How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious

I have a confession to make. My life hasn’t changed all that much since I started reading Less Wrong. Hindsight bias makes it hard to tell, I guess, but I feel like pretty much the same person, or at least the person I would have evolved towards anyway, whether or not I spent those years reading about the Art of rationality.

But I can’t claim to be upset about it either. I can’t say that rationality has undershot my expectations. I didn’t come to Less Wrong expecting, or even wanting, to become the next Bill Gates; I came because I enjoyed reading it, just like I’ve enjoyed reading hundreds of books and websites.

In fact, I can’t claim that I would want my life to be any different. I have goals and I’m meeting them: my grades are good, my social skills are slowly but steadily improving, I get along well with my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. I’m in good shape financially despite making $12 an hour as a lifeguard, and in a year and a half I’ll be making over $50,000 a year as a registered nurse. I write stories, I sing in church, I teach kids how to swim. Compared to many people my age, I’m pretty successful. In general, I’m pretty happy.

Yvain suggested akrasia as a major limiting factor for why rationalists fail to have extraordinarily successful lives. Maybe that’s true for some people; maybe they are some readers and posters on LW who have big, exciting, challenging goals that they consistently fail to reach because they lack motivation and procrastinate. But that isn’t true for me. Though I can’t claim to be totally free of akrasia, it hasn’t gotten much in the way of my goals.

However, there are some assumptions that go too deep to be accessed by introspection, or even by LW meetup discussions. Sometimes you don’t even realize they’re assumptions until you meet someone who assumes the opposite, and try to figure out why they make you so defensive. At the community meetup I described in my last post, a number of people asked me why I wasn’t studying physics, since I was obviously passionate about it. Trust me, I had plenty of good justifications for them–it’s a question I’ve been asked many times–but the question itself shouldn’t have made me feel attacked, and it did.

Aside from people in my life, there are some posts on Less Wrong that cause the same reaction of defensiveness. Eliezer’s Mandatory Secret Identities is a good example; my automatic reaction was “well, why do you assume everyone here wants to have a super cool, interesting life? In fact, why do you assume everyone wants to be a rationality instructor? I don’t. I want to be a nurse.”

After a bit of thought, I’ve concluded that there’s a simple reason why I’ve achieved all my life goals so far (and why learning about rationality failed to affect my achievements): they’re not hard goals. I’m not ambitious. As far as I can tell, not being ambitious is such a deep part of my identity that I never even noticed it, though I’ve used the underlying assumptions as arguments for why my goals and life decisions were the right ones.

But if there’s one thing Less Wrong has taught me, it’s that assumptions are to be questioned. There are plenty of good reasons to choose reasonable goals instead of impossible ones, but doing things on reflex is rarely better than thinking through them, especially for long-term goal making, where I do have time to think it through, Type 2 style.

What do I mean by ‘ambition’?

Here is the definition from my desktop dictionary:

(1) A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work: her ambition was to become a model | he achieved his ambition of making a fortune.

(2) Desire and determination to achieve success: life offered few opportunities for young people with ambition.

The first definition sounds like a good description of me. Since around tenth grade, I’ve had a strong desire to study nursing, and it’s required a moderate amount of determination and hard work, especially the hands-on aspects, which are harder for me than academics has ever been. I want to be the kind of person described in (1).

What about the second half? More people than I can count have asked me why I’m not studying medicine. Or physics. Or just about anything aside from nursing, which is apparently kind of low-status. I inevitably get defensive when these conversations occur, and I end up trying to justify why nursing is the morally correct thing for me to do. For some reason, in some deep-down part of me that I don’t normally have conscious access to, I don’t want to be the sort of person described in (2).

Introspection isn’t accurate enough for me to automatically find my true rejection of ambitious goals, but I will take the rest of the post to speculate on my own personal reasons. They may or may not be reasons that generalize to anyone else.

1. Idealism versus practicality

My mother tells me I would be a good academic, and enjoy it too. She’s usually right about that kind of thing, but I decided around eighth grade that academia wasn’t for me.

Why? Well, my mother and father both studied science at the undergraduate level (biology and physical chemistry, respectively) and then both went on to complete PhDs. From the sound of it, those student years were among the happiest in their lives. My father went on to do a postdoc at Cambridge, and then to get a crappy part-time teaching position at a small university in Washington State. He hated it. Eventually he quit and we moved up to Ottawa, Canada, where he worked at Nortel, was laid off during the company’s decline, and eventually found another job at a small company that takes apart computer chips and analyzes them. Meanwhile, my mother spent most of those years as a housewife, and has only recently begun working again, part-time and for a token salary.

I’ve asked my father what he thinks of the decisions he made, and he told me that his biggest problem was that he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He told me that he still doesn’t. His job is boring and stressful, but he can’t quit because he didn’t start saving for retirement until he was 40. As a grad student, he worked with John Polanyi, a well-known academic; much later he told me he “always sort of thought I would end up being well-known and cool like that, but all of a sudden I’m almost 50 and I realize that’s not going to happen.”

I remember the year when he developed a sudden passion for career self-help books, of the ‘What Color Is Your Parachute’ and ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ variety. I must have been about thirteen years old. He encouraged me to read them, and warned me that “it’s better to think about what you want to do, not what you want to be.”

The lesson my 13-year-old self I took from all this: don’t have hopes and dreams, especially not ambitious ones. You won’t achieve them, and you’ll end up in a mid-life crisis with no retirement savings, full of regrets. Far better to have a practical, achievable life plan, and then go out and damn well achieve it. I read the self-help books, figured that nurses did around the same stuff all day as doctors and didn’t have to spend eight years in school paying tuition, and never looked back.

The lesson I didn’t learn from all this: my parents weren’t actually ambitious either. They enjoyed their studies in university, but primarily they had fun: going to the philosophy faculty parties, getting drunk with chemistry students, volunteering on coffee plantations in Nicaragua… Those are the stories they tell me from their studies, not stories of the research they did and the papers they published. I can’t be sure what their true feelings were at the time, but I don’t think they cared especially. They were smart young people who wanted to have a good time and didn’t especially care if they had no money. And I don’t think they have as many regrets as I assumed when I was thirteen. They didn’t exactly make life goals and then fail to achieve them. They just hadn’t made their long-term goals ahead of time.

The lesson I should have learned: if you head into adulthood without big goals, don’t be surprised if you don’t achieve them.

2. Fear of failure

The second life lesson about ambition happened a few years later, when I was around fourteen. I had been training as a competitive swimmer for a number of years. My parents didn’t sign me up because they wanted me to go to the Olympics someday; they wanted me to stay fit and have opportunities to socialize. It was a good decision; swim team made me happy, to the point that I often forget how unhappy I was up until then.

But after a while I started to get good at swimming, and coaches, even kids’ coaches, implicitly want their athletes to win, and keep winning, and maybe someday they’ll be known as the one who coached an Olympic athlete. Training made me happy, but competition emphatically did not; anxiety, stress, and bursting into tears before a race soon became part of my day-to-day life. My coaches told me that if I worked hard and believed in myself, I could do anything. But eventually I hit a point when I was racing kids who were simply more talented than me: taller, slimmer, bigger hands and feet, a genetic predisposition to fast-twitch muscles, whatever. And then I hit my body’s limits, and I stopped getting faster at all, no matter how hard I trained. My coaches accused me of not trying hard enough. Understandably, this made me feel worse, since I certainly felt like I was trying as hard as I could.

The lessons my 14-year-old self learned from this: don’t have high expectations for yourself when competing against other people. You’ll just end up feeling worthless and depressed. In fact, don’t compete against other people at all. Do things that are solely based on how good you are, as opposed to how good you are relative to other people who might be more talented. Even better, do things that aren’t that hard in an absolute sense, so that you don’t risk failing.

This is kind of a fallacy, of course. Success in anything is measured relative to other people, if only relative to the average. Even grades, because classes and tests and grades are set up for students of average intelligence, so students of relatively higher intelligence will find them easier, and students of lower-than-average intelligence will feel like they’re fighting a losing battle, as I did in swimming competitions. Possessing above average intelligence let me grow up seeing school as non-threatening, but I know that isn’t true for everyone. I’ve known people whose above-average athletic skills led them to be far more confident in sports than at school.

Still, fallacy or not, I later applied this idea to a lot of my decision. I was interested in physics all along, but my father’s tales of academia and the competition and pressure involved turned me off it. I also considered studying music theory and composition, but decided not to because, aside from being impractical for finding a job afterwards, I’d heard it was an incredibly competitive field. To a degree, this is why I chose not to make a career as a writer. (A degree in English didn’t seem particularly interesting to me, so I doubt I would have studied it, but even in high school I never really thought about earning money with my writing.) Success or failure was too far beyond my control for comfort.

The lesson I didn’t learn from this: find an area where you do have natural talent on your side, and use it for all it’s worth. In fact, I’ve done the opposite of this: one reason I chose nursing was because I felt that I was bad at a whole range of skills; empathy, social skills, fine motor skills and coordination, reacting in emergencies; and I wanted to force myself to improve. As a result, I’m far from the strongest student in my classes, and labs, simulations, and hospital placements bring me to a level of anxiety far above anything I ever experienced during academic tests or exams.

The lesson I should have learned from this: you never know what you are and aren’t capable of until you try it. I tried competitive swimming, and found out I didn’t have the raw talent to go to the Olympics. Who knows if this would have been true of physics? My father tells me that in his fourth year of undergraduate studies, he took several physics courses with a level of advanced math that he found almost impossible. He had reached his brain’s natural limit in math, which he might or might not have been able to exceed with hard work and hours of study; still, it was much more advanced than the first-year calculus I took as an elective. I have no reason to think that I’m worse at math than my father, and I suspect my obsessive work ethic would help me exceed any limits I did bump up against. And why not try?

3. The morality of ambition

There’s a third aspect of my aversion to ambitious goals, and I can’t say where it comes from. It might be my parents’ attitude of moderation in everything: they consistently disapproved of my involvement in any ‘obsessive’ activities, swim team included. It might be the way my mother always got mad at me for talking about my achievements, even my grades, in front of friends; it’ll make other people feel bad, she said. (For a long time I was incredibly self-conscious about high grades, and wouldn’t tell my friends if they were above 90%.) It might be the meme that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ or the idea that it’s greedy to be ambitious, or that power corrupts and wise people choose not to seek it.

I can’t trace the roots of this idea completely, but for whatever reason, I spent a long time thinking that being ambitious was in some way immoral. That really good people lived simple, selfless lives and never tried to seek anything more. That doing something solely because you wanted more money or more respect, like going to med school instead of nursing school, was selfish and just bad. It might come from the books I read as a kid, or maybe it’s just a rationalization to cover up my other reasons with a nobler one.

But if this is my true reason, then it’s a way to feel superior to people who’ve accomplished cooler things than me, of whom part of me is actually jealous, and that’s not the person I want to be.

4. Laziness

I don’t normally think of myself as a lazy person. Other people are constantly telling me that I’m diligent and have an excellent work ethic. But there’s a way in which all this hardworking dedication to my current occupations has prevented me from spending much time thinking or acting about what I’m going to do next. Working a bunch of 12-hour shifts makes me feel productive, brings the direct benefit of a fat paycheck, and leaves me pretty exhausted at the end of the day, too tired to do the (in some ways harder) work of searching for cool job opportunities, looking at online classes to take, and in general breaking the routine. I hate breaking my routine. It makes me anxious, and I have to spend more energy motivating myself, and in general it’s hard. I tend to only depart from that routine when forced.


I think I was right about some of the conclusions I drew from these various experiences. Practicality is important: ask the English majors working at Starbucks. Thinking about what you want to do all day, as opposed to the title and respect associated with what you want to be, is good life advice and will likely result in a more satisfying career. Trying hard to project an image of success, i.e. “keeping up with the Jones’”, isn’t a good path to happiness. And relative talent is a factor to take into consideration; if my dream career were to be an Olympic swimmer, unfortunately I wouldn’t be likely to succeed.

But one of the problems with thinking things through too deeply when you’re young, and think you’re wiser than everyone else, is a tendency to over-generalize. Doing cool, interesting, world-changing things with your life...even if the actual job position are competitive and hard to obtain...well, on reflection, it doesn’t seem be a bad idea.

The lesson my current self has learned from this: investigate more. Spend less time on work and more time on actually planning future goals. Seek out interesting things to do, and interesting people to work with. Go for opportunities even if they’re inconvenient and I have to break my routine a bit. Set concrete goals, and don’t wiggle out of achieving them because they’re ‘not actually that important.’ They’re probably more important than working at a community centre, and I seem to be able to dedicate 1000 hours a year to that… Try not to worry about sunk costs (although it’s worth finishing nursing school, since an RN certificate is incredibly versatile in Canada and will guarantee me a job if any other prospects fail.) Force myself to step out of my comfort zone once in a while and do something kind of crazy, but awesome. And if I can do that, succeed to the point that I can break my reflex-of-being-average...then I’ll know for sure whether rationality, of the Less Wrong variety, will help me to ‘win’.

The lesson my future self will learn from this: who knows?