside or inside my work. It was really a disorienting loss of yourself.”

That led Stauffer to wonder what it said about her self-worth and who she was as a sister and friend and member of the community, when the most valuable thing about her was something she could lose so easily.

“That question prompted me to ask a bunch of people much smarter than me to try and figure out if ambition is something we can lose, can we bring it back, should we’ll bring it back,” she tells me. “That tied in with the reporting this book was going to be.”

According to the headlines, we are in an era of anti-ambition. For many, especially healthcare providers, essential workers and the 19 million adults in the US suffering from long-term COVID symptoms, the pandemic puts our aspirations on hold. And for those of us in what pop culture frames as dream industries – which work and culture writer Anne Helen Petersen, formerly of the Shutters Buzz feed“loving jobs” – our livelihoods are becoming increasingly precarious.

Chuckling, Stauffer says she thought she would speak to a lot of people who felt the same way about her, but soon realized that “you can’t say, ‘I’m writing a book about ambition, but I don’t have one’.”

She’s clearly ambitious enough to finish a book, because here she is with a finished book. What she discovered while writing was that far more people than she expected shared the feeling that they had not so much lost their ambition as realized that it no longer fit the mold they thought it would fit.

‘All the Gold Stars’ explores ambition, burnout and what lies in between. Thanks to Rainesford Stauffer

“I think about that all the time especially when it comes to writing and media and people I know who have so much talent and so much ambition and so much drive and we turn around and another publication is closed or another round of fantastically talented people have been fired,” she muses. “It’s not because of a lack of ambition; that is structural failure, which in turn is the failure of those people. So often we don’t talk about the in-between: it’s not that the ambition is gone, it’s that you don’t have a place to put it.”

Instead, Stauffer and her subjects offer ways for us to rethink ambition, including in our relationships and our communities — like the person she talked to about being in a community orchestra and turning down a job because the hours would interfere with that. We can be ambitious about caring for each other or ambitious about our hobbies.

For Stauffer, it doesn’t look like she’s losing the classic ambition of pursuing gold stars fewer work. Indeed, as we speak it is 7pm and she has already spent an entire day working at her communications job in addition to promoting the book and freelancing for publications such as Teen Vogue And Esquire. It’s about digging into added value, like calling a friend or adopting a cat.

Side note: Getting a cat is a goal she talks about all the time All gold starsso, of course, the ever-striving Stauffer would have not one but two cats by the time the book came out on June 6. While Fig Newton was a rescue, Harry was a drifter who showed up on her parents’ doorstep one day.

“Some would say I’ve gotten too ambitious about cat adoption,” she laughs. “That’s not something many people would consider a goal, but I really think getting a pet can be an ambition. And that ambition has chosen me. It wasn’t my timing; it was not my plan.”

The changing goals of the younger generation were the subject of Stauffer’s first book, An ordinary ageand it’s a theme she continues to delve into All gold stars.

“Much of the do-it-anything-for-thirty mentality… stems from a belief that one must fulfill one’s ambitions for start a family. (As if anyone could. As if anyone could. As if ‘family’ should mean parenting in all cases.),” she writes.

“We’re very set up for ambition to come in certain packages and performance and accomplishment to be presented in certain ways,” Stauffer tells me. “There are more wins in there than we realize, even if they look a bit smaller or quieter.”

Crucially, the added value mentioned above doesn’t necessarily mean turning hobbies into work – something I can tell you is easier said than done. Cultural critic who always reads and watches TV and is therefore at work, party or one?

“Passion doesn’t pay your bills, but passion and care and a deep level of investment should be enough to counter the fact that we underpay you, that we abuse you, that you’re in a really toxic work environment and you have no resources ,” Stauffer says mockingly about self-help and wellness language creeping into even the most menial jobs.

“I’m getting so excited about the language of this!” she continues. “It’s all designed to make overwork and exploitation sound really ambitious. It sounds like something we choose and it says something good about us.” All of this harks back to the concept of gold stars and ambition as a whole.

So basically it was capitalism all along? Almost, Stauffer confirms.

“Because capitalism links so much of our value to our output, ambition comes into so much of who’s worthy and who’s not,” she explains, proposing to refocus on. “ambition that is less about achieving a certain output and more about a continuous investment [in community and ourselves].”

Losing My Ambition: A Conversation with Author Rainesford Stauffer

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