Against Ambition

5 Aug 2019, 500 Words

“Ambitious” is a word that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. It’s often used descriptively when talking about people, but also prescriptively when talking about desirable characteristics in a friend/partner.

I think both of these are misguided, and that “ambitious” is a word that we should remove from our vocabularies.

Ambitious is arbitrary

The circle of things that society values are often arbitrary. Wanting to excel at something in this circle would be considered ambitious, whereas wanting to excel at something outside this circle wouldn’t.

Trying to become a grandmaster chess player would be seen as Good and ambitious. Trying to get reach the Grandmaster league in Starcraft II, in most circles, wouldn’t.

This is changing, as esports is becoming more popular, lucrative, and institutionalised. But there are countless other things that are today what esports was 15 years ago, and putting value on “ambition” often biases us against these things.

Ambitious is zero-sum

A lot of ambitious goals fall under the category of “zero-sum games that afford social status”. A thing is more ambitious if fewer people can do it.

Some examples:

These can, of course, be valuable. Being top of the class can give you unique opportunities. Prestigious jobs can have tangible benefits, like high salaries. Running faster than Usain Bolt probably means you’re in good shape.

But they’re often pursued for the wrong reasons — the narrative that it’s Good to “be the best” in obscure games played against others.

These examples are considered ambitious precisely because they are zero-sum. Only one person gets to be top of the class, only a few people get that job every year, and beating Usain Bolt comes at his expense.

Brian Timar wrote a great essay this year about “mimetic traps” — our tendency to imitate our peers and get stuck trying to “beat” them in zero-sum games to become “successful”. In his case, the inherited desire was to be top of the Physics class, despite not really caring about Physics. I’d highly recommend reading the essay yourself:

Intentionality, not ambition

Placing value on “ambition” lets society decide what’s important to us, and encourages us to inherit the desires of others.

Living intentionally is what actually matters. For you, that might correspond to what society considers ambitious. But it also might not. Both are fine!

thanks for reading!

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