How to be ambitious (without being a bitch)
It’s International Women’s Day on Sunday so we had a chat with one of our favourite women – author and comedian Viv Groskop (who grew up in Bruton, Somerset) – about redefining female ambition for 2020. Need a life reboot? Viv can help with that.
Viv Groskop – author, comedian, journalist, executive coach and all-round good egg (and Bruton School for Girls, old girl) – is passionate about encouraging all women to reach their full potential.
Her engaging, thoughtful new book, Lift As You Climb, is out this week (just in time for International Women’s Day) and it’s a fresh look at female ambition and what it means in 2020. (Spoiler: it doesn’t involve ‘80s skirt-suits with giant shoulder pads any more. And it doesn’t solely apply to your career path either.) The book is crammed with smart, practical advice so we nabbed Viv for a chat to get the lowdown straight from the horse’s mouth.
What does lifting as you climb involve?
Women often find it uncomfortable to talk their ambition. But I define ambition as getting what you want. And that ambition could be anything: being able to work three days a week, starting your own company, raising children by yourself. However, women often feel like they’re talking about something that’s inherently selfish – we’re pre-conditioned to think of ambition as individualistic and something achieved at the expense of others. So we can feel more comfortable about it as a concept by treating it as an act of generosity – as you climb up, you lift others up with you. Mentoring more junior people in your industry, for example.
Where did the idea come from?
I’ve had so many conversations with women over the last few years who’ve come to my speaking events, listened to my podcasts or written to me when I was agony aunt on digital platform The Pool. A huge proportion of the questions they’ve asked me have a very loose idea of ambition at the heart of them. A lot of the time women don’t give themselves permission to live the kind of life they want to lead. We need to admit what we want from life. Lots of the younger women I speak to define success as having good work/life balance. And many of the older women say they’ve wasted time worrying about things – there’s lots of guilt and perfectionism. I wanted the book to be a blueprint for women who don’t want to feel constrained or limited by anything, including their own thoughts.
What about that stereotype of ball-busting businesswomen in giant shoulder pads?
I wanted to reclaim the concept from the ‘80s and redefine it. Some of our ideas around ambition are rooted in those ‘80s images of Alexis Colby or Gordon Gekko. And that’s such a superficial definition, which certainly hasn’t informed anything that I’ve achieved in my life or brought me happiness.
How ambitious are you personally?
My ambition is connected to freedom – freedom to have choices and creativity, to work more or less if when I want to. Being responsible for my own destiny, time and money matter most to me. That’s why I’ve been self-employed for 20 years.
OK, so onto practical advice. There’s a chapter in the book called “how to promote yourself (without making everyone want to punch you in the face)”. Enlighten us, please.
Lots of women find promoting themselves or their business on social media a massive cringe. But if you want to engage more, if you think it’ll be good for your business or your social circle, you can look at it as a way to lift up other women. Shout about local businesses run by people you admire. Or tell people what about the debut novel you’ve just read. Your posts don’t have to all be about you and people hugely value recommendations and the passing on of knowledge. If you’re worried about how you’re coming across online, appoint a social media monitor. Basically that’s someone close to you who will look at your posts and tell you if you’re being an arse. Mine is my sister.
Any advice on another big female bugbear – networking?
Networking is a word that no one likes. But all it means it talking to people. We should be wary of investing too much anxiety into interactions that simply involve chatting with other people. Try to take the transaction out of the interaction – don’t think, I must get something from this person, I must get them to help my business. Be relaxed, put the focus on them – what would they like to talk about?
What’s the first thing you do if you walk into a gathering and don’t know anyone?
I look for other people in the room who are in the same position – people aren’t included in a group. I ask them why they came along or how their day is going, and go from there.
What are your thoughts on mentoring?
I have mixed feelings. Lots of younger people imagine that their mentor will be like a fairy godmother, who’ll show them the ladder up to the C-suite. And that creates a lot of discomfort on both sides. What’s best is to find people who inspire you and befriend them as an unofficial mentor. That way you don’t have an awkward conversation where you have to say, “Um, please will you be my mentor?” Successful, busy people often don’t have a lot of time to officially mentor so it’s better that way. Think of your mentor as an inspirational acquaintance.
What’s your ambition for the book?
To help women realise that it’s OK to define ambition for yourselves and understand that everyone has their own unique definition. Being ambitious doesn’t mean losing your sense of self and you can take other people up with you.
Lift As You Climb by Viv Groskop is out now