Losing My Ambition: A Conversation with Author Rainesford Stauffer

In her new book ‘All the Gold Stars,' Stauffer considers whether we ought to be channeling ambition into the smaller, quieter goals that actually move us.

For women, ambition has always been a dirty word. Consider Working Girl’s Tess McGill and the original Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest, who stomped through Manhattan with big hair and shoulder pads so sharp they could cut you like a knife—literally, in the latter’s case. Or the Millennial-pink perfectly accessorized She-E-Os of the girl boss era. Or pretty much anything having to do with Hillary Clinton.

Women must effortlessly ace every presentation, rock the no-makeup look that requires an hour to apply, breeze from work to happy hour to home with the change of a shoe—but the minute we show any effort we’re vilified for being “too ambitious.”

A woman sits on stairs.
Stauffer writes about rethinking ambition and work and her relationship to both. Photo: Hannah Kik

Author Rainesford Stauffer felt this so acutely that the classic symbol of perpetual striving for external validation shaped the title of her new book about rethinking ambition: All the Gold Stars.

“I spent an obscene amount of time throughout the course of reporting this book trying to verify whether or not I got a gold star,” she says. “I don’t remember getting one but I remember it being this thing that orbited around our ideas of what it meant to achieve and do a good job: this shiny thing at the top of the paper.” Given what I glean about her from our interview, aside from the fact that we would be fast friends if we met in real life, something tells me she definitely got a gold star.

This preoccupation with “juggling multiple jobs and trying to earn my way into self-worth via bylines, timelines and going it alone,” she writes, caused her to burn out and ‘lose’ her ambition.

Stauffer tells me that ambition was what let her buckle down during busy periods and push through, owing in no small part to her OCD, which she wrote about for The Cut. “The more I held myself together with work, the less time I had to crumble,” she writes in All the Gold Stars.

But eventually, ambition as a coping mechanism failed her. “I didn’t have a project I was really fired up to work on,” she says. “I didn’t have a sense of purpose beyond or within my work. It was really a disorienting loss of self.”

That led Stauffer to wonder what it said about her self-worth and who she was as a sister and a friend and a member of the community when the most valuable thing about her was something she could lose so easily.

“That question prompted me to go off and ask it to a bunch of people who are much smarter than I am, to try and figure out if ambition is something we can lose, can we bring it back, should we bring it back,” she tells me. “That’s what dovetailed into the reporting that would become this book.”

According to headlines, we’re in an age of anti-ambition. For many, especially caregivers, essential workers and the 19 million adults in the U.S. who suffer from long COVID symptoms, the pandemic hit pause our ambitions. And for those of us in what pop culture frames as dream industries—what work and culture writer Anne Helen Petersen, formerly of the shuttered Buzzfeed, calls “loveable jobs”—our livelihoods are growing increasingly precarious.

Chuckling, Stauffer says she thought she’d speak to a lot of people who felt similarly to her, but she quickly realized that “you can’t say, ‘I’m writing a book about ambition but I have none.’”

She is clearly ambitious enough to finish a book because here she is with a finished book. What she discovered in the process of writing it was that a lot more people than she anticipated shared the sentiment that they hadn’t lost their ambition so much as realized it no longer fit into the mold they thought it would.

‘All the Gold Stars’ explores ambitious, burnout and what lies in between. Courtesy Rainesford Stauffer

“I think about that all the time, especially when it comes to writing and media and people I know who have so much talent and so much ambition and so much drive and we turn around and another publication has closed or another round of fantastically talented people have been laid off,” she muses. “That’s not for lack of ambition; that’s structural failing that is, in turn, failing those people. So often we don’t talk about the in-between: it’s not that the ambition is gone, it’s that you don’t have a place to put it.”

Instead, Stauffer and her subjects offer ways we can rethink ambition, including in our relationships and our communities—like the person she spoke with about being in a community orchestra and turning down a job offer because the hours would interfere with it. We can be ambitious about caring for one another or ambitious about our hobbies.

For Stauffer, losing the classic in-pursuit-of-gold-stars ambition doesn’t look like doing less work. Indeed, when we speak it’s 7 p.m. and she’s already worked a full day in her job in communications in addition to promoting the book and freelancing for publications like Teen Vogue and Esquire. It’s about peppering in value adds, like phoning a friend or adopting a cat.

Sidenote: getting a cat is a goal she talks about throughout All the Gold Stars, so of course the ever-striving Stauffer would have not one but two cats by the time the book was released on June 6. While Fig Newton was a rescue, Harry was a stray who turned up on her parent’s doorstep one day.

“Some would argue I got too ambitious about cat adoption,” she laughs. “That’s not something that a lot of people would consider a goal, but I really think that getting a pet can be an ambition. And that ambition did choose me. It was not my timing; it was not my planning.”

The younger generation’s changing goals were the topic of Stauffer’s first book, An Ordinary Age, and it’s a theme she continues to explore in All the Gold Stars.

“Much of the do-it-all-by-thirty mentality… comes from the belief that one needs to achieve their ambitions before starting a family. (As if everyone can. As if everyone does. As if ‘family’ must mean parenting in all cases.),” she writes.

“We’re very attuned to seeing ambition come in certain packages, and achievement and accomplishment presenting itself in certain ways,” Stauffer tells me. “There are more wins sitting there than we realize, even if they look a little bit smaller or quieter.”

Crucially, the aforementioned value-adds don’t necessarily involve turning hobbies into work—something I can tell you is easier said than done. Culture critic who is always reading and watching TV and thus working, party of one?

“Passion doesn’t pay your bills, but passion and care and a deep level of investment should be enough to counteract the fact that we are underpaying you, that we’re abusing you, that you’re in a really toxic work environment and you have no resources,” Stauffer says mockingly of the creep of self-help and wellness language into even the most menial of jobs.

“I get so fired up about the language of this!” she continues. “By design, it’s all created to make overwork and exploitation sound really aspirational. It sounds like something we’re opting into and says something good about us.” All of which harkens back to the concept of gold stars and ambition as a whole.

So basically, it was capitalism all along? Pretty much, Stauffer confirms.

“Because capitalism connects so much of our worth to our output, ambition gets into so much of who is worthy and who is not,” she explains, suggesting we refocus on. “ambition that’s less about achieving a certain output and one that’s more about an ongoing investment [in community and ourselves].”

Losing My Ambition: A Conversation with Author Rainesford Stauffer