5 Things Powerful Women Can Teach Us About Ambition

Advice from an ambassador, a senator, a journalist, and more.

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Photo by Getty Images for TIME and Real Simple

Last year, Real Simple partnered with TIME to conduct a national survey about how women view success, and found almost 80 percent of women thought confidence was critical to achieving success, despite not feeling confident themselves. This year, we've conducted a poll to understand the relationship between women and ambition. In a survey of more than 1,000 women and men, we found that 60 percent of women feel they are more ambitious than their mothers, while only 38 percent of women actually describe themselves as "very" or "extremely" ambitious—compared to 51 percent of men who are quick to characterize themselves in those terms. Our poll also found that people associate ambitious women with being confident, driven, and smart, while they see ambitious men as being driven, confident, and self-important. 

With this knowledge, we hosted a panel with five incredibly successful women to discuss what the word ambition means to them. Panelists included Ambassador Samantha Power, Senator Claire McCaskill, Today Show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson, and Dina Powell, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation and founder of the initiative 10,000 Women. Below, we’ve collected some of their advice and wisdom.

1. Fear is a good thing.
 While Savannah Guthrie is hesitant to call herself "ambitious," because she, too, struggles with the word, she admits to being ambitious in her quest to "not fail." What keeps her from failing is her fear of failure—which she said has propelled her forward through both law school and her career on television. 



2. Don't apologize. 
Author Margo Jefferson, who teaches at Columbia University, said she still sees smart, female students who begin a question with, "Sorry, I know this is a stupid question, but..." As Jefferson explains, ambition is "a form of training." Young women should learn to take ownership of their knowledge and their drive, and know that sometimes, asking questions is part of getting ahead.



3. Be prepared.
 "[O]ne of the best ways to compete with men," says Dina Powell, is to come to the table with all the facts. Powell argued that confidence often stems from preparedness so it’s important to walk into any situation—especially a room filled with male colleagues—feeling like you really know your material.



4. Concern yourself with the work, not the title. 
"Ambition tends to connote 'titular advance,'" said Ambassador Power. But when young people tell her they too want to be ambassador, her response is to ask what they want to do, not the title they want to have. When following your ambitions, and figuring out your career path, Power had one key piece of advice: "Do what you love for reasons that are true to who you are."

5. Own your ambition. 
"It needs to be ladylike to own ambition," said Senator McCaskill, who confidently asserted that she was incredibly ambitious. “Can you imagine a panel of men with the same level of accomplishments struggling over owning that word?”



For the full results of our poll, check out the October issue of Real Simple.