Preparing for ambition

(Cross posted on my personal blog.)

When I was in college, I decided that I wanted to spend my life starting startups. It seemed like the perfect “career path”. If things really work out for you, the reward is billions of dollars. Awesome. But here’s the really cool part: even if you “fail”, like that Seinfeld episode, things will still even out for you.

The consolation prize is a life working as a programmer. What does that life look like? Well, it’s pretty cushy. You make good money, are treated relatively well, have the option of working remotely, and get to do something that is intellectually interesting. Not bad. And if you play your cards right, you’ll be able to retire early.

So back when I was in college beginning my startup journey, this was my mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I did really, really, really want to make those billions of dollars and use the money to change the world. That is definitely where the crosshairs were aiming. But at the same time, I recognized that if that didn’t work out for me, life would still be pretty great.

I like to think of this as the Gravy Mindset. In the context of mashed potatoes, the gravy is “extra”. Mashed potatoes are perfectly satisfying by themselves, but pouring gravy on top makes them extra good. In the context of this “career path” of starting startups, a 9-5 job as a programmer is the potato, and succeeding with a startup is the gravy. If we were to throw some random numbers around, we can say that the potato by itself is an 810, but if you add some gravy to it it brings it up to a 1010.

This is how things started for me. I had this Gravy Mindset. But somewhere along the lines, things changed. Instead of it being an 810 and a 1010, it became a 210 and a 410. I was so insanely fixated on the gravy that the potato started tasting pretty gross without it. And when I was fortunate enough to get a taste of some gravy, it just felt like, “Yeah, so? This is how it’s supposed to be.”

In the language of DHH, I had become poisoned by ambition.

In the right dose, ambition works wonders. It inspires you to achieve more, to stretch yourself beyond the comfort zone, and provides the motivation to keep going when the going gets tough. Rightfully so, ambition is universally revered.

But ambition also has a dark, addictive side that’s rarely talked about.

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That’s exactly the danger of what too much ambition can do: Narrow the range of acceptable outcomes to the ridiculous, and then make anything less seem like utter failure.

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But when the ambition is cranked up to the max due to prior accomplishments and success, it can easily provide only pressure and anxiety. When that’s the case, winning isn’t even nearly as sweet as the loss is bitter. When you expect to win, it’s merely a checked box if you do — after the initial rush of glory dies down.

I want to really emphasize how irrational I think this all is. Let’s use a different analogy. This analogy demonstrates a perspective that I have on happiness.

Imagine that you go to a restaurant. Your favorite food is chicken parmiagiana, and that’s what you plan on ordering. But when the waiter comes over, he tells you that they don’t have any chicken parmiagiana.

Who cares! There are so many other delicious items on the menu! How about some chicken francese?!

And let’s take things further and suppose that they are all out of a whole category of items, like meat. No worries. Penne a la vodka would be delicious. Even if they were out of all entres, soup and breadsticks would also be great.

The point is, there are so many delicious items on the menu. And, analogously, there are so many ways in life to derive happiness. If one of them is taken away from you or just doesn’t work out, it’s fine. There are so many other options.

Personally, I take this to an extreme. I like to think that as long as I have my mind, I’d be ok. The mind is such a powerful thing. There is so much you can do with it.

Unfortunately, neither my Gravy Mindset nor my Menu Mindset proved to be an antidote to the poison of ambition. How can this be? I think it has to do with Mental Mountains and subagents inside your mind.


You know how in the movie Inside Out there are the different emotions? How the blog Wait But Why talks about different characters inside your head like the Panic Monster and the Instant Gratification Monkey? How in HPMoR each house is a separate voice inside of Harry’s head? At first I thought that these were just cute rhetorical devices. Now I am realizing that they are pointing towards a deep, important truth about how our minds actually work.

Here’s the theory. Your mind doesn’t just consist of one “self”. There are many different selves. Different subagents. And these different selves often disagree with each other. For example, in my case, one self believes in the Gravy Mindset, whereas another self is like this sad guy in the movie Soul: hopelessly obsessed with and poisoned by an ambition. Unfortunately, it is the latter self that is in charge of producing emotions for me.

How can these different “selves” persist in this state of disagreement? Why doesn’t the Gravy Mindset self just walk up to the poisoned self and enlighten him? That would solve all of my problems.

Well, basically, the different selves all live in different towns. Let’s use the Mental Mountains analogy. It’s as if each self lives in their own town, and each town is located in a valley that is walled off from the other towns by large mountains. In theory you could have the Gravy Mindset self hike up the mountain into the neighboring town, but making that hike is quite difficult. You have to cross some rough terrain.

This is where emotional memory reconsolidation comes in. It’s supposed to be a new form of therapy that helps you make the hike up and over the mountain, so that you can rescue that stranded, wounded self living alone in a valley, causing you all of this pain. The idea is that you have to actually make that hike. You can’t just try to yell over the mountain, “Stop being stupid and causing me all of this pain!”. You have to actually make the trek.

Dr. Tori Olds has a different analogy that I also think is really good. Imagine that you have a zip file on your computer. You can’t just edit it in that state. You have to first unzip it. Only then can you edit it. Same thing with healing a damaged subagent. The subagent is zipped up. You can’t just yell at it and have it update. You have to unzip it (or activate it). Only then can you heal it.

Hopefully your head isn’t spinning too much from all of these analogies. I’d really encourage you to click some of the links and learn more about this stuff. If there is one thing I could say to my past self, it would probably be this stuff. Along with the fact that ambition can be poison.

When I was younger, I never would have expected myself to become poisoned by ambition. Why would I? I had a perfectly good, rational understanding of why the pursuit of startups shouldn’t cause me stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety make sense if you’re worried about something truly bad happening. Like if you have a family to support and medical bills to pay and are in danger of losing your job, it would be rational to fear losing your job, and thus to feel stress and anxiety. But in my situation, the fallback plan was a cushy life of a programmer, so there shouldn’t be any stress.

Writing this out now, it sounds utterly ridiculous. What about all of the lived experiences I’ve had that demonstrate that I respond with stress and anxiety in many, many situations where I theoretically “shouldn’t” have such a response? Eg. feeling stress about getting a B instead of an A in school. There is no rational reason to feel such stress, but nevertheless, I felt it. So clearly my mind doesn’t produce emotions like an idea rational agent should. In which case, why expect that I would respond so rationally to the stresses of a startup? It was a big mistake that I should never have made. Again, if I could go back and tell my past self something, this is what comes to my mind right now as the most important thing.


Actually, I’m not sure. What would be the point of telling my past self this? In a perfect world, I’d be able to prepare for ambition. It’s not that I’d want to go down a different path for my life. I’m happy that I am pursuing startups. I just wish that I was more mentally prepared for it.

An analogy that comes to mind is when you go to the gym for the first time in a while. Say you usually run an eight minute mile. If you haven’t been to the gym in a month and you try to run an eight minute mile, you’ll be utterly hating life. But if you build yourself back into shape first, you’ll be able to run at that eight minute mile pace reasonably well. It’s not like you won’t be out of breath. It’ll still be a workout. But, there’s a big difference, y’know? It’s a “good hurt”. That’s what I wish I could have done before pursuing startups. Train myself mentally such that I am “in shape” and respond to stress with a “good hurt”.

Maybe I’m being just as naive now as I was when I made my original mistake. Think about reference classes. Everyone who starts startups is super stressed and anxious. Everyone who pursues serious ambitions more generally is super stressed and anxious. You can train yourself to run an eight minute mile, but that’s not where the bar is here. The bar of “don’t get stressed while pursuing a serious ambition” is more like getting yourself in shape to run a four minute mile. Is there anyone in the world that can do that? If so, it’s gotta be pretty rare.

Is this assumption correct? I’m not actually sure. If anyone out there knows the answer or even just has some data points, I’d appreciate you letting me know. I do get a pretty strong sense that a four minute mile is a pretty good analogy though. I’m sure there are some world class “athletes” who manage to pull it off, but it’s incredibly hard. One data point that comes to my mind is this interview with Jerry Seinfeld on the Tim Ferris podcast. Around minute 53, Jerry says he thinks depression and anxiety happens to all creative types, and Tim seems to agree. And there was another point in the podcast where he talks about stand up comedians specifically. He says psychologically, it’s a super grueling career, and that basically all the stand up comedians he knows that didn’t fizzle out end up having serious issues with anxiety. What I hear through the grape vine in careers like startups and academic research is that it’s pretty similar. I don’t know enough about other fields, but I strongly suspect it’s the same thing.

In which case, is it even worth preparing for ambition in the first place? Even if you get yourself to the point of being able to run a six minute mile, when you try to then run a four minute mile, you’ll still end up utterly exhausted. So what’s the point?

I don’t have the answers here. I’ve made it to the point where I’m posing the questions, which I’d like to pat myself on the back for as making progress, but there is still a long ways to go. And right now I am trying to make progress on this. I’ve spent five years of my life starting two different startups. Both failed. I’ve learned so much though, and I am ITCHING to apply what I’ve learned and begin starting startups again. It’s been literally keeping me up at night. But I know what a grueling path that could be to start walking down, so I’m trying to be proactive before I do so again.


Edit: Other data points on the idea that stress and anxiety is incredible hard to avoid in various ambitious positions:

I felt lonely every day – maybe not constantly, but definitely every day for 9+ years. I haven’t talked to a CEO who didn’t feel extreme loneliness. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like I could be friends, even work friends, with anyone else on the team. That might have been my own baggage or a consequence of struggling to bring my whole self to work. The loneliness driver I’ve heard of most from other CEOs is the inability to talk with people about the emotional rollercoaster that’s inherent to the role.

My Emotions as CEO

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You can be a healthy, functioning human being, or you can be the best in the world at something, but you can’t be both.

Sasha Cohen, former US Olympic figure skater

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Attia: What advice would you offer somebody who is interested in the neurobiology of stress or behavior and who wants to be able to look back and, they’re you’re age, and be as, maybe accomplished is the wrong word, I don’t want, I know you sort of bristle at that, but to have made as many contributions as you’ve made? I mean what in retrospect was this sort of secret to being able to pursue your bliss and being as successful as you’ve been? And look, frankly, to be who you are and to still have the passion you have for what you’re doing, which to me is really the marker of success, that you’re sitting here saying “there’s this other problem and I, y’know, I could spend the next 20 years just thinking about that”. How do you think about how you’ve done that?

Sapolsky: Sigh. It’s just damn luck. Every bit of neurosis, every bit of affective instability I’ve got, every childhood trauma I’ve got tucked away, I’ve titrated in just the right way where I’ve turned it into more productivity, I’ve been incredibly lucky in that regard. My capacity to sublimate emotion into intellectual pursuits. Into really, really, really wanting to understand something. Into… I’ve just been very lucky in that regard. I’ve gotten just the right levels of all sorts of, like, tumult, heh, that have synergized most productively. In other words, just, huge amounts of luck. Huge amounts of luck, and… at least, now coming later in life, an increase in capacity to more carefully try to analyze what cost each type of ambition comes with.

Attia: Hm. Say more about that.

Sapolsky: Oh I don’t know, this had much to do with my closing my lab four years ago. This big, booming lab with lots of people in all sorts of labs around the world and why did I kick the asses of by getting the answers to this or that and, y’know if you’re raised in the right sort of, rarefied ambitious world of biomedical research at the age 25 you’ve got a list down to the floor of the diseases you’re going to vanquish, and the problems you’re going to solve and all of that, and y’know, kinda that point in life where you’re realizing it’s not gonna happen.

Attia: Is that what actually happened four years ago? Is that much of a, cerebral realization, or was it combined with other factors? Y’know you’ve described obviously having this network of people around you who matter the most and I mean was part of it just thinking, “I haven’t spent enough time with them at the expense of this”? Or was it the, “This problem is enormous and one, y’know, one thousand years from now will it matter whether I worked this much harder or this much less, it won’t have altered the trajectory of XYZ”? I mean how much of it is thinking all of these...

Sapolsky: All of the above!

Attia: Yeah.

Sapolsky: Family growing real fast, as they, tend to do. Realizing your best work was decades behind you. Realizing there’s this book you want to write and the only way you could do it is to just sit for really long stretches. Kenyan field work having collapsed a few years before. Body feeling older. There’s limits to how many 80 hours of work a week you can do. All of them converging.

Attia: What ad—, I mean it’s such a cliche question, but what advice would you give the 25 year old Robert as he was just finishing that PhD at Rockefeller?

Sapolsky: Be less ambitious.

Interview with Robert Sapolsky, Genius grant recipient, on the Peter Attia podcast