Where Did Our Ambitions Go? Reflecting in the Middle of 2020

Image courtesy of Riccardo Chiarini on Unsplash

I’ve always had medium-sized dreams for my life. I wanted to be good at something and recognized for my skillsets; I wanted to achieve, be productive, and make an honest wage. I wanted to be a part of something (I just didn’t always know what). And in my 27 years on this Earth, I’ve been a part of many different job cultures — a liberal arts student, corporate professional, 1099 contractor for two New York insurance and fintech startups, freelancer, self-employed business owner, and now, unemployed for the past four months due to the Coronavirus.

I am aware of all the shortfalls of writing about the way the world feels right now: History is cyclical; this too shall pass; stay the course; there’s light at the end of the tunnel. But our current environment and this worldwide shift feel intense. Many of us have never lived through a period of time like this one. It is profound and it shows.

And now, in the present moment, in a time when the global pandemic has caused so much uncertainty about the future of so many industries, professional ambition begins to feel like misplaced energy, as helpful to achieving success as prolonged anxiety, stress, and fear is…not.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, bringing life as we knew it to a halt, more than 40+ million Americans have filed for unemployment, and many industries have been destroyed (restaurants, hotels, bars, entertainment, cruise lines, casinos, sports, etc.). I personally enjoy marketing and writing and right now I can’t imagine a world where I get to have a full-time job anytime soon. Just getting by the past few months has felt like an achievement. The pandemic derailed many ambitions, even my medium-sized ones this year. And, I know for a fact I’m not the only one feeling that.

There are worse problems; there always are. An enormous and centuries-long overdue reckoning is taking place regarding the flawed institutional structures that have oppressed so many people for so long. It’s hard to feel optimistic for these industries that for so long were perfectly content with the status quo.

Where does ambition go when jobs disappear and the things you’ve been striving for hardly exist anymore? And what if the things for which you’ve been striving no longer feel important because they’re the rewards of a corrupt capitalistic system that needs a 360-degree overhaul?

I still want to create and drive results and get paid for it — a necessary evil as long as we’re living in capitalism — but our opportunities seem to be narrowing, the world becoming a little smaller each time. The scope of our ambitions must be downsized, over and over again.

At 22 years old, when I started my career in financial services and insurance, the trajectory for my ambition seemed straightforward. I wanted to help people understand financial literacy and build wealth over time. The path at the time was clear but slightly clouded: If I worked hard and smart enough, I could advance in levels from associate to management as if I were playing a video game, jumping into the endzone.

I was enormously privileged to believe a direct path existed and that I could follow it if I chose to. I went to a great college, got good grades, graduated in four years, and was taught to believe that after a few years of eating dirt as an associate, success was due.

There was no way to learn about the industry without sitting in the middle of client meetings and observing, listening, taking notes — doing administrative work and watching more experienced folks make decisions, with the goal to become one of those decision-makers one day. But after five years starting out, I never made it far enough to reap the benefits of the grunt work. And, now here I am unemployed and still looking for new full-time opportunities.

It only took a few years of working in an office to realize the idea of meritocracy is a lie and the only thing hard work guarantees is more time working, not necessarily success. There were simply too many structural problems — ingrained racism, ageism, competition by stepping on others on the way up, and antiquated business models. There was too much inequality between workers and bosses, like when many industries grind to a halt in June, July, and August as managers are at their vacation homes or beaches and other workers worry about making enough money for their rent, groceries, and bills.

My dreams are, most importantly, still my dreams.

Meanwhile, the path had become long and meandering in the age of corporate consolidation. The corner office was just about gone, even modern offices didn’t even exist anymore as workers are primarily working remotely from their homes today. Still, I am positive there has to be another way.

After the economy collapsed in 2008 because of the global financial crisis, and now again in 2020 because of Sars-Cov 2 (COVID-19 and many other factors at play), we were told to get off the path entirely, to think outside the box but still inside the system. But what if the system is totally broken?

My ambition was no longer limited by traditional power structures. Don’t let yourself be defined by the role you have in someone else’s company — create a new role at your own company. Social media has allowed us to carve out our own identities online, and quickly we all became influencers of our own “brand.”

Now more than ever, it’s important to come from a place of service when attempting to monetize our brands. We started to hear the word “entrepreneur” all the time to describe what our aims should be, even those of us who just wanted to create, who cared very little about managing the business side of creating.

It was the post-recession age of startups when anyone with a compelling idea, an affinity for smooth design — and, last not but not least, unlimited access to VC capital — could start a business. It seemed as if the CEOs and Founders were not worried about the sustainability of these businesses. They assumed growth would continue year over year. It always worked, until it didn’t. Take Airbnb for example.

Ambition within these startups was two-pronged: The true believers thought not only could they make a shit load of money — they could change the world and solve problems. There was a moral element to startup capitalism as if the act of selling things in a brand-new way could inherently be good for humanity. The idea that doing good and making money could go hand in hand.

With all of this being said, I remain grateful each morning I wake up. I am not an essential worker, I don’t have children to worry about feeding, and I don’t yet have a mortgage or car payment to make. In reality, the situations at play could be worse. So, where does my ambition go now?

I’ve pivoted a handful of times now that it feels like I’ve been walking in circles. However, I recognize the abundance of opportunities today so here I am, again, reminding myself to be patient. I’ve watched as industries contracted and eroded for years now, but the pandemic has killed the possibility of the maybes, the shots in the dark at finding a position in which I can do both good and meaningful work. My personal ambition still sits deep in my stomach, but the path forward is less clear than ever before.

At the same time, my ambition for my community, the city of Philadelphia, and the wider world have gotten bigger and bigger. I don’t know exactly where I fit in it as a white person, but I do know that I want all individuals to be treated with dignity and respect — a small, humble ask that requires an unending amount of work still to be done.

I won’t tell you that I look around at the world today — with all the problems going on — and feel like I have all the answers. I don’t. I’m not perfect. I kept my emotions inside for so long because it seemed easier to numb myself than to embrace the why behind my feelings. So that’s something I’ve become aware of and have been actively working on for months now.

I want to become more active in organizing, I want to be a resource for those looking for guidance in their careers — at least while we’re living under capitalism — and I want to make enough money to be able to throw some of that money at the world’s problems.

My medium-size dreams for myself may be getting smaller, but my ambitions for the greater wide world have to continue to be large. It’s the only way to get through to the light.

My Very Best,

Donovan Vogel

Philadelphia based teaching financial literacy | Prospering all other hours | Writer | Lifter | Reader | Traveler | Freedom & Wellness