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When Ambition Goes Too Far

Haley Paskalides  |  June 12, 2024

Jennifer Romolini thought that reaching the top would fulfill her. Instead, she lost her voice, her job, and everything fell apart.

Ambition…let’s talk about it. We’ve been told it’s not a dirty word, that it’s not only okay, it’s actually ideal for women to be ambitious. We’ve been told we should strive for C-suite positions, the corner office, and to continue reaching for higher and higher paying roles. For many women, these messages work — but reaching the top isn’t fulfilling. This is exactly what Jennifer Romolini found. 

In Jennifer Romolini’s new book Ambition Monster, she chronicles how being overly ambitious made her so burnt out that she ended up literally losing her voice and her job.

According to McKinsey’s 2023 “Women in the Workplace” report, women’s representation in the C-suite is the highest it’s ever been, but women are also leaving these positions at alarming rates — and at a notably higher rate than men at the same level. As a result, there are simply fewer women in line for top positions. 

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In 2017, Jennifer Romolini was on tour after writing a successful book. She was Chief Content Officer at a large media company, landed profiles in Cosmo and Elle, and was being asked to give speeches across the country. She thought she had everything she ever wanted.

“So I’m standing on a stage giving a keynote speech and my voice just goes. It’s mid-word, and I can feel that I can’t get the air to make sound,” Romolini says. “I had really burned out my vocal cords so much, and I had to go on complete voice rest for two weeks or I would risk not being able to talk again. I had to sit back and observe. It changed my whole life because I just saw the game in a way I hadn’t seen it before as an outsider, and I knew that I was done.”

LISTEN: How To Avoid Burnout

Romolini says that moment was a real wake-up call, and she started setting firm boundaries so she could spend more time with her husband and her family, including not working after 3 p.m. so she could pick her daughter up from school. “Then I started getting the kind of work I wanted, and I started seeking it out,” Romolini says. “I had to accept that I was climbing back down a ladder, but I was lit up by the work. My ambition felt energetic and alive in a way that had not felt when I was pushing paper and putting out corporate fires.”

So what’s causing women to reach these top positions and then become miserable and burned out? Jennifer Romolini says that perhaps it’s time for a new definition of ambition, one that gives us more flexibility to be in management roles, but also be able to work remotely and on our own time when we need to.

“Those choices are available to all of us. We just think they’re not,” Romolini says. “Changing, transforming your life, and finding things that light you up. It’s all there for you. We’re just so afraid that it won’t work out and it usually always does.”

In Mailbag, we hear from a listener who’s weighing the pros and cons of paying off a credit card every fourteen days to build credit. We also hear from a couple who is wondering the next best step after maxing out a high-yield savings account while saving up for a house. 

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