[ Question ]

How do people become ambitious?

by Raemon1 min read4th Apr 201936 comments



I have a pet theory about how people become ambitious and agenty.

I was about to write up some insight porn about it, and then was like "you know, Raemon, you should probably actually think about about this for real, since it seems like Pet Psychology Theories are one of the easier ways to get stuck in dumb cognitive traps."

"How do people get ambitious and agenty" seems to be something people should have actually tried to study before. I'm thinking something as simple as "interviewing lots of people and checking for common patterns."

2 seconds spent on google scholar suggested I could use better keywords.

Curious if anyone has looked into this (either reviewing existing literature, or conducting interviews themselves or otherwise trying to tackle the question in a serious way)

For clarity, the two phenomena I want to understand better are:

  • Ambition. How do people end up having plans (which they realistically expect to achieve) that affect at least thousands, and preferably millions of people?
  • Agency. How do people generally gain the capacity to be self-motivated, think through plans, and decide how to pursue goals that will change the world (changing it in small ways is fine)
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8 Answers

Tongue-in-cheek: "when their pathological need to do something outweighs their pathological need to do nothing."

In more detail: there are several different kinds of deep-rooted psychological needs that ambition might be powered by, and I think the resulting different kinds of ambition are different enough to discuss as distinct entities (in particular, they vary in how prosocial they are). Some possibilities off the top of my head, not mutually exclusive, inspired by Enneagram types:

1. Reinforce a particular identity / self-narrative (e.g. "I'm special" -> strive to become a celebrity or w/e, see Instagram influencers); Enneagram 4

2. Get people to like you (again see Instagram influencers); Enneagram 3

3. Have power over people (some politicians, maybe); Enneagram 8

4. Have fun to avoid feeling bad; Enneagram 7

(One way to probe this in a given ambitious person is to look at what coping mechanisms they turn to when they fail. E.g. if it's about reinforcing a given identity through some ambitious project, when that project fails do they start reinforcing that identity in other ways?)

Then there's genuine compassion, which is the cleanest power source for ambition I've found so far, and arguably the most prosocial (there might be others, e.g. childlike joy and wonder). I am quite concerned that most of the ambition in the rationality / EA space is not being powered by genuine compassion; personally, most of the time I've been here I've been powered by a combination of #1 and #2.

There are also several different kinds of deep-rooted psychological needs that lack of ambition might be powered by. Again, some possibilities off the top of my head, inspired by Enneagram types:

1. Not drawing criticism / pissing people off; Enneagram 2, Enneagram 3, or Enneagram 9

2. Avoiding the feeling of not knowing what to do; Enneagram 5, Enneagram 6

3. Sense that ambition is morally wrong / corrupting; Enneagram 1

4. Sense that ambition is not your place / not the sort of thing people like you are allowed to do; Enneagram 2, Enneagram 3, Enneagram 4

Historically I think a lot of my lack of ambition was powered by a combination of #1, #2, and #4, although it's hard to disentangle. There were also less psychological obstacles, e.g. I was tired all the time because I was eating, sleeping, and exercising poorly, and had an awful social life; real hard to be ambitious or agentic in that state.

To summarize, I mostly relate to ambition as a relatively surface-level psychological phenomenon that's being powered by deeper dynamics, and I think at least as much in terms of obstacles to ambition as in terms of ways to cultivate ambition.

Epistemic status: based on lots of personal development work and looking at other people's psychology and personal development, e.g. via circling; especially, noticing my own level of ambition increase drastically the more work I do on myself, and looking at what seem to be the gears of that.

The literature on learned helplessness describes how to destroy ambition. That suggests that any good answer should resemble moving away from those situations.

Seems to me like what happens is that redirection of sex or survival drives get caught up in some sort of stable configuration where they can never be satisfied yet the person doesn't notice that aspect of the loop and thus keeps Doing the Thing far past the time normal people notice. Essentially they've goodharted themselves in a way that creates positive externalities for others.

I haven't looked at this in a serious way, but have thought about.

I think basically all of the ways people become more ambitious have to do with increasing either the self-efficacy of the person expecting to be able to do big things, or the reward that the person would get from doing big things. Here are some common examples I've seen in biographies and acquaintances:

1. Success spirals. They have small successes which make them think they can do a little bit more, which makes them think they can do more. This is basically a path to increasing self-efficacy.

2. Change in support structures/expectation. They meet a mentor or become part of a group that has big goals and is very agenty, and believes that they can be to. This is increasing both expectancy and reward.

3. Change in ontology. People often become much more agenty and ambitious as they transition from Kegan 3 to Kegan 4, they begin to realize that the world is a large system and that they can affect it, rather than looking at their immediate emotions.

4. Removing large emotional blocks, Sometimes people have lots of internal conflict that is holding them back. If one of the major blocks to action is removed, from the outside they suddenly become much more ambitious and agenty.

5. Adding emotional scarring. Sometimes, the opposite of the above happens. People are relatively content with the status quo and don't feel the need to prove themselves. Then, something bad happens to them that makes them feel the need to prove themselves, thus raising their ambition.

Further Braindump:

Goal: I'm interesting specifically in unambitious people who become ambitious. (Mostly because this seems like the most useful/interesting lever to push on. The broader goal is figure out 'what would help people become more ambitious in a healthy/productive way at scale').

Some people seem "born ambitious" but there's not a lot I can change my actions based on that.

Related questions:

  • What's a list of people who "are ambitious"? Potentially including:
    • people I know who seem ambitious
    • think for 5 minutes listing famous people
      • how do I get non-famous people? are famous people representative?
    • Rich people (Forbes 500 list)
    • Startup Founders
    • People who launch movements (see wikipedia list of movements. Who founded them, and/or took over them?)
    • People who have biographies written about them
      • Might conflate people who "have an ambition" vs "people who are generically ambitious" but that might be fine for now
      • Is there a procedure you can easily do to check biographies for "what was their main causal factors towards ambition" at moderate scale?
  • Who has thought about ambition through this lens?
    • Paul Graham and other YCombinator folk probably have.
      • What has Paul Graham has written about this topic?
        • Cities and Ambition
        • Anatomy of Determination (in which he claims ambition is an important element of determination)
        • How easy it is to ask him about different angles on questions he's previously explored? Does he respond on Twitter or email or whatev?
  • What is the existing literature on ambition?
    • Scan through google scholar or whatever
  • Who in the rationality community has already thought about this a bunch?
  • How many startups have gotten a million users?
  • How many songs or youtube videos have gotten a million unique views?

[WIP] Review of paper "On the value of Aiming High – The causes and consequences of ambition"

Link to PDF

Partial summary:

They discuss a bunch of ways they might define ambition, from a common sense or psychology standpoint. Eventually they define it thus:

Ambition is the persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment.
Ambition involves persistence and generality in that we do not expect that ambition ceases to exist once a certain level of attainment is achieved, nor do we believe that ambition is compartmentalized toward success in only a single sphere. Ambition also generally has been taken to reflect striving for position and wealth and not to indicate strivings for general well-being and socioemotional acceptance. In short, ambition is about attaining rather than achieving (though of course there is a certain relationship between the two).

This isn't quite the thing I meant, but seems relevant enough to be interesting and keep reading.


They go on to make some hypotheses:

Antecedents of ambition:

Hypothesis 1: Conscientiousness will be positively related to ambition.

2. Extraversion will be positively related to ambition.

3. Neuroticism will be negatively related to ambition.

4. General mental ability will be positively related to ambition.

5. Parents’ occupational prestige will be positively related to ambition.

Consequences of ambition

6a. Ambition will be positively related to the quantity of educational attainment.

6b. Ambition will partially mediate a significant part of the relationship of the distal attributes to educational attainment

7a. Ambition will be positively related to income

7b. Ambition will partially mediate a significant part of the relationship of the distal attributes to income.

8a. Ambition will be positively related to occupational attainment.

8b. Ambition will partially mediate a significant part of the relationship of the distal attributes to occupational attainment.

Will write up more as I find time.

I've been reading lesswrong on and off for about 7 years (hpmor is great). I realized today that I've never had Agency (My life has been a haphazard mess, but I'm lucky to be in an okay place). It's funny to see this question pop up today of all days.

A guess to an answer to your question: They'd need to realize that intelligence is a thing, they'd need to see from outside of themselves that the brain is this thing that thinks and does and is weird. Theeeen they would need some values or goals to pursue. Values like "self improvement" and goals like "I want to be able to afford the best food in the world 24/7"