While teaching a class on Women and Ambition, I was led to adrienne maree brown’s book, Emergent Strategy (reviewed on this site) and began to craft a theory of “emergent ambition.”

adrienne’s book gave language to feelings I had been experiencing for so long with regard to my own work and ambition and the recoil I experienced at the well-meaning advice friends kept giving me about “growing my work and reputation.” 

I felt instinctively that my work needed to grow organically and spread slowly from the ground up by making organic connections and slowly casting a net or weaving a web of connectedness with other like-minded people. Like a plant in an ecosystem sprouting from a seed that has landed on fertile soil and is fed from its nutrients, I wanted to allow my work, vision and ambition to slowly mature and respond to what was needed by the ecosystem itself, meaning the community, culture and time within which I live.

But people kept telling me what I must do to be successful and before I knew what had happened,  following their advice led to becoming the “manager” of a “business” with a hierarchical structure and “employees” to “manage.”

The last thing I ever wanted to be was a manager. Nor did I want to be in charge of “human resources” and manage human dynamics and inter-dynamics of a business model. What I wanted to create was well, I didn’t want to create, I wanted to allow what wanted to emerge from my vision.

I wanted to foster that which seemed like it was gaining energy and let die away what was not. It was also my deepest wish and ambition to allow each person involved in the work to have their own sovereignty, autonomy, dignity and power. I did not want a “company.” I wished to foster community. I wanted to encourage a “movement.”

The vision included doing my own work while empowering others to do theirs and create a loose alignment between us for support and strength when we needed it. But suddenly, everyday was filled with everything I did not want to do: constantly organizing meetings, answering email after email, following up and implementing technology to help with the dissemination of information, helping people manage their emotions, listening to grievances they had toward each other, micro-managing the whole group, and being asked to do more and more of that as the group grew, and—worst of all—being asked to discipline people and enforce rules. I began to dislike my work. In fact this was not my work at all and it was taking over my life.

Somehow this model of an old-time business or even old fashioned family structure, definitely a patriarchal way of organizing, was being thrust upon me and I was accepting it as the only way to succeed or be seen as successful and it was absolutely squelching my ambition.

I stumbled upon David Whyte’s poem “Sometimes” during this time and the following lines hit me like a ton of bricks.

you come

to a place

whose only task

is to trouble you

with tiny

but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere

but in this place

beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what

you are doing right now,


to stop what you

are becoming

while you do it…

stop what you are are doing right now, and to stop what you are becoming while you do it. Yes, I didn’t like what I was becoming as I was doing what I was doing. And I didn’t even want to be doing what I was doing. What a catastrophe! And borne out of the best intentions. We all know that one.

adrienne’s book arrived when I was in this place and I read it and said, “Yes, that’s it! We need to allow our ambitions, goals and visions to be emergent as well.”

What do I mean by this?

I mean: allowing our dreams, ambitions, visions, goals to emerge and grow organically rather than be forced, pushed or imposed. To tap into the emergent patterns that are arising from within us which match the culture at large and following their lead rather than imposing an artificial model or marketing program on them.

If we think of our ambitions as something from within that are reaching toward a need from without, as the future moving toward us, reaching into the present and pulling us forward, this is true emergence. If we can learn to operate this way, things are easier and happen without that god-awful word, “trying.”

To do this, we want to examine the cultural “mechanistic” (viewing everything as machine) overlays that we are following and obeying that are making us feel stuck and prohibited, that are making us feel “yuck” around realizing our own dreams and desires, wishes and visions.

How do we get back to the yummy place of emergent creativity that actually pushes us along on a wave of movement that we can ride with joy rather than us pushing against waves that are not budging? Or if they do, at what cost?

One of the tenets of our Woman and Ambition class was to be sure, once we arrived to where we wanted to be, to what we had been working to achieve, we actually liked this place. To do this, in our visioning of the future—our futures—we made sure to include everything that was important to us: family, relationships, health, peace of mind as well as our work and career goals. Those were also our ambitions. We called this “a female model of ambition.” Any chosen gender can follow this model but we wanted to differentiate it from what we had witnessed so often, “the patriarchal or male model” of ambition which focused only on career goals and frequently led to people to lives they didn’t want or like once they had achieved those career goals.

Another matter the class addressed was to stop seeing ourselves, our dreams, our deepest desires as commodities to be sold on the marketplace. We are not products. And our dreams are not goods to be mined, packaged and sold. They are offerings, gifts, response. Response to a need, to an interest.

How can we learn to approach our goals and dreams from this place of emergence, rather than  the marketplace, branding trend; to have a more gentle and organic way of achieving them within the context of a full and well-rounded life?

adrienne writes:

“Many of us have been socialized to understand that constant growth, violent competition, and critical mass are the ways to create change. But emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience. The quality of connection between the nodes in the patterns”(ES 14).

We want to understand that movements and change arise from relationship and interconnectedness.

As adrienne articulates in her book, nature offers us a non-mechanistic paradigm to follow which is more firmly in line with the view of emergent ambition. Others have been promoting this view for decades.

Biochemist and geneticist Mae-Wan Ho, PhD., defines the universe an alive organism, a contained system, that operates the same way on the quantum and macrophase scales.

Within this system, Ho states:

“each and every player, the tiniest molecule notwithstanding, is improvising spontaneously and freely, yet keeping in tune and in step with the whole. There is no conductor, no choreographer, the organism is creating and recreating herself afresh with each passing moment”(Ho, Quantum Jazz, 2).

Rather than an outside authority standing over a plant, telling it how to grow, there is the inherent wisdom within the plant that informs it how to unfold its life-force in sensitive relationship to its surrounding ecosystem. This is emergence.

This is a different view than we have been taught, unlike the human created systems we are surrounded by from the time we are very young. And yet, this is how life is, works and sustains itself. Life is a self-generating, self-nourishing system, continuously reborn of its own being; one parthenogenetic whole in touch with all its parts. Or, as Ho says, “Life is a process of being an organizing whole”(RW 5).

“Birds don’t make a plan to migrate, raising resources to fund their way, packing for scarce times, mapping out their pit stops. They feel a call in their bodies that they must go, and they follow it, responding to each other, each bringing their adaptations.” ~Emergent Strategy

I gave myself permission and space to drop the management role and returned to working at the organic ground level of my being, doing my work and allowing it to slowly grow roots with tendrils reaching and feeling toward others. And I said to myself, “let’s see what might arise if I listen and foster what wants fostering and let die away what does not seem to have wings… let’s see what emerges and where it leads me.” Now, I like my work again.

“Emergence is beyond what the sum of its parts could even imagine”(ES 13).

©Theresa C. Dintino 2019

Works Cited

brown, adrienne maree, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, California: AK Press, 2017.

Ho, Mae-Wan, Quantum Jazz: the meaning of life, the universe and everything, Science in Society, October 2006.

Ho, Mae-Wan, The Rainbow and the Worm: The Physics of Organisms, Singapore: World Scientific, 1998

Whyte, David, Everything is Waiting for You, Many Rivers Press, 2003.