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Necessary Ambition

By the time I was 12, I’d moved schools (and towns) a few times. Enough times that I’d begun to become insular, quiet, introverted, uncertain. And, to an increasing extent, wryly detached from the circumstances in which I found myself.

I remember turning up to a new class one day just in time for a math test. Later, as the teacher was marking the tests, she called me to the front of the room.

Panic does funny things. I remember my elbows went hollow and my face was numb. My brand new classmates turned to stare.

“How did you work out the answer to this question?” the teacher asked.
She pointed at my scribbled workings & I shrugged mutely. It was all there, everything I’d done to work it out, everything I had.
“Who taught you to do this?”
I shook my head, lips still pressed together. I couldn’t meet her eye. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong & I wished she would just tell me so I could sit down.
“Nobody taught you this?” she persisted.
I both shrugged AND shook my head.
“Well,” she said. “It’s excellent. Very advanced. Well done.”

Very advanced.


I can still recall the prickling along my hairline as the blood returned to my face.

And yet, that moment planted a grain of doubt in my mind. I realised I didn’t understand how I did half the things I could do.

I still have that doubt.

And perhaps that’s why I’m already rushing out to buy NECESSARY DREAMS: AMBITION IN WOMEN’S CHANGING LIVES by Anna Fels.

Nancy Jane Moore has reviewed the book over at BroadUniverse

I didn’t relate to Nancy’s review at first. It talked a lot about the importance of recognition, & I figured I had enough of that, y’know. I had an embarrassing amount of recognition & frankly, it made me uncomfortable. It didn’t, in my mind, really tally with what I felt were my limited achievements in the actual writing arena.

I won an Aurealis Award for my first published story & a couple of Ditmar Awards over the next couple of years, & I’ve had Honourable Mentions from Datlow & Windling. I’ve received a lot of nice comments in reviews for what-I-awkwardly-refer-to-as ‘my stuff’. People say nice things to me on an irregular basis & the people who don’t like my stuff are polite enough not to say it to my face. It’s been a good run, really. It’s nice. Maybe it’s too nice. Maybe it’s really kinda more than I deserve.

But then I read this line in the review: “Fels points out: Neither mastery without recognition nor recognition without mastery satisfy most people.”

And I realised I have that disease. I have a sense of recognition without mastery. So I started reading the review again & you know what, it made a lot of sense. I do blame myself for not being tougher, or more goal-oriented, or smarter, or more together or whatever it is I think I should be. I do feel uncomfortable with the whole self-promotion side. I do lack a ‘clear and detailed idea’ of what I want. I have some kind of classic female-style problem with self-worth. And it’s beginning to annoy me.

Because now it seems to me that somewhere along the line men are taught the skills to receive & expect recognition, & women (at least in my generation) aren’t. Not that I’m saying men are bad. I’m saying, ‘hey, cool, guys, let me learn some of that’.

I think, then, I need to read this book*.

Ambition is the starting point, Fels says. In her work as a psychiatrist, she has discovered that women who have a clear and detailed idea of what they want to do have better self-esteem and general well-being than those whose ideas are more amorphous. Recognizing our ambitions and trying to achieve them are necessary and healthy things.

* Though admittedly part of me does react to the idea of reading this book with a sense of ‘ah, great, just MORE shit I have to learn’.

But I’m gonna read it, anyhow.