“Maybe I’ll never feel that motivation again.”

In 2020, my goals were clear. They were also dead wrong. Here’s how I found my ambition again — and how you might reconnect with yours this year, too.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Nice Work
Published in
9 min readJan 11

In January 2020, I started working on a new book. It felt urgent: Technically Wrong had been out for a couple years, and without a fresh title in the pipeline, I worried people might forget I existed. How would I sustain my self-employment if no one knew who I was? Plus, I had just pivoted my work from consulting on tech and design to leadership coaching and training. I had new ideas I wanted to share, and a new focus I wanted people to know about.

But if I’m being honest, there was something else on my mind: my age. I was 36 years old. “I should have another book out before I’m 40,” I thought. That meant it was time to start drafting.

The outline came together quickly, and I felt pretty good about it. But every time I sat down to write, nothing came. I couldn’t summon any of the urgency I’d felt with my other books. The only thing I felt was dread.

When the world shut down two months later, it was almost a relief. Sure, I was riddled with anxiety, just like everyone else. But at least I had a good excuse to abandon my draft.

The rest of that year felt disconnected. I see-sawed between being all-in on my new business and dipping my toe back into the safety of UX work. I felt awkward trying to explain what I was doing to others. I said yes to things that felt wrong, and couldn’t seem to figure out what felt right.

“Maybe I’ve peaked,” I found myself thinking on one particularly low day. “Maybe I’ll never feel that motivation again.”

Now it’s 2023. I’ve got about five months left in my thirties, and I’m no closer to another book than I was three years ago. But I actually feel more ambitious about my work than ever. And what I now know in my bones is this: telling yourself you should want something isn’t the same as actually wanting it.

And the truth is, I really didn’t want to write that book.

Your shoulds might be very different from mine, but after three years of coaching hundreds of women in tech and design, I know I’m far from the only one who struggles with these feelings. My clients have told me countless stories about pushing through and achieving all the “right” things — the things that added up to success on paper — only to find themselves deeply unsatisfied on the other end.

Some dedicated themselves to making “safe” choices — choices their immigrant parents approved of, or that their spouse thought were practical — only to realize, years later, that the career they built felt like a prison.

Some, particularly women of color, felt responsible for the lack of diversity in their organizations — and believed that they owed it to others like them to change their workplaces, no matter how much it took from them to do so. Eventually, they’d hit burnout — and still feel like they had failed the next generation.

Some approached their careers with the vague sense that being a “good feminist” required climbing the ladder — that if they weren’t aiming for the C-suite, they were selling themselves short as women. Then they’d hit the senior role they’d been aiming for all those years, and realize that success in their organization required violating their values and becoming someone they didn’t even like.

Perhaps most common of all, though, were the women who felt compelled to make career choices that their peers and mentors would understand — and believed that if their choices weren’t legible to others in their field, it meant they were doing something wrong.

I’m loath to admit it, but that was me. I didn’t sit down to write another book because I truly had something important to say. What I wanted most was validation: to be told that my career was OK, that my choices were OK, that my existence was OK. And the only way I could think of to get it was to do something other people could see and understand.

Like a book.

But what I can see now is that there was no amount of external validation that would have made me feel OK in that moment. Because what I was struggling with wasn’t really about what other people thought about me. It was about what I thought about myself.

My 2019 had been rough: A project went sideways and I felt scapegoated. I realized I didn’t want to consult on UX and content issues anymore, but wasn’t yet sure what to do instead. My side projects had become the things I most looked forward to working on, but I wasn’t sure how to make them sustainable. Things weren’t working between me and a collaborator, but neither of us knew how to talk to the other about it. And that’s not even getting into the personal crises that hit me and my loved ones that year.

By January 2020, I had figured out the next steps for my career: launch Active Voice, shift my work from consulting to coaching and leadership training, and pivot my writing from looking at biased tech products to talking about the toxic work cultures they come from. But I was so busy moving forward that I hadn’t made any space to process and recover from 2019. And so instead of confidently entering this new phase of my career, I felt tentative. Fragile. Alone.

No wonder I was craving validation.

There’s a lot about the past three years I wish I could erase. But I am grateful that this time forced me to stop looking for approval — to stop judging my value as a human by how much I produced, how hard I worked, or how legible my career was to others.

I know a lot of you feel the same — there’s a reason terms like The Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” have become part of our vernacular. There’s a reason so many people are writing articles about losing their ambition or proclaiming the end of ambition. We’re all renegotiating our lives, and the role of our work within them.

I heard that loud and clear in the research we did with tech and design workers last spring. We asked people how their relationships to work had changed over the past two years—and over and over, respondents told us about massive shifts in their beliefs and values: They were less interested in striving. They didn’t want to “work nights and weekends for capitalism.” They wanted a four-day week, flexible schedules, and a lot more time with family.

Most of all, they wanted an identity that wasn’t their job.

I can’t argue with any of that — I’m trying to live that way myself. But I’ve also noticed something else happening in this big renegotiation. Despite setting firmer boundaries and distancing themselves from their work, a lot of people I talk to don’t actually feel better at work. They’re languishing. Stuck. Rudderless.

“I’m just trying to survive the week,” they say. “I’m just there for the paycheck,” they sigh.

They’re now feeling what I felt in 2020 — after I’d set down that book project, but before I’d figured out where I was actually orienting myself.

What I can see now is this: they’d let go of their old ambitions — the careers that looked good on paper, but felt awful in practice. But they haven’t yet defined any new ones. So now, everything about work feels pointless.

I understand the impulse. It’s self-protective: If nothing matters, nothing can disappoint me anymore. After three years of stress, instability, and a general sense of the world crumbling, I can see how it’s tempting to stay in that numb space.

But honestly, doesn’t that sound like a depressing way to live? Even with great boundaries and a healthy life outside of work, that’s still a lot of hours a week of settling for misery.

I want more than that. I know a lot of you do, too.

So how can we feel motivated at work without resubscribing to hustle culture or turning our jobs into our whole personalities?

I suspect this is a lifelong question — one I’ll keep exploring, and evolving my answers to, as time goes on. But one concept I’ve found useful so far comes from self-determination theory.

SDT is actually a macro set of theories based on a growing body of research dating back to the ’70s, but the basic idea is that humans crave psychological growth — our wellbeing is dependent upon it. But, the theory holds, humans don’t always seek out that growth, even if we know it’s good for us. We need motivation to do so.

We need goals.

That’s what researchers found last year when they conducted a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies from around the world: “Being motivated towards goals — in general — appears to be positively linked with well-being. Striving is better than amotivation,” they wrote.

But not just any goal improves our wellbeing. “If one is interested in reaching for goals that will result in an enduring sense of personal wellness, the what of the goals matters,” they concluded. “When setting goals for oneself, or indeed for others, a focus on money, beauty, and influence at the cost of growing and caring is psychologically detrimental.”

Money, beauty, influence — those are extrinsic goals. They’re based on others’ evaluation and perception of us. They’re the kinds of goals that so many of the women I’ve worked with based their careers around: climbing the ladder, seeking validation from peers. While extrinsic goals can motivate us to action, the research suggests they do little to help our wellbeing: “No matter who or where one is, focusing on extrinsic life goals is linked both to decreased flourishing and increased floundering.”

No wonder so many people I’ve worked with achieved great success on paper — and felt miserable in practice.

Intrinsic goals, on the other hand, are things we pursue because they are personally meaningful — things like personal growth and learning, building deeper connections with others, and living our values in our day-to-day life. And across the board, studies have shown that these are the goals that actually matter — that give us sustained wellbeing and happiness.

In other words, these are precisely the kinds of goals that can break us out of the career malaise so many people are feeling right now. These are the goals that can give us a sense of ambition — without driving us back to overworking and validation-seeking.

When I think about my goals this way, I don’t think about wealth or status. But I do feel ambitious as hell. Because the goals that feel most meaningful to me right now are also really, really hard to accomplish.

Here are a few of the ones I’m working on right now:

  • Continue to heal the childhood wounds that make it hard for me to trust others or let people help me, and stretch myself to let go of more things, more often.
  • Refine our revenue model so I don’t have to spend all my time running workshops and coaching programs, and can instead invest more deeply in being the present, supportive leader my team needs.
  • Create more space in my workdays for creative exploration: reading, writing, play.

But most of us aren’t used to this kind of goal-setting — especially in tech and design, where the steady drumbeat of KPIs and OKRs tells us that the only things worth doing are the things we can measure and quantify.

You can’t reduce “be a more intentional leader” to a SMART goal. It’s not easily tracked on a line chart. No one will throw you a party when you achieve it. But none of that matters.

I’m not doing these things because I think I’ll be rewarded for them. I’m not doing them because I think my peers will even notice.

I’m doing them because I know they’re the right thing to do.

This year, that’s enough.



Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Nice Work

I help folks in tech and design build sustainable careers and healthy teams. Author @wwnorton @abookapart @rosenfeldmedia. More at www.activevoicehq.com.