A quick note on ambition

A brief note prompted by my realization that there is no point in which people are satisfied by achieving any kind of rank or title that they claim to be after:

By many accounts, it is the passage of time that makes the greatest mockery of human endeavor. The folly of Ozymandias, the king of kings who famously taunted humanity to look at his works and despair, was his short-sightedness; little did he realize that his rule would not only end but also be forgotten.

The inevitable decline and disappearance of status, however, is not necessarily the the most immediate case against pursuing it single-mindedly. Well before reckoning with mortality and the inability to control legacy, people experience self-doubt and new anxieties at every level of accomplishment in social status. A compelling longitudinal study of the super-rich shows how millionaires immediately develop concerns about becoming multimillionaires and billionaires. Billionaires compete to make it into the top 100 of the The Forbes World’s Billionaires list; then the quest is to become the richest person earth for longer than the other richest people on earth. A successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur needs to become a successful serial entrepreneur. American senators, easily among the most powerful politicians in the world, often agonize over getting a shot at the presidency. Every president dreads being kicked out of office after only one term. The first term is about the second term, then come calculations to ensure a powerful post-presidency. All these aspirations precede anxiety over how posterity will judge them, and if they will be ranked among history’s greatest figures.

The problem with conceiving of fulfillment of ambition as ascent is that there is no top of the ladder, and humans have an infinite capacity to acclimate to new altitudes, which always furnish new sets of aspirations and paths to loss. In this sense, the will the power is unquenchable.

The political implications of this are obvious, but there are also lessons for any individual who views career fulfillment as a climb toward “the top” — as long as one seeks derives worth in a way that is entirely contingent on external social cues and established metrics of power, there is no likelihood of contentment. It is hackneyed – but not without merit – to state that there is no arrival – only the journey. But I would add to this that, aside from reasonable material standards, the goals set should be determined by a commitment to a certain way of life rather than a certain position. This includes everything from learning how to make sure that that the work is more ethical to figuring out how to balance priorities outside of work. Since there is always something better, it’s best to try to figure out what can be done to turn today’s life into the most virtuous and ideal kind of life. Sometimes this can involve radical decisions that involve looking sideways rather than up.