A dear friend from business school stopped by to see me one day at the office.  I knew something was up because she was in town from Colorado and REALLY wanted to get together.  It was one of those weeks where I had kid’s events, work commitments, or other stuff every night.   So, the only time we could pull off was lunch in my not-so-lovely office cafeteria.

Looking back – I am so happy that she stopped by.  At lunch she shared with me an experience that had deeply affected her.  Just days before she had attended a HBS event, a healthcare symposium, during which students and alumni get together to discuss emerging trends and career issues.   At the event’s luncheon she sat  with two soon-to-be graduating students who happened to be incredibly gifted ladies.  Prior to attending HBS one had been an industrial engineer, the other a NASA scientist.   Despite these credentials their conversation with my friend was astonishing. The net of it was that they were simply adrift trying to sort out their next moves given the complexity of life as a female professional.   My friend was nothing short of furious with the school’s lack of interest in their dilemma.

At the time I wish I had known about Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels.  This remarkable unsung book offers insight into why these ladies felt so flat-footed at the same time that their male peers started off on the journey of a lifetime.

Truth be told I was a little turned off by the book’s title: Ambition.   It evoked negative feelings in me.   Does it for you?

The book deftly introduces ambition as the confluence of both “mastery” and “recognition.”   Mastery can be attributed to the acquisition of any skill while recognition involves “appreciation by another person that feels accurate and meaningful to the recipient.” (Necessary Dreams, pg 9)  A practicing psychiatrist Fels relied on countless scientific and cultural studies to craft her tale.

One powerful tool she uses throughout the book is a comparison of ambition in women and in young girls.  A specific study she references found that there was a weak correlation between women’s and girl’s goals versus their actual situation in life.   (Necessary Dreams, pg 29)   Fels also shares many sobering facts and studies about the amount of recognition men receive versus women — in countless societal venues — work, community, family, etc.

As someone who thinks deeply about women’s transition issues I found her exploration of ambition to be enlightening and thought-provoking.  Here are some tidbits you might find interesting:

  • From a biological perspective:  recognition increases the production of energizing, focusing, confidence-enhancing neurotransmitters. (Necessary Dreams, pg 94)    Our bodies respond at a fundamental level so it is no wonder that the absence of affirmation or recognition can leave women “demoralized and unmotivated.”  (Necessary Dreams, pg 98)
  • A deep and pervasive cultural prejudice leads to the reflex of bestowing recognition on males and largely unconscious withholding of recognition from females in all but the sexual sphere. (Necessary Dreams, pg 99)
  • Equally compelling is her observation that women in the midst of their adult lives, not men, are faced with continuous pressure to re-evaluate and reshape their lives  – a process by which women create, realize, reconfigure and abandon goals.   (Necessary Dreams, pg xx)

Fels makes a strong argument that we are at a unique point in history with the changing roles of women and men.  I conclude that the angst  – felt by the two HBS women who had lunch with my friend – is due to the absence of any maps or models with which to draw upon. As in Hewlett’s On Ramps &  Off Ramps and Beck’s Steering by Starlight Fels compels women to imagine themselves into their future.

I guess the reason I really like this book is that Fels confirms that there is really “no historical precedence for our choices…women and their ambition are a work in progress.”  (Necessary Dreams, pg  252)   It makes me feel better that I have history on my side.  I wonder if I can coach it to say a few kind words???

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