Rainesford Stauffer reminds us that it is not enough to be ambitious, and just how harmful personal ambition can be. The question is: what are we ambitious about?
All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive by Rainesford Stauffer, Hachette Books
Rainesford Stauffer’s last book, An Ordinary Age, posited that “some of the most extraordinary things about our lives are, in fact, the ordinary ones.” It was a book focused on “emerging adults" (ages 18-30) that I, a 40-year-old man at the time, found great wisdom, comfort, and solace in. Stauffer’s latest book, All the Gold Stars, broadens that view of a “culture that has defined … life on narrow, and often unattainable, terms” to include a history of how we ended up with cultural norms and expectations about personal ambition, and how they are affecting real people’s lives today. It uncovers how and why that culture has devolved into a veritable cult of ambition, and how we can extricate ourselves from it. And that, it turns out, is a byproduct of—or perhaps, if looked at from another angle, a betrayal of—the American dream.
The American dream is usually spoken of as something we aspire to or have achieved. It is wrapped up in notions of hard work and “making it.” And while our dreams and our definitions of “making it” vary—from home ownership and a comfortable retirement to fame and fortune—it is almost always about an individual striving and ambition. It is the land of opportunity, where you can become anything you want with enough grit, determination, and elbow grease.
Reviewing Seth Godin’s new book, The Song of Significance last month, I focused on his call for shifting out of an industrial era mindset that we have long been immersed in. Stauffer makes the case that our relationship to ambition is also tied to that industrialist mindset and the way it values time over skill, and how the amount of time you put it in is considered the most important input. It is a formula that will always lead to overwork unless there is a force to counter it. At one time, the rise and success of the labor movement did that, but how do we do that if we are no longer tied to the industrial machinery and people around us in the factory, but tethered to screens doing other kinds of work.
Reviewing Felix Simon’s book, The Phoenix Economy, a few weeks before that, I discussed his explanation of how the pandemic warped our sense of time. Stauffer is also interested in how we experience time, here focusing on how industrial capitalism has shaped it. But she goes beyond that to explain how this has affected our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Ambition is also a proverbial pretzel we twist ourselves into:
Ambition evades a single, all-encompassing definition and exists instead as a virtue and a vice, a compliment and an insult, a framework for stepping into your own power, and a way to question what power is at all. Ambition is stuffed with different meanings individually, different implications systemically, communally, and politically, and fluctuates between being a personal ideology, a motivational speech, and a death sentence, depending on who and where and when you are in time. Because the idea of ambition is so loaded—and has been, throughout history—there is no means to strive for it in one way without falling short in another.
She explains how ambition has become gendered and tinted by the lens of race and racism throughout our nation’s history. She writes about how power structures and family dynamics play into who is allowed to be ambitious and in which ways. For instance, Stauffer writes:
In the United States, there’s a deep history of care work—including parents who stay home with their children—being systematically devalued or not being considered labor at all.
That is undoubtedly true. But it was a Swedish writer, Katrine Marçal, writing about a Scottish economist and philosopher who laid the intellectual foundation for how modern capitalism has been constructed, who penned the following in a book whose title poses the question Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner:
Adam Smith only succeeded in answering half of the fundamental questions of economics. He didn’t get his dinner only because the tradesmen served their own self-interests through trade. Adam Smith got his dinner because his mother made sure it was on the table every evening.
Adam Smith was brilliant. He also remained a bachelor his entire life, and he lived with his mother for most of it. Smith coined the term “the invisible hand” that has become so widespread in economics, but it turns out the real invisible hand may have been the one that put the dinner on his table every night for his entire life: his mother’s, whose efforts and labor were uncounted in his equations and went uncompensated financially.
Which is to say: America may be patriarchal, but it didn’t invent the patriarchy—or industrial capitalism for that matter. What we did do was build the best marketing machine in history, at the apex of our economic power, to more closely tie the two together. At the dawn of the nuclear age, we sold the idea of the nuclear family. As Stauffer writes:
This nuclear family surged following World War II, with some research arguing that governments promoted the breadwinner-homemaker model as a means of pushing women back out of the workforce to create jobs for men returning from war.
Now held up as the model of what a family should be by those who yearn for an America that never really existed outside of postwar sitcoms that promoted it—which were themselves only vehicles to advertise products made in American factories—the idea of the nuclear family in a single family home is largely an invention of postwar era:
In fact, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, writing for the Prospect, the “male-breadwinner family is arguably the least traditional family form in all of world history.”
As Gabbi recently noted in her review of the book, historian Peggy O'Donnell Heffington’s Without Children makes a similar argument. And it is 100 percent true that, as Stauffer writes:
America has built an entire way of life, including work, school, caregiving, and basic societal function, around the unpaid or underpaid labor of parents.
It is equally true that there is a lot of societal pressure to have children. It is one more thing on the checklist of life we’re supposed to check off on our way to the American dream. And just as the work of caring for children has historically fallen on women, the structures of postwar America encouraged men to leave the house for work and women to work inside the home. In that way, professional ambition became an admirable trait in men while becoming stigmatized in women.
All the Gold Stars is a deeply personal journey through her own struggles with ambition and health, and losing both, but it is as much a dissection of the conception, history, and current incarnation of ambition in our society. It uncovers the individualistic and isolating nature of it, and the Sisyphean task that it inevitably becomes. “When I began writing,” writes Rainesford Stauffer, “I told myself if I could publish one piece, I’d be fulfilled. Joke’s on me!” We can be happy, to some extent, it is, because she has continued writing and blessed us with this new book. There is, of course, some irony in writing two books about topics like being ordinary and reimagining ambition. Publishing a book is not something an ordinary person lacking ambition does. But perhaps the answer is also in that irony because Stauffer, even as she has struggled with being so ambitious, has settled on a definition of ambition that transcends herself. Stauffer admits near the end of the book that she hasn’t taken extra time off or stopped working at night, but she has changed how work defines her, has ambitions outside of it, and is now able to say no to extra projects to make time for other priorities:
Saying no to another project meant saying yes to other parts of me, the nooks and crannies of my life that were cloaked in cobwebs because work was at the center of the room every time.
She writes elsewhere exactly how that has changed her goals:
My goal is to follow up with friends like I follow up with pitches.
We are conditioned to be independent, to be able to hold it all together ourselves while holding ourselves together. We worry we are burdening others, and about being a burden upon others. Stauffer relates what happened when she told someone they didn’t owe her anything:
“Actually,” a friend told me once, “I hope we owe each other a lot.”
Yes, in fact:
We owe each other everything that matters.
There are systemic solutions to the overwork our industrialized version of ambition has taken: things like unionization, different business models including co-ops, and mutual aid societies. There are individual solutions like turning notifications off after a certain hour of the day. But the thing it all requires is a shift in mindsets on both an individual and community level, a willingness to leave the industrial era in the past and understand that we, as individuals, are a part of a larger whole.
To care for one another, to make one another’s lives better, is the ultimate ambition, the heartbeat that creates the rhythm for everything else. When we believe it’s all up to us, it’s all on us, it becomes too easy to cut ourselves out of interdependence.
We need to have larger ambitions for our communities and country. There was a time in this country when we waged a war on poverty at the same time we were working to land human beings on the moon. In addition to those seemingly impossible efforts, we enacted significant civil rights laws that ended the apartheid of Jim Crow. A women’s liberation movement started in streets and homes across the country. A riot at Stonewall announced that our LGBT neighbors were coming out of the shadows they’d been pushed into, from which they’ve been proudly emerging ever since. And now we’re privatizing even our attempts to make it back to the moon, and beyond, in the hands of individual billionaires. Rather than calling on our collective imagination and ambition, these projects have become predicated upon the personal ambition of the obscenely wealthy. There may be a place for private companies in space, but there must also be a place for the other American dream to form a more perfect union, to expand civil rights and liberty here on Earth. The right to health care, including reproductive rights. The right to a living wage. The right to walk our streets, the right of our children to attend school, free from the fear of gun violence. There is a sickness and cruelty in our country. It is not the American dream, but a collective amnesia about what made us great in the first place—a democratic tradition that slowly but surely expanded the rights of the oppressed while declaring no one has the right to oppress others, a society of care for our most vulnerable and a land of opportunity for our most ambitious. We need to get back to work on that, to the pieces of our lives that connect us to each other, and to our ongoing experiment in collective self-governance. We don’t need to abandon our personal ambition to engage in that project; but we need to recommit to and rekindle ambitions greater than our own selves. We can reach for the literal stars without chasing proverbial gold stars.