A reponse to the question “Does the desire to be great keep you up at night?”

The other day I wrote a post asking the question “Does the desire to be great keep you up at night?”, which was inspired in part by my own thoughts and worries but also out of interest for whether anyone else felt the same or differently, and how such thoughts could be combated or overcome.

As it turns out, many people feel similarly but usually they have some pretty robust rationalizations that protect them from feeling despair. For example, on twitter, there was a discussion around finding meaning and value in what you do, whatever it is. The idea being that this angst I spoke of is not necessarily part of the package and can be reduced or abolished via acceptance.

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A few people picked up on the fact that I used the word “fame” and felt that this meant that I was searching for some kind of public recognition when in actual fact I was just using it as an example of what society places importance in and therefore one of the signifiers of when someone has “made it” in their respective field.

But this week I came into contact with new material that made me re-think my whole question and this time conceptualize it through the lens of gender and feminism. Is it possible that these feelings are uniquely female and do they have something to do with the challenges and pressures women feel in our modern times?

One of my favourite authors and public figures, Elizabeth Gilbert, recently wrote this article on Huffington Post. She says:

“…all the women I know are stressing themselves sick over the pathological fear that they simply aren’t doing enough with their lives.”

“…there’s a good historical reason for all this overwhelming confusion. We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.”

What I love about what she says, which really resonates with me, is the idea that women are feeling this way because historically we’ve only been allowed to have so many options and take on so many roles in the last century. A hundred years – that sounds like a lot, right? Well in actual fact it’s not.

My grandmother was born in the 30s and she was very much one of those classic 50s housewives who was never expected to have a career. Her entire worth was based on her success at baking cakes and wearing the latest fashions (think Betty from Mad Men). My mother, born in the 50s, a classic baby boomer, was a 60s flower child and was liberated from mainstream conventionalism to express herself in whichever way she chose, be it as a kept woman or an academic; yet she chose the conventional female profession of teaching, earning less than all the male teachers in her faculty but happy to be independent and autonomous nonetheless.


I am thus only the second generation of females in my family to have the freedom to decide on a career. I chose to work in the medical profession, a place that has traditionally been exclusively set aside for males. And what’s more is women have entered the workplace at a time in history when the notion of career and of finding oneself and finding one’s life purpose is conflated and used interchangeably. Imagine the 50s industrialist being asked whether his career had great meaning for him or imagine the great scientists of the previous century being judged on their public image, their dress sense or their ability to hold down a job while also taking care of their children and home?

And so perhaps this answer asks more questions but that is okay. Is it one’s gender that dictates that one should feel restless and unsettled in a career choice or in life in general? Does our sense of incompleteness, or uncertainty, of not having done enough or not being enough come about as a direct result of society’s expectations of women? Should we be looking at our male counterparts and asking them these questions and investigating if they have such angst as well? Is it a myth that women are running around without a map, or is all of humanity equally lost?

An anecdotal response to some of these questions comes from a discussion with a female friend I met the other night. She is a high powered marketing exec for a huge e-commerce site. When I asked her about this “desire to be great” phenomenon and its corresponding self doubt, she replied:

“Well I think there are some people, some very successful people who do not feel this way at all. Perhaps this is why they are leaders in their field, why they are seen to be head and shoulders above their competition? They don’t let any thoughts of doubt through and they don’t spend a second questioning their intentions or the consequences of their actions. They just do what they want to do when they want to do it and they don’t care about anything else. Come to think of it, all of the people that I know like this are male. I wonder if this has something to do with their gender?”

My response to her was, “Maybe what they all have in common is they’re all narcissists”.

Share your thoughts #onthecouchwithcarly

Showing 386 comments
  • clarenceclarabella

    Last week I was in Boston visiting a friend of my fiancé’s, who works at MIT. He is incredibly smart and self motivated. He showed us around and demonstrated how the autonomous car he is designing works… He, like myself, is an architect and part of his research and work into city design and future city planning, left me feeling like ‘what the hell am I doing with my life!?’.
    Anyway, as we were walking to the car later that even and we were thanking and praising him for showing us his incredible work, he sighed and said, ‘Thanks guys, but sometimes I wonder what I am doing with my life!? How is this going to make a difference to Africa?’

    Sometimes – I know in my case, and clearly this friend’s – the desire to be great is more about the desire to be great at helping than to be famous… And I think if that drove more people, that would be great!

  • Carly

    Thanks for your contribution! It’s always such a relief to me when I hear about successful, ambitious people feeling similarly because it makes me realize that the problem is actually about how we compare ourselves to others. I think I saw something recently that Elizabeth Gilbert posted that says something like “comparison is the murderer of happiness” or something like that. I just think we need to stop that. But you’re right, if you’re gonna beat yourself up at least let it be because your intentions are about helping others. I think that probably because my job is all about helping others, I don’t really set that as my intention consciously as much, it kind of is a given. But my angst is mostly about living a passionate, creative life and living each day to the fullest. I’m sure you can relate, when you were writing your thesis, and you just felt like the world was carrying on around you and you were trapped in something un stimulating or without passion? I sometimes just feel that way about staying in on a Friday night or when I binge watch series. I feel like I need to be more, do more. And then laziness takes over and I end up just sitting around moping or sometimes I go out for some exercise and that usually helps. It’s nice to be reminded that others also struggle with this stuff. Simply just talking about it helps. It’s the worst if you’re isolated and feeling this way cause then you can make yourself crazy. Anyway, have an amazing weekend! Take care 🙂

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