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How the pandemic impacted career ambition

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Before the pandemic, Janelle Aberle, 62, worked as a program manager at a major tech company in the Pacific Northwest. Her daughter, Kylie, 27, had landed a dream job in marketing at a woman-led HR services company in Seattle. Janelle and Kylie navigated COVID-19 lockdown together at their home in North Bend, Washington. But the experience impacted their views of work-life differently. One of them felt her career path validated while the other made a big change.

As part of the Ambition Diaries project in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Projectthe pair spoke with Fast Company about about their views on choosing a career, their hopes for one another, and how the pandemic shaped their definition of ambition and success.

The following conversation between mother and daughter has been edited for length and clarity. Click here for more Ambition Diaries stories.

‘I loved that it was my job to be the provider’

[Photo: Jovelle Tamayo for Fast Company]

Janelle: What did you think about my job growing up?

Kylie: I thought your job was really cool. I remember being in Kindergarten and we had to go around and say our dream jobs. I wanted to work at Microsoft or be a stay-at-home mom, because those were the two things that I saw you and mom doing. I just remember being super impressed by it.

Janelle: [It sounds like] you were proud of me. I’m really happy to hear that, because I was working all the time and that could have been difficult.

[Photo: Jovelle Tamayo for Fast Company]

Kylie: No, I was always bragging about you guys to my friends. It would always come up that I have two moms and everyone was jealous that I got to grow up with two moms.

Janelle: I loved being your mom and I loved that it was my job to be the provider and make a home for us and enable us to go on vacations and you to have an education. I was really proud to be able to do that.

‘Success is being discerning about where you put your energy’

[Photo: Jovelle Tamayo for Fast Company]

Kylie: When you were growing up, what were your goals for your adult self?

Janelle: I didn’t have high aspirations. There was a lot of challenge in the household. I had a brother who was mentally ill and my parents struggled. We also didn’t have a lot of resources, so it wasn’t even a thought that I would go to college. But I always knew that I had something in me that would enable me to do something meaningful. That I was supposed to be of service in some way. How do you think your understanding of what my life was like as a child has brought you forward?

Kylie: I don’t even know if you remember this. I was in middle school or high school. I had gone upstairs because I didn’t want to eat the family dinner. I just wanted to talk to my friends and I was on my computer doing homework and you Skype messaged to me. You were like, “Hey,” and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, what do you want?” And you were like, “How do you define success?” It was 8:00 pm on a Thursday and I was thinking, “Why are you asking me this?” Do you remember this conversation at all?

Janelle: yeah. Vaguely.

Kylie: I said, “Just doing your best.” And you were like, “No, it’s not.” I asked, “What do you mean?” I don’t remember your exact words, but you essentially said that to you, success was not doing your best in everything. Not putting a hundred percent of your energy and effort into every single thing you do. Because if you did that, you would get burned out and exhausted. It’s being discerning about where you put your energy. That stuck with me.

‘The pandemic made it urgent to stop all the chatter and just do it’

[Photo: Jovelle Tamayo for Fast Company]

Janelle: Has the definition of success or what you feel ambitious about shifted at all?

Kylie: When the pandemic hit, we were two days in and everyone is posting, “Wow, I’m really reconnecting with myself. I never realized what mattered the most to me.” And I’m like, “Really? You’ve never thought about that before?” It blew my mind that there were people in my circle that had never taken a breath and never apparently had their mother Skype them about their definition of success. It was interesting to see people come to terms with their definition of ambition [and that it] was needing that better job or needing that better paycheck. And I just didn’t really have to examine that. I’ve always chased after the feeling of happiness and contentment. So, for me the pandemic reaffirmed that I was on a healthy path. I’ve stayed at my same company throughout the pandemic, but I know that you have had some changes.

Janelle: I had already made the choice to leave my long tech career. I was in a program to become a yoga therapist. In order to stay sane in my work life, I was already a yoga teacher and a daily dedicated practitioner. I was worried about do we have enough in the retirement account? Can I really do this? But I think the pandemic made that real and made it urgent to stop all the chatter and just do it. I think one of the reasons that it was important to me that you know how to be discerning about how you spend your energy is because I did not learn that until I was much older than you are.

Kylie: I think I have already seen a change, but to see in the next year or two years, three years that you’re happy and not burnt out. It will be cool to see.

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