‘I swapped ambition for contentment during the pandemic—and this is what happened to my career’

28-year-old Anna decided to stop chasing career milestones, and was amazed with the outcome...

Silhouette of a woman on a bridge
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This essay is part of our Lost Years series, where we investigate the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared by WHO on March 11, 2020. Did we collectively change, how and will we ever go back? How has this time affected our relationship with work, our loved ones, dating and even entertainment? And can we take action to reclaim what we may have lost?

Anna Myers, 28, is a freelance writer, creative consultant, VoiceOver artist, and former actress living between London and Milan. This is what happened when she decided to swap bright, shiny career accolades and external validation for internal happiness and contentment...

I’ve always considered myself a fairly ambitious gal. 

I’ve been the self-appointed leader of every group project I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve had the TEDTalk logo on my vision board since I was a teenager. When I was 17, I liaised with a national TV channel to cover a student protest I helped coordinate. My drive proved to be an asset in my formative years, and took me from an ambitious teenager to an eager adult with a thirst for validation. 

I taught myself English as a second language, worked hard, and moved abroad as soon as I graduated high school to pursue a career as an actress—and let me tell you, that takes some serious determination. 

Desperate to tick goals off my list, I did all the classes, networked on Twitter, signed up to every workshop under the sun, and auditioned for every student film I could find. I would often forego evenings out with friends in favor of staying home to learn lines or record clips and scenes on the weekends—that's just the kind of commitment a career as a working actor requires.

But it’s also the kind of career that can leave very little room for fulfillment. There’s instant gratification, of course, in the form of a call from your agent telling you “You got the job!” But any type of long-term satisfaction doesn't exist—you’re constantly shifting goalposts and worrying about the next hurdle, eternally discontent. 

No matter what I tried, no audition, job, or successful workshop left me quite feeling as happy as I thought it might. Or should. Because if something feels unbelievably tough 95% of the time, then surely the achievements that make up the remaining 5% should make the whole thing feel worth it?

In my case, they never really did. So I took my wounded pride and my shattered dreams, and got the hell out.

Finding meaning at work during the pandemic

Shortly after, I started working for Taylor Swift’s UK publicist. Ambitious indeed! It was completely by chance, and I jumped at the opportunity to throw myself into a fast-paced creative environment. I was very busy, of course, but it was the most fun job I’ll probably ever have. 

After around two years in my role, I left only a few months before the start of the pandemic, though. I needed a break from my life and wanted to go traveling, spend time with my family, and figure out what else I could learn to love besides work.

In January 2020, that dream was only a rosy half-formed plan. And by mid-March, everything had changed. We locked down in London, and while I had enough savings to keep me afloat for a while, it looked like the Covid-19 crisis could go on a lot longer than that. There would be no traveling, of course—and my family was quarantined just 40 miles away from the main Italian hotspot. 

So, it looked like all I could do was focus on the most immediate part of my plan: figure out what I really loved doing.

I'd always loved to write, so I started looking for editors on Twitter and cold pitching them essay ideas. I loved learning about PR at my previous job, so I began to offer consultation services. I turned my blog (RIP blogs) into a newsletter about my effort to build a joyful life: a seemingly impossible task during a pandemic, but such a rewarding one. 

Every week, I’d sit at my desk and ponder what small things had made the past few days a little bit brighter. And what I realized was that, in the face of unimaginable pain and uncertainty, it wasn’t the big accolades and ambitious projects that kept me sane, warm, or loved. It was the stuff no one really writes home about. The kind of thing I’d never have thought to include in my lists of goals.

It was the small community that formed around my newsletter, and the people emailing me back every week to tell me I made them feel less alone. The editors excited about my pitches. The freedom of a freelance business I could engineer around my own wants and needs. The freedom to design the kind of life I might want to lead when the pandemic was finally over. 

I realized I thrived in the contentment of a warm, kind, and useful career full of human connection, rather than one full of accolades I could post on my Linkedin page.

Why contentment feels so much better than ambition

Now, two years later, I can hardly recognize the young woman hustling for auditions or sitting on the bus home from a big event, desperate for the next role. I can hardly remember the rush of euphoric ambition my previous life (sometimes) brought, for I have long stopped pursuing it. 

Thinking back on the lonely evenings spent rehearsing and scouring the internet for roles, and how taxing it was to pick myself back up after each failed audition, I don't miss the feeling of constantly needing to prove myself.

Because it turns out, the life that best fits me is a big one made up of very small joys. The career I find most rewarding is one I can work at quietly, truthfully, behind the scenes. I don’t need shiny rewards to prove myself, much as I thought I did pre-pandemic. It was nice to live for the applause, but I have come to realize that like any form of external validation, it has a rather short shelf life. 

woman writing notes in a notebook with her laptop and papers around her

(Image credit: Getty Images)

And as for goals and aspirations, I think of them simply as displays of my heart’s desire and pointers leading me in the right direction. Not—as I used to—objectives to live and die for, or measure my worth against.

Honestly? It’s just so much more fun this way too.

Just because I don’t let ambition dictate my life anymore, it doesn’t mean my career is stalling or I don’t celebrate my achievements. I was recently invited on an exciting press trip, my very first one. An essay I wrote will feature in a published anthology. The document on my desktop titled “Book Draft” is no longer just a black page with my name written on it.

I haven’t deterred big, wonderful things from coming my way. I’ve simply stopped chasing them. And not only has contentment been kind of great for my career, I have also saved my anxious self some peace of mind in the process. Because as cliché as it sounds, being happy with what you already have really does result in having more reasons to be happy. No auditions required.

Anna Myers

Anna Myers is a freelance writer, voiceover artist and PR consultant, with an interest in identity, relationships, and lifestyle topics. She has written for the likes of Refinery29, Teen Vogue, Glamour and The Financial Diet, and pens her own weekly newsletter, Where The Light Is, too.