No Wild Ambitions? No Problem! Why It’s Perfectly OK To Work To Live, Not Live To Work

In a world obsessed with success, 'mediocre' can be a dirty word. Let's change that.

On International Women’s Day earlier this year, much of the online conversation centred on work. Women thanked the female colleagues and employers who had helped them in their careers, celebrated talented women from all industries, and shouted out the ‘girl bosses’ they admired.

Except for one viral tweet from the day, which read: “I dedicate this International Women’s Day to totally mediocre women, we don’t have to be girl bosses or aspirational earners or experts in a field. Shout out to those of us who just about get by and prioritise not quite as glamorous achievements because we’re cool too.”

Now, it’s up to you whether you think the word ‘mediocre’ is insulting or not. But with over four thousand retweets, the words evidently struck a chord with many. It certainly made me realise that the discussion around International Women’s Day over the past few years has been alienating to lots of women. The current wave of feminism can be maddeningly focused on business or career success as a route to female empowerment. But what if you’re not a girl boss, and never will be? What if you’ve got no particular desire to run the world? What if you find the idea of stepping into Michelle Obama’s shoes not thrilling and inspiring, but bloody terrifying? Are you not empowered? We don’t often hear the stories of women who are totally fine with just ‘plodding along’, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less valid.

“I’m not sure that I ever thought that devoting my life to a career would be the path for me,” says Clara, 27.

I never had any great ambitions as a child as to what I wanted to be when I grew up – I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be and it didn’t concern me. I’m not sure if it does now either. My mother was always vocal about working to live and not living to work, so I guess that was what was drilled into me as a child.

Clara’s mam is not wrong. There’s a lot to be said for working to live, not living to work – and not even in the ‘work-life balance’ sense so beloved of people who speak at business conferences, but literally treating work as something you do so you can enjoy your life in your free time. A simple and even obvious concept, but one we can forget in a world constantly telling us that only the ‘best’ is acceptable.

Devoting yourself to a career is seen as a virtue. You can’t just like your job, nor can you be completely neutral about it. You have to LOVE it. You have to eat, sleep and breathe your work. You have to progress and climb the ladder in any way you can. You have to eat lunch at your desk, then stay on until 7pm to get everything done. You have to be reeeeeeally busy all the time. You have to like the motivational quotes on Instagram telling you to ‘hustle’, ’dream big’ and ‘focus on your goals’. And if you do want to hustle, dream big, and focus on your goals, all this can be pretty inspiring. If you’re not particularly ambitious, however, it might make you wonder if there’s something wrong with you.

One woman I spoke to while writing this piece said she suspected her lack of ambition was a residual effect of graduating in the middle of the recession and realising that it would take a long time to get a job she loved. With the alternative being working yourself to the bone to chase an idea of success that may not even be your own, would you blame anyone for deciding to opt out? The stress of it can break you.

As for that saying about finding a job you love and never working a day in your life… Anyone who has done that will tell you that even ‘dream jobs’ feel like work. Despite what people like to think, we’re all still waiting for Friday to come, whether we’re the CEO of our own brand or working in the shop that sells the products.

Finding a rung on the proverbial ladder that you like, and hanging out there for as long as you want to, is perfectly fine. Leaving work on the dot of 5pm and not thinking about it again until 9am is perfectly fine. Working a job you don’t particularly care about so you can have money
is perfectly fine. Taking every single second of your lunch break? Fantastic. Don’t ever feel bad about that.

Clara now has a job in the civil service (“in the true spirit of working to live” she jokes), and while she’d eventually like to move to an area more in tune with her interests, she’s happy. She wonders if the current wave of ‘girl boss’-style feminism is applying undue pressure on women who aren’t hugely ambitious.

“I appreciate the sentiment behind the ‘girl boss’ stuff – women are class and we can do anything we want to – but I try not to pay too much attention to it or put too much weight behind it,” Clara says.

I feel a lot of the messages being put out there now is that you HAVE to be the best and there’s no room for mediocrity. Does that mean that I’m less than, because I’m happy to plod along and just try to earn enough money to enjoy my life outside of work?

We can’t all be Oprah, because then who would be Oprah?

“I’ve no desire to make a name for myself, or run an empire, or reach the top of my game. I don’t even have a game, and I’m perfectly happy with that. I think there’s enough pressure on women to look a certain way, or act a certain way, without also making them feel like their jobs or careers are worthless unless they’re reaching stratospheric heights.”

We should absolutely celebrate the many bright, talented women who soar in their chosen fields, but it’s also good to realise that not every woman wants to fly. Let’s make room at the table for more relatable accomplishments. Three cheers for Amy, 32, who mustered up the courage to make an appointment with the dentist today! And let’s hear it for Claire, 45, who got to tell the customer asking for the manager that she IS the manager! You go girls.

Maybe your ambition is to be Taoiseach some day. Great! Please do that. But maybe your goal is a job that gives you enough money for a nice holiday every year, and that’s cool too. ‘Mediocre’ is not a dirty word. If anything, as Clara notes, it’s highly underrated.

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