My Career Has Barely Started & I Already Have Ambition Burnout

Illustrated by Wendy Wong

"I am about to turn 25 in six weeks and I feel like I will never be a success. I am thinking about transitioning [my career] to something boring and soul-destroying."

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Sarah* is a 24-year-old who until recently was doing a PhD at a high profile university, alongside some freelance writing and "advertising bits". She had long-term ambitions to be an editor, get a PhD, write a book and eventually become an academic. "I've wanted to be an academic since I was 18, wanted to write a book since way before then and wanted to make headway as a writer for the past few years," she tells R29.

Before 2020, Sarah had been making progress towards achieving her goals but the pandemic collided headlong with her drive. She discovered there was a distinct lack of support from her university for students reckoning with their mental health and for low-income students who need to work to afford their fees – both of which affected Sarah significantly. Together, her mental health and her struggle to support herself during the pandemic forced Sarah into a situation where she had to take interrupted study and is about to officially drop out.

"I was made to have a personal sit-down with the head of my department where I was told I was as likely to become an academic as I was to become a prima ballerina," she tells R29. "Given that I managed to get a distinction in my master's from Oxford while working full-time and paying for everything myself, and had no problems getting a high first class honours at undergrad, I thought that was unnecessary. I felt babied and out of place in the university (maybe because I’m queer, femme, mentally ill etc.) but being talked down to by the staff at the university was too much!"

Like many other young people, the fallout of 2020 has had a huge impact on Sarah’s opportunity and ability to work at all, let alone in her chosen field. Her ambition to be an academic or an editor has burned out, leaving her feeling like she’s entered "some kind of quarter-life crisis".

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The impact of the pandemic on workers and working conditions has been huge, especially for those early in their career. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), people younger than 25 made up 58.5% of the decrease in payrolled employees from February 2020 to January 2021. Separate data from the ONS shows that redundancies have increased faster during the pandemic than during the 2008/2009 economic crisis, with research from the Resolution Foundation showing that young people and those from ethnic minorities were more likely to be made redundant after furlough.

The ONS also reports an increase in the overall unemployment rate between October and December 2020, with the average for graduates the highest at 6.3%. It reached a high of 12% between July and September. 

While those lucky enough to have jobs in roles they enjoy are not immune to burnout or questioning their work, those on the outside looking in at their dream career or just starting on the path to said career can feel their ambition hitting a brick wall. The circumstances of working and surviving in the pandemic have slowed or entirely derailed people from that path, making the barriers to entering many industries all the more apparent.

Working and surviving in the pandemic has slowed or entirely derailed people from the path to their ambition, making the barriers to entering many industries all the more apparent.

Suzanne Guest is a registered occupational psychologist who specialises in helping people get back into meaningful work. She says there are several ways that the pandemic has affected people who are trying to break into industries.

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"A lot of companies have struggled financially and had to go into crisis mode and furlough people," she points out. "So people have not had the same opportunities and companies have been reluctant to hire because they don't know if there's going to be another lockdown." Suzanne also specifies how this has had a serious knock-on effect on voluntary opportunities with charities, which can be key to getting a foothold in particular industries. "If you want a career in law for example, places like the Citizens Advice Bureau often offer voluntary work for people that would be relevant. But a lot of the charities have had to batten down the hatches and they've not been taking on new volunteers, partly because they've lost funding and because they can't do face-to-face contact." Training, too, has been impacted, with vital experience in careers like counselling hampered by the struggle to learn about body language through the medium of Zoom.

While voluntary opportunities, entry level internships and training have all been impacted, it’s important to remember that even before the pandemic, they were stepping stones that were not available to everyone. The pandemic has only exacerbated how much competition there is for opportunities, and how entry into many fields is not determined primarily by skill but whether you can afford to study full-time for a PhD like Sarah, or take on voluntary opportunities. Ambition is hard to sustain when the available options aren’t financially viable and paid opportunities are scarce. It puts people like Sarah in the position where they are forced to choose between ambition and paying rent.

The psychological impact of the pandemic weighs heavy too, as the amorphous force of ambition – the determination to reach the targets we set ourselves – has been tapped by the anxieties and stresses we are surrounded by.

Anna Codrea-Rado identifies this inability to strive to reach goals or ambitions as goal fatigue – where the ongoing pressures of living through this period in history rub up against one another, making it feel impossible or even futile to sit down and put in the work. The pandemic's knock-on effect on mental health will only add to this: younger people and women who are more likely to have lost work or had their career derailed are also the most likely to experience depression, according to the ONS. The will to keep going in these conditions is hard to sustain.

In the face of these challenges, is there anything that can be done to counter ambition burnout?

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On a wider social level, a lot needs to change. There needs to be better financial support in academia and in training, as well as mental health support both in academia and in the world of work. Big companies need to be shamed for exploiting people by making them work for free in internships with no view to a role at the end, and voluntary positions where both parties gain from the experience should be more widely available.

More generally, ambition burnout points to an existential issue where our work and our careers are tied inextricably to our self-worth. As Sarah tells R29: "People need to be encouraged to not tie up all their self-worth in their job. Ideas of success shouldn’t be underpinned by a counterpoint of 'failure' – there needs to be less of a shame-driven culture when it comes to those who don’t excel at work and there needs to be more of an emphasis placed on valuing aspects of your life out of work." Understanding that this burnout is influenced by a wealth of factors – and that the fatigue at the heart of it is a legitimate phenomenon – can help alleviate the sense of failure and futility. This gives room for individuals to make choices that focus on their mental health in that moment and find ways to stay happy.

Unpacking the role that careers currently play in our psyche can lead to a re-evaluation of what we really want from the dream jobs that lie at the end of our ambition. Doing so can help us make choices that centre happiness and contentment without sacrificing work satisfaction.

There are a few practical steps you can take, too. If you are facing ambition burnout but want to pursue your goal, Suzanne is a big believer in planning a step-by-step route. "If you can volunteer and get skills, that's always going to be helpful. If you're volunteering somewhere, the chances are those people will know other people so you can potentially try and get in front of the right people. I do think LinkedIn is a really good resource too. So keeping your LinkedIn profile properly up to date, so that you put in all your experience and your voluntary experience, and also looking at who's in the work area that you want to be in and seeing if you can connect with those type of people."

And if you are ready to broaden beyond your initial dream, Suzanne advises looking closely at what you hoped to gain from the career you had chosen originally and seeing if you can apply it to other areas. If you wanted to pursue law, for example, because you enjoy face-to-face work and want to help people, look into other professions where you could get that same sense of reward.

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The pandemic has and will continue to cause us to reconsider everything we thought we knew about the world, particularly around work. Many of the past year's ramifications are inescapably unfair and place a particular burden on young people who have been hit the hardest. But if there is one positive, it’s that many people have had the opportunity to explore what is really important to them in life beyond specific goals, and to reframe their ambition to focus on something other than job titles or particular roles. Mental wellbeing and quality of life in the moment are equally as important as steps along a career path.

*Names have been changed

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