Against Ambition

NOTE: citations for this post can be found here.


Robinson Crusoe begins with a disagreement. Eighteen-year-old Crusoe is full of ambition. He’s determined to leave home and set sail for some faraway continent: Africa, perhaps, or South America. After all, the year is 1650, and the seafaring life promises the quickest route to fame and fortune. But Crusoe’s father is set against it and he pleads with his son to remain at home. One morning, the elder Crusoe calls his son into his chamber. In a final attempt to dissuade his son, he sings the praises of a peaceful life, in which people are
not enraged with the passion of envy, or secret burning lust of ambition for great things, but in easy circumstances sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter, feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.

Crusoe is touched by this speech and he resolves to remain at home. But, alas, his ambition ultimately prevails. On the 1st of September 1651, he boards a ship out of Hull and his “life of misery” begins. He does not return for 35 years.

If the lures of Crusoe’s ambition were great, the lures of ambition in our own day are greater still. Crusoe’s ambition could be kindled only by stories. Our own ambitions are stoked by billboards, screens, and Facebook feeds. Never before have their objects seemed so vivid, so close. However, I claim that we ought to resist our ambitions all the same. Like Crusoe’s father, I want to warn against the temptation of casting our ships out to sea.

Before we begin, I must note two things. The first concerns the scope of this article. I will not try to determine whether ambition has made the world better or worse than it would otherwise have been. Ambition might well be the cause of both humanity’s greatest achievements and its worst atrocities. Who can say whether the final balance will turn out positive or negative? My aim is more modest. I claim only that ambition is no virtue; that we would live better, happier lives if we were less ambitious; and that we ought to devote our energies not to realising our ambitions but to reducing them.

The second thing to note is what I mean by ambition. Plato defined it as the desire for victory. Aristotle understood it as the desire for honour. David Hume and Adam Smith considered it the desire for power and the desire for admiration respectively. Each capture one part of the truth. We come closer by taking up only the common element in each of these ideas: ambition is a desire for greater things. But this definition is still not quite right, for not all those who desire greater things are ambitious. A homeless man looking for shelter on a cold night desires something greater than what he has, but this desire does not make him ambitious. A hungry child is not made ambitious by her desire for a good meal. So how do we determine which of our desires are ambitions? The French essayist François de La Rochefoucauld points us toward the answer. In his Reflections, he writes, “Absence extinguishes small passions and increases great ones, as the wind blows out a candle and fans a fire.” I suggest that the same phenomenon marks the difference between ambitions and ordinary desires, albeit with ‘resistance’ in place of ‘absence.’ Ambitions are those desires that fade and die if we resist them long enough. Ordinary desires only grow as we resist them. The passing of time may extinguish our desire for a higher salary and a bigger house, but it will only increase the desire of the hungry child. With this point noted, we have our definition: an ambition is a desire for greater things that fades with resistance.

So, we find ourselves with a choice. We can resist our ambitions or we can realise them. Why resist? Well, to begin, our ambitions for the future hurt us in the present. Pursuing the things we lack blunts our appreciation of the things we have. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer illustrated this fact by comparing human happiness to a fraction, where the numerator represents what we have and the denominator represents what we hope for. Just as a large numerator will not make a large fraction if the denominator is larger still, so great things will not make us happy if our desires are greater still.

Modern psychologists have placed this wisdom on a firmer scientific footing. Study after study has found that our happiness depends on the size of our aspiration-achievement gap: the gap between what we aspire to and what we achieve. Experiments have shown that even life’s smallest pleasures are tarnished by a desire for more. Chocolate doesn’t taste as good if you’re hoping for something better, and you’ll savour it less if you’re thinking about money. The aspiration-achievement gap may even shed light on a puzzling fact about attempted prison escapes: convicts often try to escape toward the end of their sentences, when they would seem to have least to gain. This phenomenon might seem bizarre, but the aspiration-achievement model provides a neat explanation. As a prisoner approaches the end of his sentence, he imagines his future freedom more frequently and more vividly. His desire for freedom grows, widening the gap between what he has and what he hopes for. Eventually, the size of the gap becomes unbearable and he attempts his escape.

Of course, most of our ambitions are not like the prisoner’s desire for freedom. His desire is doubly harmful. It frustrates him in the present and it spurs him to risk his future. Our ambitions also frustrate us in the present, but they seem to spur us to a better future. They drive us to win promotions, make discoveries, write books, earn accolades, and plenty more besides. Thus, we might acknowledge that our ambitions are harmful but maintain that we ought to hold on to them all the same. We might claim that being ambitious is, on balance, worth it.

The idea is an attractive one. Ambition seems to be a trade in which we endure a slightly-tarnished present for the sake of a much-improved future. However, I claim that it’s a trade we ought to refuse, and for two reasons. First, the benefits of ambition are never as great as we imagine. Second, the costs are much greater than we realise.

Let’s begin with the first reason. We form ambitions, in part, because we expect that achieving them will make us feel certain ways. We picture certain scenes – opening a letter, signing a contract, climbing a podium – and imagine the accompanying emotions: pride, or joy, or contentment. But, all too often, the long-awaited scene comes to pass and the emotions miss their cue. You open the letter, you sign the contract, you reach the top of the podium, and wait for the happiness to radiate through you. But you feel only a faint glimmer, and then a kind of emptiness and unease.

We all have experiences of this kind. We human beings are surprisingly bad at what psychologists call affective forecasting: predicting how future events will make us feel. We frequently overestimate both the intensity and duration of our future emotions. For example, college football fans are not nearly as pleased by their team winning as they imagine they will be. More relevant to ambition, securing tenure does not make junior academics nearly as joyful as they hoped, and missing out does not make them nearly as miserable as they expected. We misjudge how future events will make us feel, in part, because we focus too much on that event and fail to consider other factors. We are especially vulnerable to this focusing illusion when we picture the attainment of our ambitions. We imagine only the signing of the contract and expect a warm glow of delight. We neglect to imagine the attendant stresses which will cloud our happiness.

Nevertheless, you might argue, a glimmer of satisfaction is still a glimmer. Realising our ambitions still makes us happy, even if we’re liable to overestimate the exact amount. Therefore, you might claim, our wonky affective forecasting gives us no reason to renounce our ambitions. But to think this way is to overlook ambition’s costs. We must recognise that our ambitions are not benefactors who give without taking. We pay for our ambitions with our time, our energy, and our emotional investment, and we draw on limited funds to do so. Every hour spent at our desk is one fewer with friends. Every joule of energy expended in pursuit of a dream is one fewer for family. Nights that could have been restful are dogged by tossing and turning. Days that could have been tranquil are blighted by self-censure and restlessness. At its extreme, ambition compels us to give all that we have. Crusoe’s ambition drove him from Hull to Great Yarmouth, on to London, then to Guinea on the west coast of Africa, over to Brazil, and to a shipwreck on a remote island. By the time he returned home over three decades later, his father was dead. We should beware the tempting thought that our own ambitions are not so costly. Nowadays we pay in smaller instalments, but the final price may be greater still.

Recent research suggests that the price we pay is often too high and that the demands of our ambitions exceed their promise. Psychologists note that each of us can be placed somewhere along a scale between pure maximisers and pure satisficers, where pure maximisers desire the best possible result and pure satisficers desire only a good enough result. When surveyed, those with greater maximising tendencies report feeling less happy than those inclined to satisfice. Maximisers also report feeling more regret, more depression, more difficulty making decisions, less optimism, and less satisfaction with their choices. What’s more, maximisers feel this way even when their ambition affords them the expected advantages. College students with greater maximising tendencies secured better-paying jobs than their satisficing counterparts, but nevertheless felt worse during the search and were less satisfied with the result. Their ambition made them feel “pessimistic, stressed, tired, anxious, worried, overwhelmed, and depressed throughout the process,” and at the end it rewarded them only with more disappointment.

Here, though, you might be tempted to lodge an objection: if the maximising students were disappointed, it can only be because they have not yet achieved their ambitions. You might claim that the lesson of the study is not that we should give up but that we should fight harder, because our ambitions will repay us all our sacrifices and more when we achieve them. But this is like claiming that the lesson of an expensive night in Vegas is not that you should go home but that you should bet more, because the casino will repay you all your money and more when you win big. In life, as in Vegas casinos, winning is not guaranteed. It would be reckless to ignore the painful – but very real – possibility that we will not accomplish all that we hope.

However, even if by some miracle we turn out to be among the select few who achieve all their ambitions, I claim that these achievements will likely still come at too dear a price. To see why, note first that our ambitions are, as a rule, self-directed. You desire not just that some important discovery be made, but that you make it. I desire not just that some eminent position be filled, but that I fill it. So, we often compete to achieve our ambitions. We invest time and energy into pursuits in which not everybody wins. One of the lesser-known examples from game theory offers a lively illustration of this dynamic and its consequences:

A $20 bill is put up for sale. Bidding begins at $1 and proceeds in $1 increments. The highest bidder pays what they bid and receives the $20 bill. The second highest bidder pays what they bid and receives nothing.

You can try this dollar auction for yourself at your next party. Initially, there might be some apprehension, but someone will soon bid $1. The prospect of a $19 profit is simply too tempting. Another person will bid $2 for the same reason. $20 for $2 is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. But, unfortunately for the bidders, these seductive thoughts will be their downfall. The first bidder will have a choice at this point: back out now and pay $1 for nothing or advance the bidding to $3 for a $17 profit. Of course, he will bid again. But this move will force on the second bidder an analogous choice: back out now and pay $2 for nothing or advance the bidding to $4 for a $16 profit. She will also bid again. This easy choice swings back and forth until it’s no longer so easy. Should the second bidder advance the bidding to $20? She can no longer hope to make a profit, but at least she’ll avoid a loss of $18. However, her $20 bid will put the first bidder back on the hook for $19. He will face a perplexing choice: back out now and lose $19 or bid $21 (for a $20 bill!) and lose just $1. He too will bid again. But the second bidder will bid $22 for the same reason and now there’s no telling where the bidding will end. A professor who auctioned off $20 bills to his organisational behaviour classes reports that he often received bids north of $50 and notes one instance in which the bidding reached $2000.

The analogy to ambition should be clear. When we pursue our ambitions, we bid our time and energy against the time and energy of others, and we pay no matter what. This matching dynamic begets matching consequences. As in the dollar auction, our reluctance to let past investments go to waste drives us to invest ever more, until our efforts far exceed the value of their object. Of course, our greatest sympathies will be reserved for those who fall short. They invest much and walk away with nothing. But notice that ambition is a game in which even the winners lose. They pay $50 for a $20 bill. Notice also that this pernicious dynamic requires only the smallest of investments to get its start. $1 is enough to seal a bidder’s fate. Ambition, like the dollar auction, is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

Ambition, then, depends on a host of misjudgements, confusions, and temptations. We overestimate its benefits, overlook its costs, and overbid our time and energy. But there is one final temptation to be addressed and rooted out: the temptation to say, ‘One more.’ For many of us, this article will have come at an inopportune time. It will have found us halfway through our own dollar auctions – already well on our way to realising some ambition – and we will be tempted to say, ‘One more. Let me accomplish this final thing, and then I will relax.’ But this thought is as pernicious as all the others. Achieving this ambition will almost certainly take us halfway to the next one, and it will be just as tempting to say ‘One more’ when we get there. The lesson of Robinson Crusoe is that ambition is not a journey with a fixed destination at which we might finally and happily come to rest. It is a voyage that has no end. The novel takes Crusoe through three continents, and the last pages see him leaving home once again for a fourth. If he were aiming for any definite place, he would have reached it long ago. It is as if the horizon is the true object of Crusoe’s desire. We should learn from his mistake. Our ambitions have been driving us our entire lives. If they were ever going to satisfy us, they would have done so by now. Our own horizon will elude us no matter how far we sail.

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