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March 14, 2010 Posted by | A Day in the Life, Academic Musings, Ambition, Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to True Love, Relationship Tips, Self-Help, Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Erica Jong, Naomi Wolf & Christine Whelan

Tonight at the Iowa Women’s Conference, I sat beside Naomi Wolf and Erica Jong to sign books… what a thrill! In fact, Naomi Wolf bought a copy of Marry Smart and says she looks forward to reading it.

April 16, 2009 Posted by | A Day in the Life, Academic Musings, Ambition, Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to True Love, Relationship Tips, Self-Help | Leave a comment

Naomi Wolf, Erica Jong … and Christine Whelan?

Next Friday, April 17, I’ll be speaking at the Iowa Women’s Conference from 8:30-9:20. Other conference speakers include Marian Wright Edelman, Ann Bancroft, Naomi Wolf and Erica Jong.


The title of my talk is: Success is Sexy: Shattering Myths About Women, Power & Love

And a few of my key takeaway points include:

Myth: Men are intimidated by smart, successful women
Reality: 3/4 of men said a woman’s career or educational success makes her more desirable as a wife, according to a nationally representative 2006 Harris Interactive survey

Myth: Working women aren’t good mothers
Reality: Mothers are role models for their daughters and sons: Men whose mothers worked outside the home were much more likely to seek out a similarly smart, successful woman as a wife themselves

Myth: Powerful women aren’t attractive to men
Reality: Being the boss is sexy:  High-status and powerful women were consistently rated as more attractive, according to a 2005 national survey.

But perhaps the most exciting (or hilarious) part of this event is that on Thursday April 16 at 5:15 p.m. I’ll be at the Coralville Marriott doing a joint book signing with Erica Jong and Naomi Wolf.

Which one of these is not like the other? 😉

April 7, 2009 Posted by | Ambition, Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to True Love, Relationship Tips, Self-Help | Leave a comment

Can Ambition be a Catholic Virtue?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, ambition isn’t a mortal sin… but it gets pretty close. Ambition seems to be defined (among Catholics) as inordinate seeking of recognition or honor. But that’s a narrow definition. “Ambition is morally good when the recognition sought is not selfish and the means used are not evil. It becomes sinful when motivated by pride or pursued without concern for justice or charity,” according to the Catholic Dictionary.

Fine. I just think we hear too much about bad ambition and not enough about good ambitions. Ambition gets an unfairly bad rap — and today I’ve got a column up about the virtue of ambition. Thoughts?

March 23, 2009 Posted by | Ambition | Leave a comment

Ambition: It’s What We Need to Get Us Out of This Mess

According to a recent survey from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, 71 percent of respondents said personal ambition was a more important determinant of success than external conditions. The economy is in the tank–yet the average American remains ambitious and optimistic. That’s great news.

Every day, it seems, I get another email from a friend of family member who has gotten laid off. It’s devastating to families. And once the initial shock wears off, it’s interesting to see how people react.

My uncle, who was laid off from Merck in the fall, has been inspiring in this regard. He’s got a great sense of humor, he’s optimistic and he’s been working toward getting a new job with the kind of grit that should impress any employer. Plus, he’s devoted to his family–not just devoted to financially providing for them, but to being emotionally present.

As I begin to research a book on ambition — why some people have more of it than others, what kinds of societies and economies best foster ambition — I’m struck by how narrowly and negatively we view it. And to get us out of our financial hole, I believe this has to change.

Ambition is when you want it—bad. It’s going after your dreams. It’s single-mindedly pursuing a goal, the opposite of apathy. Right? Well, yes… but that’s not quite a complete definition.

Would you say someone who wanted to relax and get a lot of sleep was ambitious? Probably not, although that is a goal that you could single-mindedly pursue. Nor would you probably consider it ambitious to spend the summer going after your dream of a tan-line-free golden glow. Our modern definition of ambition is more complex than just going after a goal—it has to be a particular goal that we as a culture deem to be worthy of such efforts.

So working on your tan is an easy example to dismiss as not a “real ambition.” But then it gets a little more complicated: For a Buddhist monk meditating in an ashram, the goal might be to have an empty and calm mind. Is that an ambition? He will spend years trying to achieve it, but won’t have much to actually show at the end. What about the stay-at-home mother who wants to homeschool all her children? She’ll work really hard, but she won’t get paid or promoted. Or what about the guy who was laid off from his job–and has rethought his priorities to include not only getting a job, but making more time for family and friends?

As a society, we tend to define ambition as the quest for individual accomplishment and material prosperity, which means we have a pretty narrow definition of what goals “count” under the term ambitious.

There are dozens of ways that people express their desires to work hard for a particular goal – and not all of them mean earning lots of money or attaining worldly success. Ambition is terrific in many different kinds of forms: I salute the business executive who wants to triple revenues, and I’m in awe of the mother who wants to homeschool five kids. To me, both are ambitious. Ambition is a virtue when it’s used to create – and that creation can be more prosperity, more opportunities, more educated children, you name it.

Maybe it’s because of the narrow focus of our definition of ambition – or maybe it’s because we’ve begun to equate ambition with corrupt business executives and the financial crisis – but ambition has been getting a bad rap. Our cultural message is yes, we should have energy, yes, we should be successful, but ambitious? That sounds like you might be trying too hard or hustling too much.

Ambition gets conflated with aggressiveness – the type of person who has no use for social niceties — or greed and selfishness. In novels, it’s the ambitious character that gets taught a hard lesson. In movies, ambition is equated with greed and corruption. Ambition has become a dirty word, and yet it’s the cornerstone of so much of American progress.

And it’s by individual ambition — not billions more in government bailouts — that we will bail ourselves out of financial trouble. Ambition to find a new and better job than the one you’ve lost. Ambition to be more involved in your kid’s life while you’re job-searching from home. Ambition to make your marriage last despite the financial pressures.

According to the Pew survey, 72 percent of Americans said they believed they will personally be better off 10 years from now. Let’s keep this attitude up: Yes, reckless ambition and bad judgement may have gotten us into this mess — but it’s individual ambition and grit, broadly defined, that’s going to get us out of it.

March 20, 2009 Posted by | Academic Musings, Ambition | Leave a comment