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The Case for Ambition

There is increasing momentum behind a movement that I’ll call broadly “anti-ambition.” I think this is misguided. We need ambition. For example, I am certainly glad Kati Kariko, the researcher who worked tirelessly for years pushing the science of mRNA until vaccines were finally developed, was ambitious.

I think Kariko is a prime example of the fact that if you are pursuing something meaningful then it is not hard to go quite hard and feel mostly good about it. Research shows that motivation is directly linked to the meaningfulness of a goal and the working conditions under which it is being pursued. Perhaps this is why craftspeople and artists rarely complain about overwork.

Meanwhile, the research of the late anthropologist David Graeber found that between 37 and 40 percent of people believe, in Graeber’s words, they have “bullshit jobs.” A bullshit job is one that nobody would notice if it were gone. Perhaps it would even make things better if it were gone.

Even worse than a bullshit job is when meaningful jobs (like being a physician, for example) are getting overwhelmed by bullshit work (like crazy administrative burdens and requirements). Nothing is more soul crushing than when this happens, nothing.

Is it any surprise, then, that droves of people are leaving their jobs? Of course not. If you have a bullshit job it is very hard to be ambitious about it. So the first problem is not that people aren’t ambitious. It’s that we have too many bullshit jobs and are even turning some good jobs bad.

Another big ambition problem is that we live in a world of superficial metrics. In The Practice of Groundedness I call this “heroic individualism,” or a constant game of oneupmanship against self and others where measurable achievement is the main arbiter of success.

Heroic individualism makes you restless and anxious until you are exhausted and sad. It takes people striving for meaningful goals and reduces their work and self-worth to metrics on a dashboard or follower counts on social media. It’s a game many have to play, but it can’t be the game.

Companies need to realize the problem of heroic individualism and reward the process of pursuing meaningful goals more than one-off outcomes. Individual workers—perhaps especially if you are self-employed—need to figure out boundaries so they aren’t swept up in the status game too. The writer Derek Thompson compellingly argues that heroic individualism and the superficial status game may even be holding entire countries back.

Meanwhile, so many of the people arguing against ambition are some of the most ambitious people out there. They write stories and books arguing against ambition and then destroy themselves ambitiously trying to sell them. Even worse for the anti-ambition brand, many of them are doing this late into the second half of their lives! This is telling.

Ambition and striving are positive forces so long as they are skillful—which equates to direct at meaningful endeavors, focused on the process, the ability to detach identity from achievement, and pursued in supportive communities. Thousands of years ago even the Buddha and Rumi saw striving in itself was not problematic. The Buddha called it “right effort” and Rumi wrote that “the quest itself is the key to all your desires.”

In other words, doing—so long as it is skillful—is every bit as important as being.

Brad

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