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ambition by Vincent H. '23

finding direction

in cities and ambition, paul graham writes:

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.”

one of his implications is that if you have an ambition then you should move to a city whose message aligns with that ambition. but what if i don’t?

i’ve been thinking about what it would be like to attain any of the most common ambitions people have. do i want to become extremely wealthy? i wouldn’t mind, but it’s not a goal that motivates me day in and day out. extremely smart? again, i wouldn’t object, but i’ve seen enough smart people dedicate their lives to (in my opinion) inconsequential problems to not be excited by intelligence alone. extremely influential? that actually resonates a lot more, but i’ve also realized i care more about doing specific kinds of good for the world than doing the most good possible; that’s why i’m not an effective altruist

of course there are many other ambitions – for instance, to be the best possible engineer or artist or mentor or parent. these are all appealing in different ways (except parenting, which i currently have no interest in). but right now i mostly just want to learn a lot and work on meaningful technical projects and make expressive art and be around people i like. what does that say about me?

i’m reminded of a poem i enjoyed recently:

“They aim to build the metaverse, these bright-skinned white-teethed boys. They
talk breathlessly of frictionlessness, and I think about your skin against
mine, swallow. They carefully enunciate the t in community, and I
wonder if they would take my hand if I asked, and march until
morning comes, dew-stained cheeks and spent lungs. They
dream of a future free of flesh and history. I know that
these weights give me form. Am I flawed, that I do not
wish to be god, formless light fed through wire?
All I pray for in the next world is that you
are beside me when I wake…”

around two years ago one of my friends asked me: “are you ambitious?” i don’t remember my exact response to the question, but i’m pretty sure it was a combination of “not really” and asking for clarification on what ambition means. i think that’s what my answer would be today as well

here’s what i know: i care about producing good output, which means i spend a lot of time working and trying to develop my skills. i care about growth, which means i spend a lot of time learning new things and meeting new people. but the word ambition in its most common usage refers to the desire to achieve a specific goal; dedication to craft and improvement alone usually doesn’t count

maybe it’s worth drawing a distinction between being ambitious and having an ambition. in high school i read a passage from a harry potter fanfiction that has stuck with me ever since:

There was a half-smile on Professor Quirrell’s face as he replied, ‘…for although you are ambitious, you have no ambition.’

‘That’s not true!’ said Tracey indignantly. ‘And what’s it mean?’

Professor Quirrell straightened from where he had been leaning against the wall. ‘You were Sorted into Slytherin, Miss Davis… but there is no great ambition that you are driven to accomplish… At best you will grasp your way upward into Minister of Magic, or some other high position of unimportance, never breaking the bounds of your existence.’

childhood is laughing at the absurdity of characters like tracey. adulthood is realizing that maybe the idea those characters represent – of wanting to do things well but not having anything specific in mind – is uncomfortably accurate

i think it’s wrong to not have an ambition

to be more specific, i don’t think your ambition needs to be particularly challenging or impressive, but i think it does need to be specific enough to inform you in making important decisions. in the past two years i have experienced firsthand what it is like to live without an ambition – to constantly suggest new hypotheses and directions and goals only to retract them all a few months later. i don’t think that time was wasted or meaningless, and it allowed me to explore a lot of territory, but ultimately i don’t think it’d be a satisfying way to live the rest of my life

hamming explains it better than i can:

“It is well known the drunken sailor who staggers to the left or right with n independent random steps will, on the average, end up about sqrt(n) steps from the origin. But if there is a pretty gem in one direction, then his steps will tend to go in that direction and he will go a distance proportional to n. In a lifetime of many, many independent choices, small and large… a vision will get you a distance proportional to n, while no vision will get you only the distance sqrt(n). In a sense, the main difference between those who go far and those who do not is some people have a vision and the others do not and therefore can only react to the current events as they happen.”

i’ve spent so long trying to understand my ambitions without ever verbalizing them, and i think that’s been quite harmful because it’s allowed me to avoid specificity. as a result, i think it would be helpful for me to do some brainstorming in public

proposal: i want to work on personal projects

rebuttal: i think i would feel bad if i spent all my time making personal tools that never saw the light of day

proposal: i want to work on projects that reach a lot of people

rebuttal: i am not very excited when i look at companies like stripe which are used universally. being the founder of a payments company, regardless of how successful that company is, does not seem that appealing

proposal: i want to work on projects that reach a lot of people which i find interesting

rebuttal: the usage of the word “interesting” is a cop-out here

proposal: i want to work on projects that a lot of people interact directly with. stripe didn’t fit this criteria because most websites use stripe under the hood without explicitly telling the website user what’s going on

rebuttal: people interact with walmart pretty directly, and i’m not much more excited by walmart than i am by stripe

proposal: i want to work on projects that enable a lot of people to do things which are significantly different from what they would be able to do otherwise. walmart doesn’t count because local grocery stores have always been a reasonable alternative; similarly, online payments existed before stripe

rebuttal: that actually sounds like it might be reasonable. but what do “projects” and “a lot of people” and “significantly different” mean?

proposal: “projects” means technical projects. “a lot of people” means… actually i’m not sure. i don’t think i want to explicitly maximize number of people reached, since that seems like it could promote working on flashy clickbait projects. i think what i really mean is that i want to reach people outside my immediate surroundings. “significantly different” refers to zero to one moments (creating new experiences instead of incrementally improving existing ones) and the line there is ultimately subjective

rebuttal: i don’t think “projects” should actually be limited to technical projects, eg. i’d be happy working on something like crashcourse

proposal: yeah, that’s true. i think what i meant was that “projects” should involve skills i’m good at, which traditionally has meant technical projects, but this isn’t a hard requirement

rebuttal: this still feels extremely vague. you’ve just described a set of constraints without saying anything about what kinds of problems to solve or what kinds of feelings to inspire in other people. can you be more specific?

proposal: i want to inspire joy, wonder, and optimism. actually, i’m not sure about those since i just listed them off the top of my head, let me go consult a list of feelings to see if i’m missing anything… yeah okay it looks reasonable. i still don’t know what problems to focus on, but i think i’m happy with trying out several and spending at least a few years on each

is this really what i want? it’s always hard to determine whether ideas from brainstorming sessions are good or not, because brainstorming sessions are a somewhat artificial environment. i don’t think i’ll actually be able to tell how accurate what i’ve written above is until i revisit it in a few days or weeks and see what still resonates

that’s not really the point of this post though. i’ve been living in generalities for far too long. a specific and flawed answer gives me more to work with than a hazy and spotless one, and ultimately that’s what i need right now