# 106

Follow-up to How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious

Living with yourself is a bit like having a preteen and watching them get taller; the changes happen so slowly that it's almost impossible to notice them, until you stumble across an old point of comparison and it becomes blindingly obvious. I hit that point a few days ago, while planning what I might want to talk about during an OkCupid date. My brain produced the following thought: "well, if this topic comes up, it might sound like I'm trying to take over the world, and that's intimidating- Wait. What?"

I'm not trying to take over the world. It sounds like a lot of work, and not my comparative advantage. If it seemed necessary, I would point out the problems that needed solving and delegate them to CFAR alumni with more domain-specific expertise than me.

However, I went back and reread the post linked at the beginning, and I no longer feel much kinship with that person. This is a change that happened maybe 25-50% deliberately, and the rest by drift, but I still changed my mind, so I will try to detail the particular changes, and what I think led to them. Introspection is unreliable, so I'll probably be at least 50% wrong, but what can you do?

## 1. Idealism versus practicality

I would still call myself practical, but I no longer think that this comes at the expense of idealism. Idealism is absolutely essential, if you want to have a world that changes because someone wanted it to, as opposed to just by drift. Lately in the rationalist/CFAR/LW community, there's been a lot of emphasis on agency and agentiness, which basically mean the ability to change the world and/or yourself deliberately, on purpose, through planned actions. This is hard. The first step is idealism-being able to imagine a state of affairs that is different and better. Then comes practicality, the part where you sit down and work hard and actually get something done.

It's still true that idealism without practicality doesn't get much done, and practicality without idealism can get a lot done, but it matters what problems you're working on, too. Are you being strategic? Are you even thinking, at all, about whether your actions are helping to accomplish your goals? One of the big things I've learned, a year and a half and two CFAR workshops later, is how automatic and easy this lack of strategy really is.

I had a limited sort of idealism in high school; I wanted to do work that was important and relevant; but I was lazy about it. I wanted someone to tell me what was important to be doing right now. Nursing seemed like an awesome solution. It still seems like a solution, but recently I've admitted to myself, with a painful twinge, that it might not be the best way for me, personally, to help the greatest number of people using my current and potential skill set. It's worth spending a few minutes or hours looking for interesting and important problems to work on.

I don't think I had the mental vocabulary to think that thought a year and a half ago. Some of the change comes from having dated an economics student. Come to think of it, I expect some of his general ambition rubbed off on me, too. The rest of the change comes from hanging out with the effective altruism and similar communities.

I'm still practical. I exercise, eat well, go to bed on time, work lots of hours, spend my money wisely, and maintain my social circle mostly on autopilot; it requires effort but not deliberate effort. I'm lucky to have this skill. But I no longer think it's a virtue over and above idealism. Practical idealists make the biggest difference, and they're pretty cool to hang out with. I want to be one when I grow up.

## 2. Fear of failure

Don't get me wrong. If there's one deep, gripping, soul-crushing terror in my life, one thing that gives me literal nightmares, it's failure. Making mistakes. Not being good enough. Et cetera.

In the past few years, the main change has been admitting to myself that this terror doesn't make a lot of sense. First of all, it's completely miscalibrated. As Eliezer pointed out during a conversation on this, I don't fail at things very often. Far from being a success, this is likely a sign that the things I'm trying aren't nearly challenging enough.

My threshold for what constitutes failure is also fairly low. I made a couple of embarrassing mistakes during my spring clinical. Some part of my brain is convinced that this equals permanent failure; I wasn't perfect during the placement, and I can't go back and change the past, thus I have failed. Forever.

I passed the clinical, wrote the provincial exam (results aren't in but I'm >99% confident I passed) (EDIT: Passed! YEAAHHH!!!), and I'm currently working in the intensive care unit, which has been my dream since I was about fifteen. The part of my brain that keeps telling me I failed permanently obviously isn't saying anything useful.

I think 'embarrassing' is a keyword here. The first thing I thought, on the several occasions that I made mistakes, was "oh my god did I just kill someone... Phew, no, no harm done." The second thought was "oh my god, my preceptor will think I'm stupid forever and she'll never respect me and no one wants me around, I'm not good enough..." This line of thought never goes anywhere good. It says something about me, though, that "I'm not good enough" is very directly connected to people wanting me around, to belonging somewhere. For several personality-formative years of my life, people didn't want me around. Probably for good reason; my ten-year-old self was prickly and socially inept and miserable. I think a lot of my determination not to seek status comes from the "uncool kids trying to be cool are pathetic" meme that was so rampant when I was in sixth grade.

Oh, and then there's the traumatic swim team experience. Somewhere, in a part of my brain where I don't go very often nowadays, there a bottomless whirlpool of powerless rage and despair around the phrase "no matter how hard I try, I'll never be good enough." So when I make an embarrassing mistake, my ten-year-old self is screaming at me "no wonder everyone hates you!" and my fourteen-year-old self is sadly muttering that "you know, maybe you just don't have enough natural talent," and none of it is at all useful.

The thing about those phrases is that they refer to complex and value-laden concepts, in a way that makes them seem like innate attributes, à la Fundamental Attribution Error. "Not good enough" isn't a yes-or-no attribute of a person; it's a magical category that only sounds simple because it's a three-word phrase. I've gotten somewhat better at propagating this to my emotional self. Slightly. It's a work in progress.

Rejection therapy and having a general CoZE [Comfort Zone Expansion] mindset helped remove some of the sting of "but I'll look stupid if I try something too hard and fail at it!" I still worry about the pain of future embarrassment, but I'm more likely to point out to myself that it's not a valid objection and I should do X anyway. Making "I want to become stronger" an explicit motto is new to the last year and a half, too, and helps by giving me ammunition for why potential embarrassment isn't a reason not to do something.

In conclusion: failure still sucks. I'm a perfectionist. But I failed in a lot of small ways during my spring clinical, and passed/got a job anyway, which seems to have helped me propagate to my emotional self that it's okay to try hard things, where I'm almost certain to make mistakes, because mistakes don't equal instant damnation and hatred from all of my friends.

## 3. The morality of ambition

While I was in San Francisco a month ago, volunteering at the CFAR workshop and generally spending my time surrounded by smart, passionate, and ambitious people (thus convincing my emotional system that this is normal and okay), I had a conversation with Eliezer. He asked me to list ten areas in which I was above average.

This was a lot more painful than it had any reason to be. After bouncing off various poorly-formed objections in my mind, I said to myself "you know, having trouble admitting what you're good at doesn't make you virtuous." This was painful; losing a source of feeling-virtuous always is. But it was helpful. Yeah, talking all the time about how awesome you are at X, Y, Z makes you a bit of a bore. People might even avoid you (oh! the horror!). However, this doesn't mean that blocking even the thought of being above average makes you a good person. In fact, it's counterproductive. How are you supposed to know what problems you're capable of solving in the world if you can't be honest with yourself about your capabilities?

This conversation helped. (Even if some of the effect was "high status person says X -> I believe X," who cares? I endorsed myself changing my mind about this a year and a half ago. It's about time.)

HPMOR helped, too; specifically, the idea that there are four houses which have different positive qualities. Slytherins are demonized in canon, but in HPMOR their skills are recognized as essential. I can easily recognize the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff and even the Gryffindor in myself, but not much of Slytherin. Having a word for the ambition-cunning-strategic concept cluster is helpful. I can ask myself "now what would a Slytherin do with this information:?" I can think thoughts that feel very un-virtuous. "I'm young and prettier than average. What's a Slytherin way to use this... Oh, I suppose I can leverage it to get high-status men to pay attention to me long enough for me to explain the merits of an idea I have." This thought feels yuck, but the universe doesn't explode.

Probably the biggest factor was going to the CFAR workshops in the first place. Not from any of the curriculum, particularly, although the mindset of goal factoring helped me to realize that the mental action of "feeling unvirtuous for thinking in ambitious or calculating ways" wasn't accomplishing anything I wanted. Mostly the change came from social normalization, from hanging out with people who talked openly about their strengths and weaknesses, and no one got shunned.

[Silly plan for taking over the world: Arrange to meet high status-people and offer to give their children swimming lessons. Gain their trust. Proceed from there.]

## 4. Laziness

Nope. Still lazy. If anything, akrasia and procrastination are more of a problem now that I'm trying to do harder things more deliberately.

I've been keeping written goals for about a year now. This means I actually notice when I don't accomplish them.

I use Remember the Milk as a GTD system, and some other productivity/organization software (rescuetime, Mint.com, etc). I finally switched to Gmail, where I can use Boomerang and other useful tools. My current openness to trying new organization methods is high.

My general interest in trying things is higher, mainly because I have lots of community-endorsed-warm-fuzzies positive affect around that phrase. I want to be someone who's open to new experiences; I've had enough new experiences to realize how exhilarating they can be.

## Conclusion

I now have a wider range of potentially high-value personal projects ongoing. I now have an explicit goal of being well-known for non-fiction writing, probably in a blog form, in the next five years. (Do I have enough interesting things to say to make this a reality? We'll see. Is this goal vague? Yes. Working on it. I used to reject goals if they weren't utterly concrete, but even vague goals are something to build on).

I'm more explicit with myself about what I want from CFAR curriculum skills. (The general problem of critical thinking in nursing? Solvable! Why not?)

I think I've finally admitted to myself that "well, I'll just live in a cozy little house near my parents and work in the ICU and raise kids for the next forty years" might not be particularly virtuous or fun. There are things I would prefer to be different in the world, even if I can only completely specify a few of them. There are exciting scary opportunities happening all the time. I'm lucky enough to belong to a community of people that can help me find them.

I don't have plans for much beyond the next year. But here's to the next decade being interesting!

# 106

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I'm not trying to take over the world. It sounds like a lot of work, and not my comparative advantage.

There is something very LW about having to deny that one is taking over the world, and providing either a clarification "I prefer to think of it as optimizing." or describing it as a choice like any other "I don't want to mow the lawn; it's a lot of work and I can hire people with better equipment to do it for less than my time is worth."

I went back and reread the post linked at the beginning, and I no longer feel much kinship with that person.

I would love to see you try to do the opposite: imagine yourself being Swimmer963 as she was around January 2012 or so, reading your current post and commenting on it. What would be her impressions of you?

Also, on the subject of self-modification, here is a quote from Yvain:

Once upon a time, an evil witch transformed a prince into a frog, telling him that only the kiss of a princess could restore him to his proper form. But although he searched around the world, he could find no princess who was willing to kiss a hideous little frog. Finally, he went to the Wise Wizard. “Gender is a social construct,” said the Wise Wizard. “Just declare your gender identity to be female, then kiss yourself on the hand or something.” So the frog did that, returned to human form, and ruled the land for many years as a wise and benevolent queen.

Moral: Ability to self-modify is just ridiculously powerful.

This is a bit un-LW-ian, but: I'm earnestly happy for you. You sound, if not happier, more fulfilled than in your first post on this site. (Also, ambition is good.)

If this is in fact un-LW-ian, it shouldn't be. :)

I hate to focus on the negative, but a couple of things in your post made me go "ugh". The first is talking about taking over the world: It's funny when Harry Potter says it, grating when people on Less Wrong do it. Don't talk about conquering the world unless you actually have realistic plans to conquer at least a small part of it, otherwise it just comes off to me as trying to look cool in an awkward way.

The second is your overuse and misuse of jargon. The concept of comparative advantage for instance describes how it may be efficient for you to do X even though you may be worse at X than others, yet you call "looking better than average" a comparative advantage, when it really is just an advantage. "I suppose I can leverage it into a comparative advantage for getting high-status men to pay attention to me long enough for me to explain the merits of an idea I have." This should be: "I can use this to my advantage".

Your post isn't bad but things like this make it harder for me to draw use from it.

I have run into this misunderstanding of comparative advantage many times. I think it happens a lot because the phrase seems to make sense on its own ("I have an advantage compared to you") and so people assume they have already grokked the relevant concepts.

Don't talk about conquering the world unless you actually have realistic plans to conquer at least a small part of it, otherwise it just comes off to me as trying to look cool in an awkward way.

I specifically said I don't want to, which is true. I'm not even sure "take over the world" is a clear concept. Yes, I was trying to be funny. At least one person thought it was funny. I think it's funny when anyone says it tongue-in-cheek.

I don't want to come across as wanting to take over the world because there's a certain kind of focus/drivenness (on other goals) that, in my experience, comes across as really intimidating to people who aren't in the Less Wrong circle, especially if you're a girl and they're a boy. It's mixed up with other impressions I want to avoid giving, too, like the impression that Less Wrong is a cult.

This should be: "I can use this to my advantage".

Thanks, fixed. I honestly think that I misuse it because an ex-boyfriend, who was studying economics as a degree, used to use it all the time and probably overuse it in the same way.

Well, there are two things wrong with that. For one thing, you do not lose beauty when you use it to your advantage, so it is not an opportunity cost. The second and more important point is that you should write to communicate as effectively as possible: This means using jargon ONLY when it is actually appropriate, not whenever you feel like you can sort of fit it in.

I suspect that the tendency of people here to overuse jargon is a large part of what makes people consider Less Wrong cultish. Honestly, I feel someone should compile a list of Less Wrong "DOs and DON'Ts", which includes rules like "Don't use the word rationality as synonym for smart or good or other more specific words."

(The above should not be taken as further criticism of Swimmer specifically)

Honestly, I feel someone should compile a list of Less Wrong "DOs and DON'Ts", which includes rules like "Don't use the word rationality as synonym for smart or good or other more specific words."

I made this a while back as a joke, and shortly thereafter lsparrish wrote a serious post about avoiding inflationary use of terms.

The modifier "comparative" is used to highlight things that are, in isolation, disadvantages, but which are advantages when all things are taken into account. The classic example is a lawyer who can type much more quickly than her secretary, but who hires a secretary to type because of the relative price of lawyering and typing.

The modifier "comparative" is used to highlight things that are, in isolation, disadvantages,

That's just false. If A can make wool for \$2 and coffee for \$3, and B can make wool for \$6 and coffee for \$5, then B has a comparative advantage in coffee (which is in isolation a disadvantage) and A has a comparative advantage in wool (which in isolation is an advantage). Being a disadvantage just isn't necessary for a comparative advantage.

The critical piece necessary for trade to be profitable is that each party can produce a good at lower marginal and opportunity cost than the other party. I was thinking of just the absolute advantage case (like the example you gave and the example I gave) where one party's disadvantage becomes an advantage in the presence of trade, but I believe it's correct to refer to two parties which each have an absolute advantage as comparative advantage. I'm not sure about that, though.

Trading would imply that Swimmer963 is giving up some of her attractiveness in exchange for attention, by treating 'beauty' as a resource that can be depleted. However, her attractiveness in your example of the trade (beauty $\\leftrightarrow$ attention) isn't depleted significantly.

Perhaps you meant something like trading her spatio-temporal presence (in which the subject gets to admire her visage in a non-awkward social situation for a prolonged period of time) in exchange for the subject's attention; or more succinctly, trading face time with attention?

I agree with you that some advantages can indeed be comparative advantages, but beauty (in this context) is simply an advantage.

If you're having difficulty with Akrasia and procrastination and you are still looking for solutions, might I suggest the Less Wrong Study Hall? We do constant pomodoros of 25 minutes work, 5 minutes rest, and many of us have found it tremendously effective.

(This is a result of the Co-Working Collaboration to Combat Akrasia post)

It's on my list of "things to try as part of my San Francisco trip followup." Thanks!

I think 'embarrassing' is a keyword here. The first thing I thought, on the several occasions that I made mistakes, was "oh my god did I just kill someone... Phew, no, no harm done." The second thought was "oh my god, my preceptor will think I'm stupid forever and she'll never respect me and no one wants me around, I'm not good enough..." This line of thought never goes anywhere good. It says something about me, though, that "I'm not good enough" is very directly connected to people wanting me around, to belonging somewhere. For several personality-formative years of my life, people didn't want me around. Probably for good reason; my ten-year-old self was prickly and socially inept and miserable. I think a lot of my determination not to seek status comes from the "uncool kids trying to be cool are pathetic" meme that was so rampant when I was in sixth grade.

Hi, I don't have any experience with LW talk and I don't want to diagnose from afar. But I have had similiar experienced though and I found out that:

A. It was a fear of the denial itself. So I could not work with it by rationalizing. Because the "reasons" were only triggers, not the Source.

B. It was strongly connected with me not being I. In the sense that I could not stand up for my self and put my needs above the needs of others.

Maybe it's helpful. Your post gives a lot of insight, and helps me review certain parts of my current life. Thanks for that.

I still worry about the pain of future embarrassment, but I'm more likely to point out to myself that it's not a valid objection and I should do X anyway.

I HATE when it happens to me, it's the most stupid heritage of our undercortical brain. I argue with my brain all the time because of this...
Anyway:

Silly plan for taking over the world: Arrange to meet high status-people and offer to give their children swimming lessons. Gain their trust. Proceed from there.

A possibly even better plan is to start an image consulting business.
Recently a book came out here in Italy, it was titled "The powerful men whisperer" (yeah, I know, even translated it's that bad) and retold the story of the head of a PR consulting organization, and how through that business he became the trusted friend of basically every top manager, prime minister or other powerful person in the last twenty years, while at the same time being able to remain thoroughly anonymous.

Shockingly, Googling "the powerful men whisperer" doesn't return anything like what you're describing. Any chance you could link something describing the book in more detail? It sounds fascinating.

I'm sorry but the book is only in Italian. Click here to go to the Amazon page, anyway.

A possibly even better plan is to start an image consulting business.

It's a better plan in the abstract, but not something where I have a talent or comparative advantage.

I read and identified with and commented on your post a year and a half ago. I just wanted to say I'm glad to know that you're feeling more ambitious now. And thanks for sharing. I haven't solved these same problems for myself nearly to the same extent, so learning about your recent experiences is extremely valuable for me.

Went back and read your comment-I remember that! It sounded like you weren't doing too badly at the time, externally at least. Then again, I've never dealt with depression as a side effect of aiming for goals that were too hard. Massive anxiety, crying in the washroom at work, not sleeping, yes, but never the ongoing invades-your-whole-life apathy of clinical depression.

I can always tell myself "if you keep banging your head on this seemingly insurmountable problem, sooner or later you'll get past it" because it always has in the past, probably because I can bang my head on something for quite a long time when most people might otherwise give up. Example: despite plenty of anxiety and feelings-of-inadequacy, I have stuck with taekwondo longer than everyone else who started at the same time as me, and will probably get my black belt next summer. The one example is swimming, where I stopped banging my head on the specific problem of getting faster, and then a large part of me took this as evidence that I was a failure with no willpower, while the rest of me went off and became a local expert on teaching swimming to kids. I still think it's a useful skill to be able to work on a problem out of habit, repeatedly, without necessarily spending much time thinking about it once the initial exploration-and-decision is done. Helps with the frustration and inadequacy part.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

I try to keep humble to my weaknesses of the past, as they may become a future again, or worse than that. As an old choir song goes: 'What will it help us that once we were strong?'

ETA: sorry for the rather rambling comment, and sorry for making it all about me!

This post is really interesting, thank you. When I was 22 I did quite badly in my exams at university, mostly because I had mental health problems around exam time. I had been ambitious up until then, but after that, my ambition somehow deserted me, since I became convinced that if I tried to do too much I would get too stressed and fall apart. I dropped the economics part of my degree, since it was harder, and graduated with a philosophy degree. In my final year, I put in the minimum amount of work needed to get a 2.1 (which was what the average student on my course got).

Since I graduated, I've done jobs that are far less challenging than I'm capable of, and spent large amounts of time being totally convinced that I'm on the verge of getting fired (I haven't been fired :)). I've just been convinced that if I try to achieve more than "having a job" I'll fail at everything and there will be doom.

Recently, however (after 7 years), my ambition is returning. My mental health has vastly improved, in part due to mindfulness and CBT techniques, and I'm taking on something challenging at work. I've decided to take more risks even though I might fail.

I've found HPMOR (I read it all at once in the last week) really useful too. I think I mostly want to develop my Griffindor side. I just don't do many brave things. I'm not out to my family about polyamory, bisexuality or kink. I'm not out to most of my friends as a less wrong reader and aspiring rationalist because I'm worried that they'll think that I've joined a phyg! I don't ask guys out, and I'm even too scared to go to the local less wrong meetup because I'll be older than people and I worry they won't think I'm smart enough. I'd like to try to do more scary things.

I'm not out to most of my friends as a less wrong reader and aspiring rationalist because I'm worried that they'll think that I've joined a phyg! I don't ask guys out, and I'm even too scared to go to the local less wrong meetup because I'll be older than people and I worry they won't think I'm smart enough.

I hate the "phyg" coinage so much. That said, I've had a decent amount of luck introducing the LW meme cluster to people as a toolset rather than an identity, thus avoiding all the heuristics that get triggered by "hey, mom, wanna hear about this new philosophy of life that I've started identifying with?" Ideally, the name of the site should come up much later: start with the stuff your audience would find useful or interesting, and if that works well, you know where to find more.

Truthfully, I'd say that's a better way to approach it even if you aren't trying to build community.

As to LW meetup demographics, I wouldn't worry too much about age. If you're older than most of your local group, that's if anything a status positive, and expected intelligence isn't likely to be much of a problem either; bear in mind that what you see on the site is filtered for some level of domain knowledge, thanks to our norms against spinning bullshit or repeating popular beliefs without research. People, especially young people, tend to come off as less knowledgeable and eloquent in person.

I'm not out to most of my friends as a less wrong reader and aspiring rationalist because I'm worried that they'll think that I've joined a phyg!

Do ... do you mean we can have friends outside of LW? Don't the sequences say that's irrational?

I've by now pitched LW to quite a lot of friends, STEM-types mostly. It's worth thinking of a 'pitch', or some sort of casual mention, you feel comfortable with, so you don't avoid the topic at the last moment.

Raising awareness for the EA community in general, or LW in particular, are probably among the lowest hanging fruit for having a high impact for low effort, it's worth getting down that barrier of somehow being 'embarrassed' by hanging out with ostensibly smart people sooner rather than later. Be proud of who you are, and of your affiliations!

ETA: sorry for the rather rambling comment, and sorry for making it all about me!

I think every post I've ever written has been mostly about me! This is not something that LW will usually punish, if the content is useful to others in some sense.

When I was 22 I did quite badly in my exams at university, mostly because I had mental health problems around exam time. I had been ambitious up until then, but after that, my ambition somehow deserted me, since I became convinced that if I tried to do too much I would get too stressed and fall apart.

Yeah, I've had enough experience of this brand of self-doubt. My worry is less that I'll have a major nervous breakdown; I've always been pretty resilient in that sense; but I'm definitely terrified, all the time, that an emergency will happen and I'll freeze up or react too slowly and be completely useless. I've had this fear since at least the age of twelve, when I started taking lifesaving classes at the pool and realized that it was really freaking hard for me to stay calm under pressure. I think my most Gryffindor trait is that I've faced this fear down, repeatedly, covering it up with enthusiasm or helpfulness or whatever. I think I've been useless quite at lot. But this is no longer a major fear of mine.

I don't know if the same solution will work for you. I can rely on myself to go home, exercise, write a story, bake some cookies, and bounce back to my normal emotional state even if I've had a day where I felt totally useless. I've also always been good at doing a lot of things at once and having a ridiculously full schedule; this isn't the kind of stress that gets to me or makes me depressed or anxious, which I know it does for some people. I guess maybe it's mindfulness techniques that help :) I've done counselling and tried mindfulness/CBT techniques for my work-related anxiety, but so far it's been less effective than my base strategy of reminding myself that my anxiety is internal to me and not a part of the situation itself, and focusing on just getting particular, measurable tasks done.

Anyway, I wish you luck with the Gryffindor endeavour!

Thanks for the post.

Curiosity may play a greater role in people's capacity to achieve things than ambition does. Quoting Alexender Grothendieck's Recoltes et Semailles:

In the Promenade, and here and there in Récoltes et Semailles I will be speaking of the nature of mathematical work. It is work that I understand very well from first hand experience. Most of what I say will apply equally well, I think, to all creative labor, and all activities of discovery. It will apply at least for what is known as 'intellectual' work, which is done mostly 'in one's head', and to writing. Work of this sort is distinguished by the hatching out and by the blossoming of our understanding of certain things which we are interrogating.

To take an example in the other direction, passionate love is, also, driven by the quest for discovery. It provides us with a certain kind of understanding known as 'carnal' which also restores itself, blossoms forth and grows in depth. These two impulses -that which animates the mathematician at his desk ( let's say), and that which impels the lover towards the loved one - are much more closely linked than is commonly believed, or, let us say, people are inclined to want to believe. It is my wish that these pages of Récoltes et Semailles will make its reader aware of this connection, in his own work and in his daily life.

Most of the time in the course of this excursion we will be concerned with mathematics itself, properly speaking. I will be saying almost nothing about the context in which this work takes place, or of the motivations of individuals which lie outside the work itself. This runs the risk of giving me, or the mathematician or scientist in general, a somewhat flattering image, and for that reason distorted- the sort of thing one sees in speaking of the "grand passion" of the scientist, without restrictions. That is to say, something along the lines of the grandiose "Myth of Science" ( with a capital S if you please!); the heroic "myth of Prometheus" which writers have so often indulged in ( and continue to do so) , for better or worse. Only the historians, and then not always, have been able to resist the seductions of this myth. The truth of the matter is that it is universally the case that, in the real motives of the scientist, of which he himself is often unaware in his work, vanity and ambition will play as large a role as they do in all other professions. The forms that these assume can be in turn subtle or grotesque, depending on the individual. Nor do I exempt myself. Anyone who reads this testimonial will have to agree with me.

It is also the case that the most totally consuming ambition is powerless to make or to demonstrate the simplest mathematical discovery - even as it is powerless ( for example) to "score" ( in the vulgar sense) . Whether one is male or female, that which allows one to 'score' is not ambition, the desire to shine, to exhibit one's prowess, sexual in this case. Quite the contrary!

What brings success in this case is the acute perception of the presence of something strong, very real and at the same time very delicate. Perhaps one can call it "beauty", in its thousand-fold aspects. That someone is ambitious doesn't mean that one cannot also feel the presence of beauty in them; but it is not the attribute of ambition which evokes this feeling....

The first man to discover and master fire was just like you and me. He was neither a hero nor a demi-god. Once again like you and me he had experienced the sting of anguish, and applied the poultice of vanity to anaesthetize that sting. But, at the moment at which he first "knew" fire he had neither fear nor vanity. That is the truth at the heart of all heroic myth. The myth itself becomes insipid, nothing but a drug, when it is used to conceal the true nature of things.

I feel like this text presents a straw man of ambition. You need curiosity too; ambition without it is boring; but I think there is a quality that keeps people on track through the non-fun parts of exploring their art. It's not ambition itself that leads to mathematical discovery, but it's something like ambition that might lead someone to sit down, day after day, with books of math and paper and a pencil, and work hard learning new concepts...some days it might be the height of fun, some days they might rather go drinking with their friends, but at the end, any discoveries born of curiosity also depended on those many hours spent learning basic concepts.

Of course, that quality might not be what most people call ambition. It could be called "drive" or even "conscientiousness". It's possible to work hard for many years just out of habit, because you think it's virtuous to work hard for its own sake (I used to be more this type)...but the strategic application of hard work to problems you think are both important and solvable by you is something I don't think is covered by "curiosity" or "conscientiousness."

I have a cluster of intuitions on this point that are difficult to articulate, but I'll try:

1. I agree that in order to achieve things, one has to keep working through the non-fun parts.

2. My impressions of the best mathematicians is that the situation is not so much that they force themselves to work through the non-fun parts as much as that they're so obsessed by what they're working on that they don't have a choice not to do it. This may be the primary quality that differentiates them from other mathematicians of comparable IQ, education, etc. The physiology here may be similar to that of drug addiction.

3. Maybe it's helpful to consider the following analogy. A parent will tend to his or her newborn even when it's unpleasant. But this doesn't come from ambition as much as instinct.

4. It's important to note that much of scientific and other progress has been unexpected. Isaac Newton spend the industrial revolution by many years, but he didn't set out to do so: he set out to understand the world. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was probably motivated by a desire to understand the world rather than by a desire to cure disease.

5. I think that one can have a significantly bigger impact (10x-100x on average?) on the world by being goal-driven in a reflective way than one can by following one's instincts without reflections. But I don't think that the quality of being goal-driven accounts for most of the variance in people's social impact.

I think that one can have a significantly bigger impact (10x-100x on average?) on the world by being goal-driven in a reflective way than one can by following one's instincts without reflections.

How did you arrive at these numbers, out of curiosity?

I don't have a tight argument.

One thing that I see as relevant is the impact of funding bed net distribution relative to the impact of usual work, and another thing that I see as relevant is the amount of social value that founding Google produced relative to the founders' earnings. But these things don't address small probability edge cases in which specific targeted interventions turn out to be many orders of magnitude more important than most activity.

But I don't think that the quality of being goal-driven accounts for most of the variance in people's social impact.

I would have said that it accounts for maybe 10-25%, and random chance/luck accounts for the rest. I expect I was wrong, and that there are other important predictive factors.

However, the mindset of "some people are creative and curious and obsessed with what they do, and do it by instinct even when the going gets tough, and they're the ones who will change the world" doesn't seem helpful if you're not one of those people. Which I'm pretty sure I'm not. (Maybe a little bit for writing fiction). What are you supposed to do if you don't feel an obsessive need to do anything? How do you decide what to fill your time with?

To take an example in the other direction, passionate love is, also, driven by the quest for discovery. It provides us with a certain kind of understanding known as 'carnal' which also restores itself, blossoms forth and grows in depth.

I don't know what this feeling is. I'm quite possibly some degree of asexual. Being told that "curiosity/obsession is supposed to feel like being passionately in love" is really unhelpful.

I hope I haven't alienated you — it wasn't my intention.

I would have said that it accounts for maybe 10-25%, and random chance/luck accounts for the rest. I expect I was wrong, and that there are other important predictive factors.

It depends how broad you're defining random chance / luck, but some predictive factors (which can be positive or negative depending how pronounced they are, and on the context, and which have effect sizes that depend on the context) are

1. IQ
2. Big Five personality traits.
3. Early childhood environment
4. Educational background
5. Peer group
6. Susceptibility to herd mentality or lack thereof
7. Meta-cognition
8. Genuine humility or lack thereof

It's possible to change on some of these dimensions, or change their significance in one's life.

However, the mindset of "some people are creative and curious and obsessed with what they do, and do it by instinct even when the going gets tough, and they're the ones who will change the world" doesn't seem helpful if you're not one of those people.

I need to be more careful about how I frame these points. I recognize that my original framing may have come across as elitist and/or having in-group/out-group connotations.

My reason for focusing on outliers is that I think that the factors relevant to success emerge in their most vivid forms in these cases. This is similar to how John Oldham and Lois Morris categorize personality types according to personality disorders. By examining people who vividly exemplify some of one's characteristics, one can understand oneself better.

Which I'm pretty sure I'm not. (Maybe a little bit for writing fiction).

These things aren't necessarily immutable.

What are you supposed to do if you don't feel an obsessive need to do anything? How do you decide what to fill your time with?

It depends on what you value. What do you value? :-)

I don't know what this feeling is. I'm quite possibly some degree of asexual. Being told that "curiosity/obsession is supposed to feel like being passionately in love" is really unhelpful.

I didn't know this before.

I think that there's also overlap with spiritual experiences, which you've described yourself as having had. When I first understood class field theory and complex multiplication it induced a several week long state of altered consciousness. I felt a sense of great inner peace, and even the most mundane objects around me seemed to me very beautiful.

I didn't feel alienated, don't worry.

Of the factors you put, it seems like peer group is the main one you can influence (which is a large portion of what I've done), and you might be able to affect education, meta-cognition, and humility/lack thereof through deliberate effort. Thus, these are what I care about for the purposes of thinking about my own plans, as opposed to having interesting conversations about people who do cool things, or being in a job where you try to predict who will do cool things so you can hire them. In that case, the value of noticing and understanding factors beyond the individual's control is helpful.

It depends on what you value. What do you value? :-)

I value a world that contains interesting conversations, beautiful things, a society with helpful traditions and rituals, and people who do useful things for sane reasons. All else being equal, I value fewer people dying. I value less total pain. I value a society with mechanisms that allow it to change and progress in useful ways. On a personal level, I want to do something important and relevant. I think this is a basic human need.

I think a big part of "having ambitions" (as opposed to "being ambitious") is the HMPOR concept of "responsability." You look at a situation and think "this needs to change, and to make it change, this needs to be done." And you go out and try things until the change happens. I didn't used to think like this at all. Now I do a bit more, even if I don't always act accordingly.

I think that there's also overlap with spiritual experiences

Oh! That's what he's talking about! I totally know that feeling. I've even had it with respect to math and science. Is this actually what romantic passion feels like to most people?

Of the factors you put, it seems like peer group is the main one you can influence (which is a large portion of what I've done), and you might be able to affect education, meta-cognition, and humility/lack thereof through deliberate effort. Thus, these are what I care about for the purposes of thinking about my own plans, as opposed to having interesting conversations about people who do cool things, or being in a job where you try to predict who will do cool things so you can hire them. In that case, the value of noticing and understanding factors beyond the individual's control is helpful.

But learning about the factors that drive success in general is a sort of education, and one that I've found to have been helpful for my own personal development (though I recognize that my introspection may be faulty, and that my own situation may not generalize).

In particular, it's relevant to understanding one's comparative advantage. For example, I recently learned that my fluid intelligence lower than that of the average person in my peer groups, and that my ability to develop crystalized intelligence is probably higher than that of the average person in my peer groups. This suggests that I should work in a field where crystalized intelligence is more important to success than fluid intelligence is.

I value a world that contains interesting conversations, beautiful things, a society with helpful traditions and rituals, and people who do useful things for sane reasons. All else being equal, I value fewer people dying. I value less total pain. I value a society with mechanisms that allow it to change and progress in useful ways.

Would you describe yourself as basically utilitarian in philosophical outlook? The degree to which you're cause agnostic makes a difference in what's optimal.

On a personal level, I want to do something important and relevant. I think this is a basic human need.

"I think that's partly what interests me in people, that we don't just wish to feed and sleep and reproduce then die like cows or sheep. Even if they're gangsters, they seem to want to tell themselves they're good gangsters and they're loyal gangsters, they've fulfilled their 'gangstership' well. We do seem to have this moral sense, however it's applied, whatever we think. We don't seem satisfied, unless we can tell ourselves by some criteria that we have done it well and we haven't wasted it and we've contributed well. So that is one of the things, I think, that distinguishes human beings, as far as I can see." — Kazuo Ishiguro

I think a big part of "having ambitions" (as opposed to "being ambitious") is the HMPOR concept of "responsability." You look at a situation and think "this needs to change, and to make it change, this needs to be done." And you go out and try things until the change happens. I didn't used to think like this at all. Now I do a bit more, even if I don't always act accordingly.

To clarify where I'm coming from, in the past, I placed too much emphasis on far mode thinking about how to make the world a better place in the abstract, as opposed to focusing on locally optimizing for personal growth, which would help me make the world a better place in the long run. I think that a good heuristic is to focus on what one can do best in the short-run, rather than focusing on what seems most important in the abstract. It's often the case that the way in which one ends up having the most impact is different from what one would have imagined at the outset.

I recognize that my prior failure mode may not be relevant to your situation – just raising it as a point for consideration.

Oh! That's what he's talking about! I totally know that feeling. I've even had it with respect to math and science. Is this actually what romantic passion feels like to most people?

His analogy with romantic passion is imperfect — I would guess that more than anything else, he was trying to highlight the intensity of the emotion involved (in order to contrast it with popular conceptions of mathematical activity). Religious experience may be as close or closer. But religious experience probably doesn't come with the same obsessive "drive" that romantic passion does.

Here is another quotation of his that might clarify what he was trying to say:

The year 1955 marked a critical departure in my work in mathematics: that of my passage from "analysis" to "geometry". I well recall the power of my emotional response ( very subjective naturally); it was as if I'd fled the harsh arid steppes to find myself suddenly transported to a kind of "promised land" of superabundant richness, multiplying out to infinity wherever I placed my hand in it, either to search or to gather... This impression, of overwhelming riches has continued to be confirmed and grow in substance and depth down to the present day. The phrase "superabundant richness" has this nuance: it refers to the situation in which the impressions and sensations raised in us through encounter with something whose splendor, grandeur or beauty are out of the ordinary, are so great as to totally submerge us, to the point that the urge to express whatever we are feeling is obliterated.

To clarify where I'm coming from, in the past, I placed too much emphasis on far mode thinking about how to make the world a better place in the abstract, as opposed to focusing on locally optimizing for personal growth, which would help me make the world a better place in the long run. I think that a good heuristic is to focus on what one can do best in the short-run, rather than focusing on what seems most important in the abstract. It's often the case that the way in which one ends up having the most impact is different from what one would have imagined at the outset.

The fact that this has been your main flawed-heuristic-to-overcome is probably the source of almost all of our disagreement. My flawed heuristic was very close to the opposite; I was exposed to career-self-help books like "What Color is your Parachute" in my early teens, to the concepts of SMART goals, et cetera. I wouldn't have called it 'comparative advantage', but this was basically my reasoning for not going into physics–I didn't think I was good enough at math to be more than mediocre. I trained my brain to reject goals that weren't specific, measurable, clearly attainable, etc–it wasn't even that I thought about them and chose not to pursue them, but I didn't think they were goals at all. Daydreams, maybe, but goals were things where you could see every step of the way and then walk out and achieve it, without too much uncertainty introduced by the behaviour of other people.

This model helped me–I am quite good at "taskifying" goals, making them specific and measurable and all the rest, and maybe as a consequence, I'm good at doing them. But it limits the goals I can work on, and I've started to notice that people in real life can (sometimes) accomplish goals that start out big and vague and impossible-seeming...even if they only accomplish 1/10th of the goals they attempt, that might still be more total accomplishments than the person who started with easy achievable goals. Thus I should try it.

Typo: s/spend/sped/

I think the words you want are "intrinsic" vs "extrinsic" motivation.

"Intrinsic motivation" is when you do something for it's own sake, when the action is the goal.

"Extrinsic motivation" is when you do something in service of another goal.

It's complicated, right? A conscientious person might actually enjoy the process of cleaning their room...they might get a little reward buzz out of doing that little task, because they know it's one more thing off the checklist. To oversimplify neuroscience (but this actually isn't as oversimplified as you might think), the nice thing about the dopaminergic system is that it can be trained to make extrinsically rewarding activities become intrinsically rewarding. I think much of what we perceive as "driven, motivated" is the ability to make extrinsic rewarding activity intrinsically rewarding.

Ambition sets the height of the intrinsically rewarding goals, whatever they may be. Would you enjoy lots of money? Would you enjoy power? Would you enjoy helping people?

Motivation helps you to assign intrinsic reward to the activities which are in service of your goals. Perhaps yet another trait (Willpower? Grit? Perseverance?) enables you to power through it anyway, even if you are unable to find anything intrinsically rewarding about it.

Curiosity and Creative impulses are different from both of these things in that they are themselves forms of intrinsic motivation, and neither set nor serve any higher goal. We do those things because it feels good to satisfy, and it hurts to not satisfy it. It's fun - the same way that drinking with friends is fun. It's an impulse - the rewards are intrinsic, immediate, and it would actually require willpower not to do it.

So I've got impulses which are creative and curious - I spend my time learning because it is fun and I'd keep doing it even if nothing would ever come of it. I can visualize a world where those impulses are satisfied to a greater extent than they currently are, and want to bring about that world - that's an ambition. There are many college courses I don't enjoy, but I try to grit my teeth and work through them in the service of my ambition. That is willpower - it's in short supply, but it is present. I unfortunately don't have any motivation, but I imagine it would consist of a feeling of satisfaction in response to good grades, a feeling of contentment when my work is done, and things of that nature.

You said you wanted to be a nurse, so I'm assuming (correct me otherwise?) that "helping people" is your thing. Is helping people your ambition or your impulse or both?

Impulse form: Helping people feels good and knowing pain exists feels bad, so you are intrinsically motivated to do help.

Ambition form: You envision a world where people are helped and feel a desire to manipulate your environment such as to bring about that world.

EDIT: Or, I guess "neither" is an option too - the entire thing could be a means to some yet more abstract end.

I've known a few people who choose professions because of social obligation, or some abstract sense that they "should" be doing the thing in question. People who manage to be successful with this set of priorities generally have a lot of either motivation or gritty willpower.

For the "social pressure' variety, the ambition or impulse is to please some other set of people.

The "self acceptance" variety can often be very hard on themselves when they fail - for them, the ambition or impulse is the achievement of self-respect and self-worth. The whole thing is a quest to be the sort of person they would admire.

Awesome breakdown! Thank you!

On being a nurse: helping people is more an impulse than an ambition now. Bedside nursing is soooo instantly-gratifying, and fulfills the needs of some deep, primitive, social-grooming-craving part of my emotional system, I don't know if it was different four years ago; I don't trust myself to perfectly remember my past motivations. I think that for a long time "ambitions" had very little power to move me, because of the part of my brain that was convinced they were immoral and/or led to doom.

I do have ambitions to help people in strategic ways (nursing might be a strategic way, but it might not be), and hopefully they will gain more power to affect my actions in the future.

The nice thing about the impulse form is that it allows you to succeed at what you do despite being lazy and not having much in the way of motivation or willpower.

hopefully they will gain more power to affect my actions in the future.

Strategically fulfill your impulses. If I just wanted science to be done in the abstract, I'd lobby for funding to science or donate money to research. I, personally want to do science, and so I strategically plan my life so as to increase my ability to fulfill that impulse. It's an ambition to do science, but I'd never be able to motivate myself if I took the route of going into finance and donating my large income to research (unless I intrinsically enjoyed finance - insufficient data to know),

I'm saying that ambition needs a carrot at the end of the pole. The carrot is the instant gratification of the act of being helpful. Strategically make it so your ability to carry out this "act of being helpful" is increased, so that you can squeeze more gratification out of it. Without the carrot, ambition will fail due to lack of willpower and motivation. So if you are "strategically helping people", the end goal of the strategy must ultimately include something that furthers your own enjoyment and gratification, something you know you'll actually feel good about.

On my second point:

Brains are our masters, with only 2 percent of our body weight, they take 20 percent of the oxygen resources of our bodies; you cannot resist their commands. You become a mathematician, a slave of this insatiable hunger of your brain, of everybody's brain, for making structures of everything that goes into it.

Mikhail Gromov

How much of The Morality of Ambition is covered by the one-liner "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be."?

Cool post. I feel like I solved most of the problems you describe in this post a while ago myself. Here's my problem, if anyone wants to give me feedback: A few years ago, I was substantially more driven/ambitious, but I developed a really serious case of RSI/tendinitis that forced me to use a voice recognition system to control my computer for about a year. That's pretty much gone now, but it caused me to lose a bunch of habits (like frequently ask myself what the optimal thing to do at this instant is, and then go and do that thing, my own feelings be damned). Before, if I was feeling miserable and unmotivated, I would push on and keep studying/working; now I try to cheer myself up first (generally unsuccessfully). And I don't even care very much about solving this problem, either--I've just become more laid-back in general.

I now have an explicit goal of being well-known for non-fiction writing, probably in a blog form, in the next five years.

This is an interesting goal. I have an intuition that most people who became well-known for writing started with the goal of communicating some great ideas, not the goal of being well-known for writing itself. (Indeed, when I think of prominent non-fiction writers, I seem to think of them more as domain experts in the area they write about than writers for their own sake, except maybe Isaac Asimov.) So maybe your goal should be "read a bunch, think a bunch, experiment a bunch, and look for opportunities to expand the frontier of human knowledge"--but of course, this is more abstract and probably less motivating than "achieve high status through writing". (BTW, who's to say expanding the frontier of human knowledge is even higher-value than spreading little-known but important ideas that have already been discovered? You could do this through writing, but you could also do it through submitting links to reddit (I've spent a pretty decent amount of time trying to spread important ideas by submitting links to reddit, actually).)

And I don't even care very much about solving this problem, either--I've just become more laid-back in general.

Maybe that's a good, adaptive thing for you! Although maybe not if you haven't figured out reliable methods for actually cheering yourself up. (Just getting work done is a very reliable mood-booster for me, when I'm up to it...the second best is usually proxy work, like doing dishes, cooking, baking, exercising, which feels productive and gives me the dopamine hit but is usually lower-threshold to start doing.)

Have you tried happiness-tracking software like forget.io? I think this is an awesome strategy to learn what actually works to cheer you up. (I was doing it, but the company has a US phone number and so as a Canadian, I was paying exorbitant text-message rates.)