Ambition – Is It Still A Dirty Word?

A recent study found that fear of failure is still holding back men and women in professional settings and small business.

By Jessica Parry


A recent study found that fear of failure is still holding back men and women in professional settings and small business.

By Jessica Parry

With a record number of women elected to the US Congress and glass ceilings shattering all over the corporate world it would be reasonable to think that women are now out and proud about their ambition. But a surprising new study has found that both sexes still have some way to go in both following and owning their aspirations.

The CGU Ambition Index found that 68 per cent of respondents believe Australians have a culture of negativity around ambition and 44 per cent worry too much about failure to act on their ambition. A startling seven in ten won’t even talk about their success for fear of being labelled a “bragger”. It seems the tall poppy syndrome is alive and well.

But while some may not be out and proud about it, 75 per cent of those surveyed did say they were ambitious and 70 per cent agreed that it is something that you learn, rather than inherit.

We asked businesswomen – Amanda Lear, co-founder of creative agency Gilimbaa, Style Cantina co-founder and director Danika Johnston (whose business partner is Michelle Thomas), IP attorney and Girl Friday IP founder Fi Nguyen, and Jaqui Lane, from The Book Adviser and Global Stories – for their take on this vexed subject.

Amanda Lear (R) from Gilimbaa. Image Credit: Instagram @gilimbaa

88 per cent of people want to be more ambitious, according to the study. What does ambition mean to you?

Amanda: I see ambition as a tool of fuelling force, the grit, the focus, the horizon line of the change maker and rule breaker in all of us.

Jaqui: The capacity and desire to achieve financial independence and provide for my family and make a difference in the world.

Fi: Ambition is often viewed as a negative, particularly when it’s associated with work or building a career. But ambition can take on various forms beyond your professional life: from building stronger relationships with family and friends to taking up a new hobby, these are also admirable. When I think of ambition in this way, I view it as a positive because it embodies passion and purpose.

Danika: It means demonstrating the brevity to work hard and create your own success, whatever that looks like. To be brave and take risks, lots of them and never be afraid of failure – you learn so much from the failings. Don’t talk about it, do it.

75 per cent say they’re ambitious, but only 6 per cent agree it’s their greatest asset. Would you admit to being ambitious?

Jaqui: Yes, I’m highly ambitious for myself and my son. Ambition is about achieving goals, both personal and professional, as this give me choice and independence.

Fi: In my professional life, I never thought of myself as an ambitious person. I’ve always felt that whatever opportunities or experiences that have come my way, I was right where I needed to be to learn from that moment. Maybe my desire to learn makes me more ambitious than I’ve ever really realised?

Danika: Absolutely! Ambition in others is contagious, we [co-founder Michelle Thomas] draw inspiration from ambitious and driven people. Ambition is a key ingredient to being successful, it sharpens you and allows you to focus on the big picture.

Danika Johnston and Michelle Thomas, Image credit: Instagram @thestylecantina

48 per cent of women say they worry too much about failure to chase their dreams. How do you encourage other women?

Amanda: I encourage women [to reach goals] by saying ‘you will never regret any energy put into that adventure’.

Jaqui: I’ve been involved in a number of businesswomen’s organisations and have personally mentored women in business and still do.

Fi: I’d encourage other women to use their passion, purpose and values to guide them in what they want to achieve. Your values are a great benchmark for staying true to your passion and purpose, identifying who you want to connect with and how you want to engage with others.

Danika: Shout it out! We are continually promoting the idea of being courageous and strong-willed and ambitious to our customers, friends, families, networks. People  ask: ‘Why did you leave your comfortable and successful careers to do your own thing?’ And our answer is always: ‘We loved the idea of creating our own success and building a successful business from the ground up.’ We also lead by example, being ambitious prompts you to work hard and hard work creates success. We live and breathe this notion.

Fi Nguyen from Girl Friday IP. Image Credit: Instagram @girlfridayip

On a scale of one to 10 how would you rate your fear of failure?

Amanda: Four. There is just no way I can work in a deeply collaborative space and not fail frequently.

Jaqui: One. Because I’ve been through a business that failed and have come out the other end, learned a lot, and built two new businesses.

Fi: Three to five. It’s the fear of not giving it 100 per cent that’s far greater. I’ve been given a chance to do something I love and owning it – I don’t want to look back and think I didn’t embrace it wholeheartedly.

Danika: Four or five. We are glass half-full. But the reality is that failing at things is always omni-present in running a business. The trick is to turn failure into creativity and strategy and a mindset that anything is possible.

7 in 10 have hidden their ambition for fear of being labelled a bragger. Have you?

Amanda: Yes. I’ve learnt that, for me, I like to be precious with my ambitions [and avoid telling] those who want to dismiss it or divert it.

Jaqui: No. I grew up as the youngest and only girl. I was encouraged and supported to be competitive and ambitious from a young age by my parents and brother, as well as my school teachers and mentors.

Fi: I don’t think so [because] I’ve never really recognised that I had any clear or lofty ambitions. If you had said to me two years ago that I would quit my 9-5 job to start my own business, I would’ve had a giggle thinking it was a pipedream.

Danika: Sadly, yes. In our younger years in media careers, we have both failed to put our hands up for job promotions because we didn’t think we were ready yet. We think this happens a lot with young women. But sadly, 99 per cent of the time you probably are. The only person holding you back is generally yourself.

27 per cent say they won’t make sacrifices to realise their ambition. How can you relate with the notion of putting your ambitions first?

Amanda: I have missed funerals [and] I am still ashamed I did it. Everything else, the ruined relationships – romantic and non-romantic – and the lapsed gym memberships pale in comparison to that.

Jaqui: I risked my home to help fund the business (a couple of times), missed out on various experiences and activities with my son, due to business commitments, delayed paying myself in order to manage cash flow, and worked long, long hours.

Fi: The quality of my downtime and relationships with family and close friends has suffered a little because I find it difficult to switch off. But it’s something I’m working on. Also, sacrificing any notion I had of a ‘comfort zone’. There’s nothing comfortable about running your own business. It’s challenging, rewarding and not what you expect.

Danika: Oh wow, where do we start?! Financial stability is the big one; starting a business is a big and expensive risk.  You go from a well-paid job to then pouring all of your own money into your dream. You have to re-wire yourself to be ok with this change as it affects everything – personal and family finances. Perseverance and a solid strategic financial plan are paramount to manage this.

Jaqui Lane from The Book Adviser and Global Stories.

75 per cent of business owners think Australia has a culture of negativity toward the ambitious. What is your perspective?

Amanda: I think the perception of ambitious women is shifting – dramatically. The more people begin to understand and recognise the level of resilience and tenacity required by women to navigate the everyday discrimination we face, the more our ambitions seem to be met with solidarity instead of resistance.

Jaqui: The general public regard ambitious women with concern (they’re not looking after their children/family properly), fear (that they will be judged), and envy (they see the lifestyle many of these women have, but not the hard work and stress).

Fi: I think the perception of ambitious women still leans a little to the negative. Women who speak openly about their goals, successes or issues they face, are often seen to be ‘outspoken’.

Danika: Generally speaking, everyone loves a good news story, so seeing women being ambitious and successful is celebrated. We know, in our own networks, that women supporting each other and men supporting women is better than ever. These are exciting times, women are doing more, achieving more and re-writing the rule books.

CGU Insurance has been backing ambitious Aussies for over 165 years. Visit cgu.com.au to find out how we can back you.

Main image: Fi Nguyen, Girl Friday IP