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On ambition

Ambition's troubling to me. I think you need to have it, in order to get anything done. But how do you stand the presumption of it all? You know, the "Who the hell am I to think I can do anything worthwhile?" question.

By worthwhile, of course, I mean in the absolute sense — an impossible standard if ever there was one. And it makes ambition an all-or-nothing proposition. A "modest" ambition is a contradiction in terms: If your pursuit were truly worthwhile — i.e., an actual contribution to humanity — your so-called modesty would be most false; and if it isn't worthwhile, you're kidding yourself if you say it's ambitious.

But, if worthwhile is no good, what other standard is worth having? None, by definition. Once you ask that question, alas, you're stuck. It seems some perspectives are problematic; once you adopt them you can never accept any other. Oh well.

It gets worse, though. Worthwhile in the absolute sense not only isn't any good, it doesn't even make any sense. Things are only worthwhile (or not) to you, in your own judgment. You might think your judgment of a thing's (or achievement's) worth is based on some sort of objective value, but you'd be kidding yourself. How could you even begin to define such a thing as objective value? You can't even begin to know what value humanity as a whole (or, worse, the world itself) might place on a thing. "Humanity as a whole" doesn't even exist.

All of which makes it hard to avoid concluding that one's accomplishments cannot reasonably be measured against any standard outside of one's own life — and that the only reasonable standard is one's own happiness. But I can't accept that, either. How could I? If there's no more "worthwhile," then nothing means anything, near as I can tell. And I'd rather pretend to be ambitious, much as I hate the presumption, and push myself to do things that, even if doing them won't make me happy, I think are somehow worth something. Even if I know I don't even know what the hell that means.

And, in the end, I guess I can lie and say I'm actually doing it because I'm just happier that way.

(I'm working on something, is why all this. And this thing actually might not suck. Which is hard to know how to handle. In any case it's kept me a little busy. (And hopefully it'll be in sufficient shape to ask for help improving soon.))

January 8, 2003 1:15 AM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

It makes ambition an all-or-nothing proposition

I disagree; I think a modest ambition perfectly possible, and in keeping with a modest view of one's own capacity. Would you say to anyone else that they were being immodest by aiming to do "something worthwhile" -- something to benefit humanity? It doesn't have to be much of a benefit, if one is reasonably humble. I think you are talking to yourself in that entry, and you are being too hard on yourself.

Perspective is the key, I think. One life, one person can make a difference, although in the absence of extraordinary gifts and/or extraordinary circumstances, that difference is likely to be small. Small differences can add up, though, and are worthwhile in and of themselves.

Posted by Senn on January 8, 2003 1:54 AM

Would you say to anyone else that they were being immodest by aiming to do "something worthwhile" -- something to benefit humanity?

Of course not — that would be rude. But could you actually say to someone else, "I am going to do something great and good, something that actually has value in the Grand Scheme of Things", and not feel immodest?

You of course happen to be working in a rather critical scientific area, and so have a genuine opportunity to do some real good. But few people are so lucky.

Perspective is the key, I think. One life, one person can make a difference, although in the absence of extraordinary gifts and/or extraordinary circumstances, that difference is likely to be small. Small differences can add up, though, and are worthwhile in and of themselves.

True enough, and that is indeed a healthy, wise perspective. But my point is simply that if ever you adopt a perspective that judges what's worthwhile on a grander scale (as I think you inevitably do, when you are ambitious), then you lose the freedom to adopt the perspective you describe. Wanting to make a little difference isn't ambition. Ambition isn't about managed expectations, it's about scaling impossible heights. And so it's inherently unrealistic, yes, and, accordingly, unfair — but it is what it is, no?

I'm not actually being hard on myself, at all. This is simply an honestly attempted reflection; and while I find ambition problematic, problematic things don't really bother me. They're part of life, which, too, is what it is. I'm interested in sorting it out, but I don't mind at all if it shows some resistance.

Posted by M on January 8, 2003 11:18 AM

could you actually say to someone else, "I am going to do something great and good...", and not feel immodest?

Well, no -- but I could easily say "I am going to do my best to make a difference", and I think that still constitutes ambition.

Wanting to make a little difference isn't ambition.

Sure it is -- why can there not be degrees of ambition, just as there are degrees of any other kind of desire?

It may be that, without the kind of vaulting hubris-laden ambition you describe, one is unlikely to scale impossible heights. In that case, your ambition-vs-happiness dilemma returns with a vengeance: I would argue that those who scale such heights are usually crazy and miserable in one way or another. Who wants to be crazy and miserable?

But that brings me to another point: when we talk about happiness conflicting with ambition, I think we really mean contentment. The two are closely related, even interdependent, but not the same. It may be that a quiet, unremarkable life will make me content, but to struggle for worthwhile goals will make me happy. One may just have to choose. C'est la vie, no?

And that brings me to yet another point (my last, I promise): it's patently NOT true that "nothing means anything". We all value different sets of things, but those sets overlap considerably, and in the consensus we can find a de facto absolute measure of value. Who would argue that there is no value in the discovery of antibiotics, or the invention of electricity, or the making of something beautiful in art? Thus your premise "the only reasonable standard is one's own happiness" must be false. One's own happiness is a perfectly valid standard to adopt, but not the only one. To choose ambition of the kind you are talking about is essentially to choose the consensus measure of value -- even if, as is the case with many artists, the consensus does not come to value one's achievements until long after one's death.


I don't mind at all if it shows some resistance

Problems worthy of attack
Prove their worth by fighting back.

(Piet Hien)

Posted by Senn on January 8, 2003 1:02 PM

why can there not be degrees of ambition, just as there are degrees of any other kind of desire?

There could, but I am claiming there aren't -- and that that is my problem with ambition. I think there is a difference between simply wanting to accomplish something and having true ambition. And I think that difference is that ambition is wanting to accomplish something significant, not something small. (Maybe the things you would call small I wouldn't, though.)

when we talk about happiness conflicting with ambition, I think we really mean contentment.

Heh. Two things: First, my intention here isn't to describe any supposed conflict between happiness and ambition. It's purely accidental that some of the things one's ambition pushes one to do aren't things one enjoys. But it does happen. Second, ha! I do indeed make that distinction, and think it's vital — I want very much to be happy, but I want not at all to be content. Ever. Though I do not at all think you have to choose; I'm most happy when I have not yet reached a goal, but am profiting from my struggle toward it.

your premise "the only reasonable standard is one's own happiness" must be false. One's own happiness is a perfectly valid standard to adopt, but not the only one.

The key to what I was saying is in the word reasonable. Yes, accomplishing something worthwhile is good, but is it reasonable to expect it of yourself? Not in the slightest. The only way it would be reasonable would be if you somehow had some evidence that you were in any way comparable to Shakespeare or Einstein or whichever genius is most relevant to the pursuit in question. Not even the equal of, just in some slight way comparable -- and it's still not reasonable to judge yourself that way, is it?

Mind you, I'm not saying this standard of worthwhile is in any way a "right" standard. Just that it is a standard, and that I think it's one that, once you consider it, prevents you from adopting any other. And that it has certain consequences, among them being that it deprives you of any reasonable way of evaluating what you should do with your life: It leaves you with exactly two choices: Either presume that you're capable of something practically no one else in the world is capable of; or pretend that all that matters to you is your own momentary happiness, even though your own standard forces you to believe you're lying to yourself in doing so.

Like I say, this is problematic, but I don't mind. Probably because I still feel that I'm young, and the opportunity yet remains to satisfy some genuine ambition, but, because I don't yet know what that ambition is, I don't have to face the galling presumption of it all just yet.

(Though, if in 50 years I'm old and bitter and have accomplished nothing, then, yes, I will reread this and scream in rage and frustration.... But even then I will know it is unreasonable, and absurd.)

Posted by M on January 8, 2003 2:30 PM

I think it's important to separate "ambition" from "self-importance." If you're going to embrace your ambitious side, I'd say do so with the motivation of following your bliss. Do it because it will be good for you, and make you happy, and damn what other people think.

There are lots of ambitious people where I live, but many of them also harbor this disgusting sense of self-importance, which really turns me off. They think that they're saving the world, that their ideas are the "right" ideas, that because they have these ideas, people should bow to them and admire their greatness. But that doesn't fly with me.

I go through the whole, "I want to do this, but does it really matter?" thing. But if everyone talked themselves out of getting things done that way, nothing would ever get done.

It's OK to get excited about things. And congratulations on having something to work on that you seem pretty thrilled about. Just enjoy it. :)

Posted by Jen on January 8, 2003 11:22 PM

I've struggled with similar thoughts, though with me, there's an added wrinkle of responsibility / guilt thrown in there, due to the awareness that I'm fortunate enough to have gifts and a better opportunity than most in this world to use them for the greater good. I'm always having to fight off the feeling that if I don't accomplish something quite a bit bigger than myself, then my life will have been incomplete. I think Senn's approach is the sensible one, and the only thing you can be sure of, since it doesn't depend at all on whether everyone else's conception of the greater good jibes with your own(as well as other variables like whether you'll ever have the resources or the connections to do anything on a large scale, and so on.)

Of course, I can tell myself that all I want, and it doesn't seem to make the ambitious side shut up. I guess the best bet is to make sure of getting the small things right, and always be ready for the opportunity to do something larger if it comes along(while avoiding self-flagellation if it fails to materialize, since it's not entirely in your control).

Posted by J. dunn on January 9, 2003 2:30 PM

There are lots of ambitious people where I live, but many of them also harbor this disgusting sense of self-importance, which really turns me off. They think that they're saving the world, that their ideas are the "right" ideas, that because they have these ideas, people should bow to them and admire their greatness.

The trouble is, it takes some doing to avoid that self-importance. Not that betraying it is forgivable -- it's unnecessary, and obnoxious as hell. But suppose you allow yourself to think you might actually be capable of doing something great. How can you not also think you are somehow great, yourself? On the other hand, not allowing yourself to think you can ever accomplish anything is ruinous.

always be ready for the opportunity to do something larger if it comes along

This is the only compromise I can find, either. Don't think it's because of your own greatness that your ambition is realistic, but because you might one day happen to be in the right place at the right time. That at least affords you some hope and modesty at the same time.

Posted by M on January 10, 2003 12:44 AM


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