How I Became More Ambitious

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.

During a conversation about this with Anna Salamon, she noted that she likes to approach her own emotions and ask them what they want. It sounds weird, but it’s helpful. “Dear crushing sense of despair and unworthiness, what do you want? …Oh, you’re worried that you’re going to end up an outcast from your tribe and starve to death in the wilderness because you accidentally gave an extra dose of digoxin? You want to signal remorse and regret and make sure everyone knows you’re taking your failure seriously so that maybe they’ll forgive you? Thank you for trying to protect me. But really, you don’t need to worry about the starving-outcast thing. No one was harmed and no one is mad at you personally. Your friends and family couldn’t care less. This mistake is data, but it’s just as much data about the environment as it is about your attributes. These hand-copied medication records are the perfect medium for human error. Instead of signalling remorse, let’s put some mental energy into getting rid of the environmental conditions that led to this mistake.”

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,, 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.


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!