When I was in junior high, my friend Lauren started getting paid to get good grades. If she earned a C on a test, her parents would give her a $5 bill. If she earned a B, the rate would double. An A was worth a whopping $20—enough to buy the new Spice Girls album and a pair of earrings at Claire’s.

I remember this arrangement not only because it made Lauren’s parents infinitively cooler than mine but also because, by comparison, I didn’t seem to need rewards for good grades; getting an A was my reward. And this was true for many activities: piano, Girl Scouts, marching band, youth group. Whatever I was doing, I wanted to do it really well.

My grandparents had these little sayings that they would repeat when we visited them every month or so in Cincinnati: “That Kate—she’s sure going places!” they would say, and, “Kate’s a real go-getter.” I always felt Granny and Boompa’s pride, yet I also knew their love was unconditional. That combination was a great early gift to me.

That Dirty “A” Word: Ambition

Many girls today are told from an early age that they can grow up to do anything and be anything they want. They regularly outperform boys in US classrooms. Outside the church they have role models from J. K. Rowling to Carly Fiorina to Malala Yousafzai (the young Pakistani activist for women’s education). Inside the church, they have women preachers and writers and teachers. Now would be the time we’d expect women to take flight on the wings of their ambitions.

But they aren’t. At just the moment in history when we’d expect women to strive—for professional success, creative projects, or new ministry—many of us are ...

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