Hana Schank (left) and Elizabeth Wallace, co-authors of "The Ambition Decisions." Photo courtesy of Hana Schank
What does having ambition mean when you’re a woman? When you’re a mom?
In May 2018, ParentMap is taking an up-close look at how five women think about ambition. Every week, we’ll publish a short Q&A with an ambitious woman. Who’s that exactly? She’s a mom with big dreams — for her family and for herself.
First up, Hana Schank.
Schank is a fellow at national think thank New America; her research examines how human-centered design thinking and technology are applied to society’s challenges. She’s the mother of a 12-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl.
She’s also the co-author of "The Ambition Decisions," a research-based guide on the decisions women make regarding work and family that will be published this June. For the book, journalists Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace interviewed 43 classmates from their 1993 graduating class at Northwestern University about what happened to their ambitions since those heady college years.
In this Q&A, we ask Schank about that work, her career and how she makes it all go.
What does "ambition" mean to you?
People only talk about this classic ambition of moving up at work, but there are a million ways to be ambitious. While researching the book, we found that ambition takes a lot of forms. People who didn’t have ambitious careers oozed ambition in lots of other directions. They were the head of the PTA or heavily involved in volunteering in causes.
What's a habit you have that helps make it all go?
I make a list of all the stuff I need to get done. When something doesn’t get [crossed] off, I either take it off the list or I ask for help.
I have a full-time job and my kids are at a weird age. They still need to be taken places and there’s a lot of emotional transitioning. There’s a bunch of school stuff I’m not going to do this year.
When you live in New York [editor’s note: Schank and her family live in Brooklyn], every time your kid gets a report card you fill out a form that rates the school. They get really upset if you don’t send it back. I decided not to fill out that form. My son told one of his friends, and he’s like, ‘You’re not returning the form! You can’t do that!’ But now I always ask myself, ‘Is it valuable to me, my family and my kids?’ And I say ‘no’ [more often].
Why do you do the work that you do?
You know I have two careers, right? I’ve alternated between years of focusing on one or the other. I’m passionate about technology and improving how government works. If I don’t have time to write, I start feeling itchy. It needs to come out: writing keeps me sane.
The downside of having two careers: I’m not as far as I could be in either career. Right now, I’m at a crossroads, with both careers going well, and I’m going to have to make decisions. I wrote this book and worked full-time and I look back and I’m don’t know how I did that. I did not have a weekend or a vacation or an evening.
If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be and why?
One would be that it’s okay to not have a plan. I have always been someone who’s like, ‘What’s the plan now?’ and ‘What’s the plan now?’ I could never have predicted how my careers unfolded. If I’d been more confident, I would have told myself it will work out and just go with it.
I also wish I had known to just keep writing and it will work out. I regret the years [that I said] I’m done with writing, I’m going to be in corporate America and it’s going to be great. It was not true to myself. Then I’d think, ‘Why am I miserable? Oh, because I’m not writing.’
We talk about weighing passion and meaning versus earning money in “The Ambition Decisions.” Some years it’s about the money and some years it’s about the passion. It doesn’t have to fit together in one nirvana career.
How has your ambition changed since you’ve had kids and as your kids have grown?
During my early years of parenting, I was happy to maintain the status quo. Running my own company made sense because I had flexible hours. I may not have been killing it, but it felt good to kind of be managing working and parenting. When you have young kids, [you tell yourself], ‘Let me just make it through the day.’
As they have gotten older, a piece of my brain clicked on. I thought, ‘I’m a person with dreams; I get to pick what I want to do and try for that.’ I took a job in another city for a year. It was fantastic for me. It wasn’t fantastic for my kids for me to be in D.C. for a week or a few days while they were in NYC. That’s a thing you get to do as a person who also has dreams. I’m feeling the burn of career ambition, but I still am an ambitious parent. As with everybody, I’m still working it out.