I keep seeing advice on ambition, aimed at people in college or early in their career, that would have been really bad for me at similar ages. Rather than contribute (more) to the list of people giving poorly universalized advice on ambition, I have written a letter to the one person I know my advice is right for: myself in the past.
Dear Past Elizabeth,
Your life is, in some sense, a series of definitions of success.
First you’re in early school, and success is defined for you by a handful of adults. You go where they say, do the assignments they say, when they say, and doing well means meeting the goals they set for you. Even your hippie elementary school gives you very few choices about life. You get choices in your leisure activity, but that (as they have explained to you) is leisure and thus unimportant, and there’s no success or failure in it.
Then you get further in school, and the authorities give you some choice over the hoops you jump through. You can choose which book you write your report on or even what classes you take (within a predetermined set). This feels like freedom, but you’re in still a system someone else designed and set the win conditions for. You can fulfill a college distribution requirement with any history class at all- but you are going to take one, and the professor is the one determining if you succeeded at it.
More insidiously, you’ll like it. Creating your own definition of success feels scary; enacting it feels impossible. The fact that school lays out neat little hoops for you to jump through is a feature.
Work (you’ll be a programmer) is where things get screwy. Programming contains multiple definitions of success (manager, principal, freelancing, development, testing, bigtech, start-up, money-maxing, altruistic projects…), and multiple ways to go about them. If your goals lie outside of programming altogether (art, parenting, travel..), it’s relatively easy to work out a way to fund it via programming while still having the time to do what you want. Not trivial, but have you seen what people in other jobs go through? With programming it’s at least possible.
But you like hoops. You’re comfortable with hoops. So you’re going to waste years chasing down various definitions of success within programming, and by the time you give up will be too exhausted to continue in it at all. I think you (I) should have considered “just chill while I figure shit out” much earlier, much more seriously. It was reasonable to give their way a try, just due to the sheer convenience if it had worked, but I should have learned faster.
Eventually you will break out of the Seattle bigtech bubble, and into the overlapping bubbles of effective altruism, lesswrong, and the bay area start-up scene. All of three of these contain a lot of people shouting “be ambitious!” and “be independent!”. And because they shout it so loudly and frequently you will think “surely, now I am in a wide open world and not on a path”. But you will be wrong, because “be ambitious (in ways the people say this understand and respect)” and “be independent (in ways they think are cool and not crazy)” are still hoops and still determined by other people, just one more level meta.
Like the programming path, the legible independent ambition path works for some people, but not you. The things you do when pushed to Think Big and Be Independent produce incidental learning at best, but never achieve anything directly. They can’t, because you made up the goals to impress other people. This becomes increasingly depressing, as you fail at your alleged goals and at your real goal of impressing people.
So what do we do then? Give up on having goals? Only by their definition. What seems to work best for us is leaning into annoyance or even anger at problems in the world, and hate-fixing them.
You’ve always hated people being wrong, and it turns out a lot of things can be defined as “wrong” if you have the right temperament. Women’s pants have tiny pockets that won’t fit my phone? Wrong. TSA eating hours of my life for no gain? Wrong. Medical-grade fatigue? Wrong. People dying of preventable diseases? Extremely wrong. And wrong things are satisfying to fix.
A nice facet of this approach is that you can start small and it will naturally grow over time. Pocket extenders might give you a nice efficacy high at first, but soon you’ve built a tolerance and are taking on bigger and bigger wrongs just to feel alive. And you have more energy for that effort because of the problems you fixed earlier.
A year ago i got really mad that people were being becoming vegan without paying any attention to nutrition and decided to do something about it. That stopped being fun like a week in and was mostly a miserable slog. People yelled at me for doing it, which was pretty unpleasant. I was constantly on the verge of giving up but they were so wrong I couldn’t let it go. And then it ballooned into something huge.
[Author’s note: The vegan epistemics sequence isn’t done yet. I kept finding one more post I needed before the big one, and eventually ran into a time-consuming commitment that ate my entire July and August. I hope to wrap this up soon, and I’m confident that something will be coming in the next month, but can’t rule out another 5 just-one-more posts.]
The spite-based path to impact and altruism is not the easiest road. Spite is a less fun emotion than hope, and makes fewer friends. But I also can’t bring myself to wish I didn’t have this drive, because it is my actual value system. Not caring if people destroy the commons would be easier in many ways but then the commons would be destroyed and that’s worse.
It does seem good to have the option to be motivated by hope and not just anger-at-wrongness, and I’m experimenting with that now. I think it is working, but I don’t think I could have done it without the previous, spite-based projects.
The following are a few tips I think might be generally useful as you think about how to spend your time.
You’re never going to love programming. Trying was probably the right thing to do at the time, but I think you should have given up faster. Giving up would have been easier if you’d separated giving up on loving programming or succeeding in the career from funding your life via programming. You could have had many years of rest and vest if you’d been open to it.
Would your life have been missing something? Yes. Was programming ever going to provide that thing? Not directly. But the free time and savings sure were helpful in the pursuit.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you authentically want something, or are trying to impress people with how ambitious you are. Here are a few tricks I’ve picked up for distinguishing them.
You will never impress them until you give up on doing so.
One friend in particular got palpably more respect for you 5 seconds after you gave up on impressing him. Not “dismissed as irrelevant” or “overcame your need for” his approval, just “accepted the reality that it wasn’t going to happen and stopped putting energy into it.”
I could end this story with “…and then eventually you did real things he respected a lot” but that’s kind of like telling people it’s fine to not worry about their weight because chilling out will cause them to lose weight. It’s sometimes true, but if this is going to work it needs to not matter.
Respect from other humans is a fundamental need, and I don’t want you to attempt to live without it. I just want you to have an accurate scale. Luckily, life is going to provide one for you that you can live with.
I spent a lot of time in the bay area feeling stupid and lazy. This got worse and worse until I went to Andy’s wedding in 2018. Andy, while quite ambitious in his hippy way, was about as far outside the bay area ambition bubble as you could get. During the reception I had a flash of insight that I only look stupid and lazy next to the brilliant and driven people I deliberately sought out because I am smart and kind of driven (but not as much as them). Next to Andy’s hippy friends I am a titan of industry.
This felt like a socially unacceptable cure for anxiety at the time, but I talked to Andy about it a few years later and he said “oh yeah, it’s always been clear you were the friend of mine most likely to be remembered after you die”. Which is is a pretty intense thing to say, and honestly kind of weird because at the time you met his hippy goals definitely outscaled your programming goals. But he definitely wasn’t mad.
I don’t want to lean too hard on this. The point isn’t “I’m better than them because I’m ambitious”. They’re living their own best lives that wouldn’t be improved if I started shouting at them about ambition or the glorious fight for epistemics. It’s just that I’m not failing all the time.
If you just don’t seem to be able to focus on something, consider that you might not actually want to do it and you should quit. Better yet, get curious about why you don’t seem to want to work on it, with “I hate it and want to quit” being one of many options. This will save you a lot of time and misery.
…which means things you make will always be disappointing relative to the image in your head. People will tell you the cure is to push through and do lots of stuff anyway (my favorites). There’s definitely something to that, but I have this nagging feeling that that’s only half a cure. It looks to me like “stop thinking and just ship it” is as much of an avoidance strategy as “you can’t ship things until they’re perfect”.
Every once in a while I ask the internet “hey, how do you tell when to release subpar work and when to keep improving?” and no one has ever given me a satisfactory answer. Hopefully I’ll have something for you in a few years.
You should give “let other people set your success criteria” a good shot. When it works it’s way easier than creating your own. But you should recognize when you’re doing it (even if one of the success criteria you’re trying to meet is “be independent”), and when it doesn’t work you should move on.
Best of luck,
I really like these sorts of "Dear Self" posts. It may be n=1, but the advice has been very thoroughly stress tested. As opposed to "this seems like it'd be a good idea" types of claims. The advice is also usually about topics that are relatively practical.
Thank you - the best of many good lesswrong posts. I am currently trying to figure out what to tell my 9-year old son. But your letter could "almost" have been written to myself. I'm not in whichever bay area (Seattle? SanFran?). I worked for NASA and it is also called the bay area here. Very much success is defined by others. Deviating from that produces accolades at first, even research dollars, but finally the "big machine" moves in a different direction way over your head and its for naught.
My son asked point blank if he should work for NASA. He loves space stuff. I told him, also point blank, "No!" You will never have any ownership at such an organization. It will be fun, but then not yours anymore, you are reassigned, and finally you retire and lose your identity, your professional email address, most of your friends. Unless you become a consultant or contractor which many at retirement age do not have the energy to do, and besides its demeaning to take orders from people you used to give orders to. Ultimately the projects are canceled, no matter how successful. The entire Shuttle program is gone, despite the prestige it brought the US. Now the US is just another country that failed. I didn't even like the Shuttle, but I recognized its value.
This was John Kennedy's original aim for the Moon project, to increase the esteem of the US, and it worked, we won the Cold War. Now we are just another country that can fail or even disappear or descend into political chaos and hardly anyone cares, many glad to see us go. Why care? Family is most important right? How's your family going to exist in one of the other countries? We came here from Europe for a reason that still exists. I considered moving to Russia in about 2012 when I married a Russian. I admired their collaboration with NASA and I felt free from some of the US cultural nonsense. Imagine the magnitude of that mistake had I done it!
What should be goals? You are free to have none or have silly ones in the US. However, natural selection will keep giving us people that have families, because we don't live forever, not very long at all in fact, I'm 73, imagine that. I don't really have the energy to program very much anymore. Very small programs that I make count for something like social sciences research in cooperation theory, game theory, effects of wealth in cooperation games. My AI programs are toys. Programming paradigms pass away too fast to keep doing it when you get older. You won't believe me, but I'm writing from an age way past you, chances are.
So family first. I was god knows how late. Too much programming. Then I got into designing chips. It's just like programming, just costs more. One day I had a herniated disk and could not sit at my desk, so I retired, then a heart attack from lack of exercise. It piles up on you. What goal is important enough to get up when you are hurting and pursue it. I'll tell you. Survival of your family into the future. Nothing else matters. Your friends become the parents of your kids friends, even if you have nothing in common with them, because it helps your kid. This is weird. I don't especially like human culture. But it's much harder to change than various reformers and activists groups think, and that way lies social chaos and possible disintegration.
But anyway, I decided that turning my interests in programming, math and physics toward the social sciences would in the long run help my son more, if I can make some tiny contribution to the field. More people need to so this, and to do it without just arguing from within the context of their own cultural bias. Human nature is not human. Simple mathematical entities running as programs have many of the same characteristics. Don't believe me? Read this Wealth-relative effects in cooperation games - ScienceDirect . There is a simulation you can tweak and play with linked there.
I have seen many people try to become more ambitious. I have also seen many people in fact become more ambitious. But I don't know that I've ever seen anyone try to become more ambitious and succeed, leaving aside the sort of thing you call "hoops" and "fake ambition".
There's this thing, this spark, you could call it "independent ambition" or being "agenty" or "strategic", and other subcultures have other words. But whatever you call it, you can't get it by aiming at it directly. When I've seen someone get it, she gets it by aiming at something else, and if there happens to be a path to her deeper goal just by jumping through the right hoops—well, that's much better, actually, it's more reliable and usually saves her a tremendous amount of trouble. But if the only way to get her deeper goal is to break away from the usual paths and go do some bizarre novel thing, then sometimes she'll do that instead. But of course there can be no hoop for breaking free of hoops, there must be some impetus from outside the system of hoops.
In discussion elsewhere people have mentioned being inspired by people with "protagonist fields" or just generally vibing a lot of ambition. Or by getting told that their specific goal was important and they should go bigger with it.
On a really micro scale, a friend of mine said I really improved his life by both modeling and encouraging a lack of complacency with the local environment. When my apartment was too dark I got brighter bulbs, when air quality and temperature caused competing needs I got an air quality monitor and ran some experiments to see where the pareto frontier was. When he was having serious SAD I walked him through the lumenator, and what changes in location were possible.
So I do think there are ways to increase ambition on the margin, they just don't look like "shout very loudly about it".
Curated. I like a lot of things about this post, but I particularly like posts that dig out something vaguely like "social" vs "non-social drives", and how our non-social drives affect the social incentives that we set up for ourselves. I think this is a complicated tricky topic and Elizabeth has done a commendable job tacking it for herself, a good example of tackling this head on. It's also just unfortunate that the message of "think for yourself/motivate yourself indepedent of other's approval" can become a hoop of other's approval. I like that this was called out. It's tricky, but perhaps that's just how it needs to be.
I wrote an essay a while ago on motivation that overlaps with your observations, so I just wanted to share 😄. In particular, why the idea of "the cure is to push through and do lots of stuff anyway" is silly:
Why not submit this as a post on LW?
The advice to self angle is great.
I also see a lot of career/life advice here that seems like it might be good for some and bad for others. I this results from variance in what we want and enjoy, and a blindness to it. Our culture (at least academic and tech culture) preaches ambition.
I frequently caution those in grad school against ambition. I've seen ambition take a high toll from too many bright young people, and seen them later declare that they're happier after deciding to focus more on quality-of-life than ambition.
This is an extremely deep topic. There are important questions about what our ultimate goals really are. I suspect most of us want love and respect from ourselves and those around us, and to enjoy what we do moment by moment. But opinions vary, even once they're well-thought-out. I think the remembering self is just a set of moments of the experiencing self, and shouldn't be privileged in making life-decisions. But again, opinions vary.
These questions don't answer the strategy question of how to best pursue your personal goals, but they do help frame it. I'm frequently astonished by how little time very smart people have spent on considering what they really want from life. Hopefully, rationalists do this more than the academics and startup types I'm more familiar with.
I feel like there's a trick being played by the word "ambition" here. By the literal definition of the word you can be ambitious about anything, including quality of life. Ambition would just mean aiming for a very high QOL by your own definition. But yeah, it often gets narrowed into "succeed at this particular thing by particular metrics", and I imagine being told to give up on ambition is very freeing in those cases.
“This means that you are free to copy and reuse any of my drawings (noncommercially) as long as you tell people where they're from.”
Great read, I love when you touched on evaluating internally/mentally how you react to constructive criticism. Hit the nail on the head in that section & really the whole article. So many people over think or almost let people get inside their head & trick them out of the spot that their currently thriving in but questioning there ambition/independence & what I’ve learned from graduating college in 2017 is just because your doing more work doesn't always mean your advancing & elevating your situation. You have to be working smart/efficient with something that aligns & makes sense to your reality. You touched on this as well in one of your sections where you didnt have words to describe it but when it feels aligned with your reality a purposeful.
Another GREAT GREAT GREAT section you included was operating out of spite. & in my early 20s I was not necessarily even aware I was making spiteful moves, not until after 25-26 age I realized & was able to almost take my self outside my shoes & honestly/genuinely reflect & realizing I was almost programmed from a young age to be motivated by proving people wrong, fixing a situation thats bad/worse and enjoy making it better. Then you reflect & realize that thats what your programmed/designed to think/operate.. very controversial and intriguing topics that I like to dive deep in & reflect because just like myself I witness & believe other people are not even aware of there spiteful moves they are making on a day to day basis.
This "note to self" may as well have been a note to me - the experience has been so similar. Saved me some time I guess, allows me to be lazy ;)
I felt a sense of sadness reading Elizabeth's "Dear Self". Did she really have all these "talks with herself"?
Do I? Do we all?
Then, I noticed how frequently I had to "re-read" a sentence for grammar.
It was then I understood this was like reading someone's streaming of "internal conversation" of thoughts.
And much like my own continuum of thoughts about consciousness and specifically, am I doing what I want, with who I want and everything I can to be fearless, honest, kind and I suppose the best flawed person possible?
For, myself I like to "paint a picture" of a circumstance or situation with every detail (who is there, what is said of done, what is being done and where it is happening etc.) so anyone could "see much like reading a story, looking at a painting or photo or watching a film they (myself) understand what I am describing.
Next , I ask myself what are my feelings? Anger, depression, happiness, fear, anxiety, pleasure, fulfilled etc.
Then, looking at the circumstance I ask a simple question: "Is this the outcome I desire?".
If the answer is "yes" I feel comfortable, pleased and happy I acted and am doing what I want.
If the answer is "no" I "Replay the scenario and change whatever parts necessary to get the outcome I desire".
It can take many repainting and a long time to change and achieve the desired outcome, but over time it has worked well for me to keep it simple and simply ask: Is this the outcome I desire?
Why did you choose programming?
I picked up CS as a second major to support biology, failed to get into a bio phd, and then realized a phd in my chosen subfield was a terrible idea and I was much better off as a programmer.
First - just wanted to say this is a great read and thank you. It was exactly what I needed to read for my own self. I am thinking about how letters to your past self are probably a great practice for moving forward your current self and can help to sharpen your own path forward.
I find it interesting how words like “ambition” and “drive” can seemingly have a universal understanding especially in a world where people are always seeking the respect and approval others or looking to appease others rather than have their own desires and ideas. In an increasingly homogenized world, it can be difficult to think outside the box because those who do are often ostracized. It seems like people fail to realize that drive and ambition can take on so many different forms, yet we tend to only think of them in a capitalistic narrative. it is only until we break down the narratives around them that we begin to understand there are always side-ways glances and different ways to approach things and words themselves can be a slippery slope.
For me - I’m not sure about the sentiment of spite, but I do find myself angry at others for being wrong or at least not able to see where they may be falling short (myself included). I do not think I am the brightest bulb of the bunch, but if I can see the problems of the world clearly, how is it that others can not. Is this spite? I’m not sure, but I do certainly know it is one’s own ego. With that … I’m wondering how the concept of ego might fit into this letter.
This is my first post here - and I really wanted to begin to engage with the community. I hope this meets the requirements. I enjoy philosophy but am not a professional philosopher. In addition, I am only beginning to dive into rationalism. Looking forward to learning more from this community.
Freedom to find a path, to leave a path, to have a path of no path or no path as path. You just have to know why you are pathing/non-pathing and that reason should be rooted in goal attainment. Even if it's not.
You'll know it when you see it.
Kudos for taking it upon yourself to personally investigate which efforts lead to health and happiness and which do not.
You may be able to follow someone else's advice, but the task remains to determine the extent to which that person is wise. Are the advice-givers themselves consistently calm and helpful? Do they follow their own advice? Do they contradict themselves in crucial ways?
You've articulated some wonderful insights about the benefits of being motivated by hope rather than anger. A person cannot feel love and fear at the same time. Which of these gives a mother the miraculous strength to lift a boulder that threatens the life of her only child? Which emotion is conducive to mental clarity, and which promotes confusion?
We often must swim upstream against society. Much commonly-accepted advice leads to the exact opposite of what is claimed. Evidence of such confusion is everywhere.
Compare the opening statement of the Import AI newsletter's About section:
Things will be weird. Be not afraid.
with the advice given in last week's issue:
I think everyone who has the ability to exercise influence over the trajectory of AI should be approaching this moment with a vast amount of fear ...