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?