Ambition as an Art Form
I’m fascinated by people who accomplish things of importance. I’m also fascinated by how little we understand this process.
Traditional career thinking, of course, says you must identify your passion then aggressively pursue it. As you know, I have little patience for such childish reductionism.
When we start thinking about our career aspirations like adults, and ask hard questions, the answers tend to be more complex.
When I studied this issue in the context of academia, for example, I found instead that famous researchers often had surprisingly subtle — and well-developed — strategies for pursuing important results.
Consider Richard Feynman and Richard Hamming. Both of these stars talk about a robust process in which they systematically built up collections of open problems, and then, over time, tested out new techniques against these problems, always sifting for a match. This approach required a careful balance between seeking new knowledge and working with what they already knew. I suspect they dedicated a lot of thought to tuning this balance.
The broader point here is that ambition is good. But it’s not simple.
At some point, you have to turn your attention from the advice of commentators whose main credential is success in providing advice, and actually steep yourself in the nuance of how people make remarkable things happen in your field. I am increasingly convinced that this apprenticeship, which can be long and often ambiguous, is a necessary stepping stone on the path to big things.