Is social media actually killing your ambition?

Constantly looking at the success of others on social media - hello #sidehustles #excitingnews - may seriously affect your own ability to succeed and Marisa Bate knows exactly how that feels…

I am the very worst sort of Instagram user. I don’t have an account, I lurk. And against the good advice of literally everyone, I search for the same five or six names and study their every move. And yes, I’m interested to see what they’re wearing, who’s wedding they were at, and which Greek island they went to this summer, but what I’m really interested in is their careers.

And sure, I could listen to their podcasts or read their columns but I don’t. Because with these particular women, it is not about what they actually produce, it’s about the perception of what they are doing, and the strong aroma of achievement that engulfs them, like expensive perfume. For these women, Instagram is the shop window to their factories of success. And like the Liberty windows at Christmas, I stand on the outside, looking in, mesmerized by their glistening promise.

But, looking at the success of others on instagram doesn’t always feel quite so magical. In fact, staring at these carefully curated windows of #careerporn can be exhausting and debilitating. Because every time I log on, there’s another announcement, another achievement, another picture of a flat white next to a Macbook against an exposed brick wall with the promise of an “upcoming exciting project!”. Every time I lurk there’s another #girlboss moment *emoji fist bump*. And like looking into the brightly-lit department store windows, in the glow of the display, I catch my own reflection and it is dimmer, less exciting, less glitzy. By looking at their careers, I can’t help but see my own and compare, and the comparison leaves me feeling hollow, like I’ve failed, with nothing of my own to display.

Additionally, integral to those these women’s success is that they work relentlessly and religiously. Thanks to the #sidehustles and #girlboss culture and women’s clubs and the Alicia Florricks and Olivia Popes who live to work, we’ve elevated an always-on culture to a lifestyle status symbol. And even though there’s a move towards “slow-living” and “going off grid”, I see very little of it firsthand. Mostly, I listen to humblebrags about full inboxes and working till midnight. Yet we know this isn’t good for us. In May, the World Health Organisation introduced “burnout” as an occupational hazard.

social media ambition

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And so soon, Instagram is no longer a twinkling inspirational porthole, encouraging me to #hustle. Instead, it morphs into a shadow of guilt and self-flagellation: Why aren’t I working that hard? Why aren’t I that successful? What’s wrong with me? And a vicious cycle begins as I lurk and lurk, obsessed with their “success” , thinking maybe if I can understand the ingredients, I could apply it to my own career.  And yet, the more I search for it, the worse I feel, the more I’m reminded of my empty shop window, which in turn slows me down, distracts me, sucks away my confidence, stops me being proactive.

Increasingly Instagram has been accused of blocking out the truth – photoshopping the hardships, facts and mundanity out of life. And in response, there’s been an effort to appear more “real”. Recently, failure has become fetishesed (think of Elizabeth’s Day hugely successful How to Fail podcast) and there’s talk of the “Authenticity Bind” – the problem in which influencers need to be perceived to be “authentic” but still need the seducing lure of aspiration to keep users engaged. So now, we’re being offered a watered-down success as a quasi-failure. To me, that’s just yet another filter of falsehood to consume

We need to see the no holes barred reality of careers: the dull grey Tuesdays where nothing exciting happens, the Friday mornings spent sorting admin, the weeks that roll by where we do the same, day in, day out because that’s just life. And it’s not just the dreary routine of all careers, there’s the harsh rejections, the massive mistakes, the crippling insecurities, the crying in the toilets. I’m not sure Instagram will ever be able to give us that though, so just how much should we consult it when it comes to our careers? We’re only ever being sold the pretty Christmas lights, with no mention of dreary January when we have to take them down and get back to work – and that’s the bit we need to see.

I’m sure many would argue that watching successful women is a great source of inspiration. But that’s only true when you are truly watching them – not just seeing bite sized, carely curated snapshots of a journey to success. Our obsession isn’t going to go away. The world’s biggest stars, like Rhianna and Gywneth Paltrow, now take pride being hustling, working businesswomen. But if we truly want to succeed, we need to see a narrative that lifts us up with its honesty, not overwhelms with a highly edited string of successes. And perhaps that starts a bit closer to home. The most useful career advice I’ve ever heard comes from one of the most successful women in the world.  In the making of her 30-year long TV show, Oprah had one message for her staff, and it was one she lived and worked by: “Watch your own horse”.

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