Americans are in the era of quiet ambition: No longer ‘chasing achievement for achievements’ sake’

When faced with constant illness, death, and an increasingly difficult to achieve standard of living, it's not surprising that many people's views on the world and their place in it have changed.
Illustration by Anna Parini

More than three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., Jessica Kim’s life looks very different than it used to.

Kim is a mother of three and founder of Ianacare, a caregiving platform; she also looks after her aging father. She is working hard, all of the time. 

But the tenor of her hard work has changed since 2020. Before, grinding well into the night and defining herself by her job title and what she produced was her norm. Now she is no longer interested in hitting one career milestone after the next, of “always going up and to the right.” 

She still “wants to go after something,” to be passionate. But that something no longer has to be her career. Watching her mother die and bearing witness to the death and sickness of the last three years drove home how important it was for her to change her priorities.

“My ambition now is I want to live a meaningful life, versus I want to achieve the highest level of success in X,Y,Z, things,” says Kim. “I want to rest. I want to take care of myself. I want to drop everything and show up for my friend.”

Jessica Kim has reassessed her priorities and ambitions over the past three years.
Courtesy of Jessica Kim

Since launching our series on ambition, dozens of people have reached out to tell their stories. Yes, they tell Fortune, they’re still working hard, still have ambitions. But after living through a worldwide pandemic, enduring social and political unrest, and facing rampant inflation, job losses, and a possible recession, they’ve reassessed what’s actually important to them. Though headlines call for a “return to normal,” there’s no returning to their old selves.

Working hard solely for the sake of a company’s bottom line doesn’t appeal to them. But working toward a long-held dream or for personal fulfillment does. When faced with constant illness, death, and an increasingly difficult to achieve standard of living, it’s not surprising that many people’s views on the world and their place in it changed.

As a result, some are leaning out of the grind and into what Austin Kleon calls quiet ambition. “I don’t know what quiet quitting is, but I like the idea of quiet ambition,” the author and artist tells Fortune. “I’m not so good at the grind anymore. What I would say I’m really good at is sticking around and sticking with things that I’ve set up in my own creative career.”

It’s just one of the many ways some Americans have been reimagining their relationship to labor since the pandemic began. Some people find themselves prioritizing their families, personal health, and free time over spending a few more hours logged on at work for appearances’ sake. And others are still trying to strike the right balance, living soft lives while figuring out what their quiet ambition looks like.

‘I’m not just a headcount’

For Kleon, quiet ambition takes the form of showing up in his studio day after day and creating art—”it’s not back-breaking labor, it’s not a herculean task,” he says. For Kim, whose faith also plays a big role in her life, quiet ambition is ensuring that love is at the center of every decision she makes. And for Cristina Goyanes, it’s looking past “chasing achievement for achievements’ sake.”

In 2020, Goyanes was able to catch her breath for the first time in over a decade. Previously a freelance reporter and editor, she used the “pause” as an opportunity to go after her longtime dream of entrepreneurship.

The 42-year-old cofounded Revel Digital Collective, a brand editorial agency, with two other women, and the decision has been life-changing. Her focus is now on nurturing long-term relationships and contracts, not necessarily working at the breakneck pace inherent to media, her old industry.

At the same time, pursuing her dream is also allowing her ambition to flourish as she steps into the new role of leader of a successful company. She’s finding that grinding is not synonymous with success.

“I did the work. Now, I’m not going to stop doing the work, but I can do it at not the same intensity,” she says. “The drive is still there, [but] it’s a little quieter than before.”

When her father was diagnosed with cancer in 2022, Goyanes found herself in a caretaker role and was thankful she had the flexibility to attend his doctor appointments and chemo treatments without being punished professionally. Before, she might have been more worried about meeting deadlines; now, she could put her father first.

For Goyanes, the changes she made in the past few years are the beginning of a new chapter in her life. She’s excited to write the story day by day. In a culture that values the constant grind, striking it rich when you’re young, and short-term results over long-term success, quiet ambition can be quietly revolutionary.

“The pandemic allowed us to be seen as humans,” she says. “Before the pandemic, it was clear that we were just a headcount. Now that’s changed. I’m not just a headcount, I’m a human, I’m a whole person.”

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