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The need to succeed

Employers may still value ambition, but are we starting to feel that the personal costs are too high? Bill Saunders reports
IN THE WORLD of work, ambiton is an unquestioned modern virtue. Job advertisements are studded with the adjective "ambitious". But while the quality obviously suits employers down to the ground, does it actually do the rest of us any good? As a personality trait, the word "ambitious" is more usually used as a put-down, as in "I like her, but she's so ambitious".

For Victoria Lubbock it is a very much a mixed blessing. As founder and director of Recruit Media, an employment consultancy that specialises in finding jobs for creative types, she has seen plenty of it. The media is an industry where enormous egos abound. It is also, as Lubbock says, a field where employers actively encourage competition between employees. The result is long hours in the office and an unhealthy imbalance with the rest of your life.

This trend is by no means confined to media, of course. In general, says Lubbock, this country is out of step with the rest of Europe and closer to the USA, where the attitude to work and career progress is "completely barking". Without wishing to bang the feminist drum, she believes that our work-obsessed culture is one of the pillars of the glass ceiling, the invisible phenomenon which keeps women from reaching the top, even in industries that are thronged with women lower down. Women can only get to the top by making personal sacrifices and, once there, are correspondingly out of sympathy with other women who are not prepared to go so far. We should not be seduced by role models such as Nicola Horlick, high-flyer and super-mum, she says. "Realistically, you can't have your cake and eat it."

It's different for guys, of course. "One in three marriages fails," says Fiona Duff, "but in the media the rate is nearer one in one." Until last year she was married to a ferociously ambitious man, a top television producer. She is mother of his two children. Then she was dumped for a younger model, and subsequently had to leave her home. She can see why a man might prefer career to the domestic scene. "At home he's told to change a dirty nappy and obviously he thinks `At work I don't even have to change the fax roll'," she says.

And for successful media men there is no lack of opportunities for changing their wives. In a profession full of young women it is easy to meet someone likely to be impressed with the glamour of power and success. "If they were dustmen," says Fiona Duff, "girls wouldn't look twice at them."

But in the end it all comes down to personality. "To be ambitious you must care more about yourself than anyone else in the world," says Fiona Duff. She speaks of her ex-husband without rancour, as if he were a naughty toddler. "He doesn't think he's done anything wrong," she says. Indeed, he finds it difficult to accept that an outsider would have any sympathy with Fiona. "He thinks everyone wants him to have what he wants."

It should be stressed that Fiona Duff does not match the stereotype of the fussy little homebody unable to live up to her husband's success. She is a successful media player in her own right, a showbusiness publicist used to mingling with stars. When she met her husband she was working at Freud Communications, the public relations agency at the glittering heart of the New Cronyism. But she does not measure success and failure in life in terms of career. "What is important is the ability to make other people happy."

And of course career success is no guarantee of personal happiness. At 26 Wendy Clark had, as she says, "fulfilled all my immediate career goals". Starting out as a secretary in advertising she had made her way, via television, to become production assistant with a film company. "To most people," she says, "it seemed like text book job perfection. I was jetting off to LA and Miami for shoots and I did meet famous people. But I felt in my heart of hearts that staring at playback monitors and standing around in the freezing cold on location till the early hours really wasn't for me."

With seven years invested in getting a highly desirable job, one that remains only a dream for many, many people, it was not an easy decision to give it up. "But after much soul-searching I realised that I didn't want to live to work. I wanted to go to work, do my job, have a laugh and not be killing myself with stress." Now she is PA to the chief executive of advertising agency M & C Saatchi, a far more fulfilling existence as far as she is concerned. "I have time to develop projects which motivate me, such as assessing charity applications to M & C Saatchi." And time to develop her writing at home. "Just because I took what some percieve as a step backward doesn't mean I'm not ambitious," she says. "I love my job because it holds my interest and doesn't dominate my whole life. I'm not stressed out, so I can take an interest in other people."

Personal relationships pay the price for ruthless ambition, according to Fiona Duff. Her ex-husband, she says, has no concept of personal loyalty. She is not the first person to have passed her use-by date in the course of his career and she does not expect to be the last. And sadly such an attitude is no guarantee even of career success, according to Victoria Lubbock. In a small world that is fuelled by networking, personal relationships are important. "What goes around comes around," she says. And in any case "the rules are changing." Ten years ago if you looked to the top of the media profession it was virtually impossible to find examples of individuals who had reached the top and retained their personal integrity. Things are different now.

And who is to say what success is? "I'm not saying I don't advocate ambition," says Wendy Clark. "I think it comes in different shapes and sizes. and having a re-think or going back to square one doesn't mean that you have failed. It's all about making your job work for you to enhance your life wherever possible - regardless of what other people think you should be doing."