Top image: Tey Liang Jin/RICE File Photo
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
Oh no, here we go again. Cue the dread.
Whether you’re interviewing for a job, or hanging out with friends or family in a supposedly chill setting, this is the one question that always rears its ugly head.
If not a 5 year plan, then something else along the same vein—“What’s next for you? What’s the next big thing?” Well, technically we’ve already been given the answer sheet to what the next big things ought to be—NFTs, crypto, investments, side hustles, marriage, career promotions, a house, children… the list goes on.
Chances are, if you’re surrounded by a bunch of late twenty and thirty-year-olds, these will be hot topics of conversation. There’s no escaping it. Truth is, I’ve always struggled to answer such questions. Not when the biggest ambition is to get through the present day in one piece first.
The Disillusionment of Dream
For so long, hustle culture promised us that hard work guarantees a good life. It’s a work philosophy I’ve seen translated in the endless slog of my parents, who both happen to be essential workers in the service line.
As children, we were told that the world is our oyster. But even at the age of five, I’d learn to pick a random occupation that sounded ambitious—doctor or scientist, just to please the adults.
Nothing much has changed in adulthood. Our job titles are still used as yardsticks to success, and it’s what we primarily use to introduce ourselves with. Think meticulously crafted LinkedIn profiles that scream achievement after achievement; bright-eyed graduates racking their brains to how best brand themselves amidst a competitive job market.
Unless you’re born with a silver spoon though, securing a job’s pretty much a need. Nay, even a job is never enough these days. You need to be more. Aim bigger! Revamp that resume! Get that promotion! One stream of income? You must be completely and utterly unhinged!
Point is, everyone seems to be dreaming big and progressing at lightning speed, yet I’m stuck here with zero ambition. To exist and do my personal best—that’s all the energy I can muster as of now. Evidently, in 2022, that’s not nearly enough.
Work Won’t Love You Back
With work conditions becoming increasingly stressful, it is no wonder trends like “I don’t dream of labour” emerged in January 2020, right before the peak of Covid. The original post by twitter user @thechrisfrench resonated with many — it has since garnered over 80k retweets and 300k likes in total.
Don’t be mistaken — the core of this trend is not about ditching work altogether. It’s not anti-work. Not everyone has the privilege to simply quit a paying job and do whatever they please. That just isn’t a viable option for the majority.
Rather, the trend calls for a change of mindset and the way our relationship with work ought to be. A deadline might have taken priority over personal events in the past, for instance, but at what cost?
If anything, this has sparked conversation worldwide. The trend continued to take off on Youtube, with several creators chiming in with their thoughts on career aspirations; including Singaporean content creator, @anattynook.
Nat’s video (by the powers of algorithm and the universe) popped up on my feed one day. It was refreshing, to say the least. Not just for myself but for many who clearly share similar sentiments, as seen in the comments section.
Curious, I reached out to Nat to learn more. At 25 this year, she’s still figuring out what works best for her in the professional sense. She graduated from university in 2020 — a “pandemic graduate”, as some would call it. Having worked in a corporate job once, she has since tried out different work arrangements, including being a part-time barista and teacher.
“I think my experience working at an office taught me more about work than the actual work itself. I found myself in a position where I was going through the motions, and thought there must be more to life than this,” she recounts.
“When I was working as a barista, there were also many people who told me I’m wasting my ‘talents’. As though that’s a talentless job, or as though it’s not respectable and difficult.”
Take away the glorification of perpetual busyness and it might cause discomfort, especially in a place like Singapore where the hustle is worn like a badge of honour. To see ambition defined by just one’s career is a narrow way of looking at life, yet it’s what most people subscribe to.
“Everyone’s talking about how they would like to progress and rise the ranks; how they’re going to move from a junior, to senior then, manager position. But no one’s talking about how they want to better themselves in other areas,” Nat adds.
“After giving it some thought though, I think it’s not that I lack ambition. I just don’t subscribe to the conventional framework of what success looks like in the eyes of most people.”
She tells me that the motivation for her video was inspired by one casual conversation with a friend. “To be honest, I was shocked by how many people actually felt the same way. We just don’t talk about it enough.”
“In an ideal world, there’s really no need to romanticise or glamorise a job. Career success does not equate to life success — a job is a necessity; something that we do to earn money. It’s one aspect of our life.”
“Neither should it be something that we use to judge or determine someone else’s worth.”
To not dream is ambition in itself
When caught up in the big chase, we tend to forget that there are people completely fulfilled from working at a job away from the knowledge economy.
*Dina, who’s 28 this year, was brought up single-handedly by her mother — a happy-go-lucky person who has been picking up multiple odd jobs across the years. The pair lived in a rented room for approximately 20 years, and only recently moved to their own flat after saving up.
“My mom never earned much, but it was enough to cover basic necessities for the both of us. From what I recall, we were always happy. Unlike many others, I was never pressured to study like mad just to enter certain fields.”
“I suppose that’s where I got my life and work philosophy from.”
Upon graduating from ITE, *Dina began working as a service staff in the F&B sector. Like any job, it comes with ups and downs. Long hours of cashiering along with the fun of preparing bakes. She then moved on to work as a receptionist in a small clinic — one that offers an average pay with little career growth. Still, she remains content.
In hopes of getting higher pay, some of her classmates went on to pursue their education in private institutes. *Dina, however, believed that wasn’t the route for her.
“Books have never been my thing. I knew it as a kid, and my mom understood it too. There were people asking me to further my studies, but I know myself — with no interest, that would be a waste of money altogether.”
Things like ambition, rising the ranks, or a “dream job”? She never once thought about them. “I see work as an avenue to earn and save, but really nothing more,” she stresses.
Unfortunately, people tend to make comparisons based on what they assume is best. On several occasions, they’ve made remarks on how she should do more and be more. It’s interesting to hear how others seem to be the ones uncomfortable, while she remains completely unbothered.
“I’ve learned to block out these judgements. Just because I’m not “ambitious” doesn’t mean I’m lazy or lagging behind. I don’t need a big house, for example. I don’t need to always travel the world too.”
“If I’m earning enough and happy, it’s my choice. Nobody can make the choice for me.”
Clearly, what it means to be ambitious in the present day is continuously evolving. Drive can be a good thing at times — it’s how we innovate; it’s how we evolve. It’s ambition that brought life to groundbreaking inventions like airplanes, after all.
The problem comes when we feel pressured to chase something for the sake of it. We’ve been primed to always aim for more. The narrative goes: Move fast, dream big, or lose out in the race. Sometimes though, less is more. At the end of the day, everyone should live the way they know best; in their own terms.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
*Pseudonym used to protect profile’s privacy.