Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

On the Art of Ambition

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.

19 thoughts on “On the Art of Ambition”

  1. Fear is an even greater driver than ambition I think. That’s what drove me pre-tenure. Post-tenure my feelings of ambition have ebbs and flows, and the ebbs may be coming from the abscence of fear.

  2. It’s interesting that you talk about ambition at this point. I could see people using ambition and passion interchangeably in certain contexts related to career and accomplishment. I will come around to that below.

    Consider the following situation:

    1. Let’s say a person has a subject area for their career chosen for them at random.
    2. Let’s say they could work well enough in their field to accumulate the career capital to allow them to obtain the things you have said will bring career fulfillment.

    Would 100% of the people in this situation be fulfilled 100% of the time? Would the opposite be true?

    I don’t think that would be the case because:

    1. There are other underlying factors that cause a person to choose a subject area for their career in the first place.
    2. My hunch is that the same underlying factors are a large part of what allows a person to overcome the many daunting obstacles they will encounter on the way to being really, really good at something and eventually accumulating the career capital you write about.

    Career capital is a second benefit though. The first benefit is to satisfy some set of emotional needs. I don’t mean minute-to-minute but on a much longer time-horizon. And I think this is something that doesn’t seem to have a place yet inside your philosophy of career craftsmanship.

    The way I understand your philosophy, you have chosen to call that first benefit—the emotional component—passion and dismiss it as “childish reductionism”. I can see your point if you’re going by the definition many sham career gurus use (as in, if you find your single life-defining passion, the rest will fall into place). But I think that dismissing this too quickly overlooks the essential fact that there *is* an emotional component that drives a person’s career in terms of both choice and perseverance and that this emotional component is of primary importance.

    Why did Richard Feynman pursue a career in physics? Why did Hamming choose math? Why did you choose the various areas you decided to pursue? Why do you take the time to write about studying or building a remarkable career in addition to pursuing your own career?

    You probably didn’t do it to obtain the benefits of career capital, a concept which you have only developed and articulated recently. There is an underlying reason for it all. There is some kind of interest, affinity or inclination. I’m not sure what to call it but whatever it is, that is probably part of what people mean when they use the word passion to talk about career.

    To get back to my point that I can see people using ambition and passion interchangeably in some places, they both point to that emotional component. That component could motivate in a negative way, for example if a person feels a deep lack of worth and seeks to compensate through grand ambition. Or it could motivate in a positive way, for example if a person has a very strong sense of compassion seeks to have as much positive impact on others as possible. (I’m not trying to be all inclusive, just giving two quick examples.)

    My point is that the component that lies at the bottom is emotional and doesn’t emerge directly from the external benefits afforded by career capital. Those are nice of course. But I wonder if they are more along the lines of what others might call hygiene factors. And while there may be a correlation to be found between people having those benefits and being fulfilled in their career, I don’t think those benefits are the primary drivers of career fulfillment. Because if they were, then anybody that achieved those benefits would be fulfilled and nobody that lacked those benefits would be fulfilled. And I very much doubt that this is the case.

  3. You might have it backwards. As I recall, Feynman talked about having a collection of ‘tricks’ or mathematical/heuristic techniques that he would systematically apply to new problems, not a collection of problems to apply new tricks to.

  4. Passion has its role in pushing people forward, but I agree that, ultimately, it’s the “subtle strategies “that really contribute to success. I also found that these strategies are rarely ever captured in biographies and thus very hard to emulate.
    That said, I am very curious about the strategies that Richard Feynman and Richard Hamming employ, do you mind sharing your source on that?

  5. The way I understand your philosophy, you have chosen to call that first benefit—the emotional component—passion and dismiss it as “childish reductionism”. –

    I don’t consider passion to be childish. What I find to be childish is the idea that following your passion is all you need to be happy. I find that passion is more complex, the result of many factors, and not the beginning and end of the career happiness story. It’s that reductionism I protest.

  6. That’s an important distinction. It’s great when we can find talented teachers (those who’ve had “success in providing advice”). However, the high achievers we should learn from don’t often have great teaching skills. So we must take responsibility to become excellent students. We must train ourselves to learn from anyone — regardless of how accessible they are.

  7. Great article cal, you found a good way of quantifying indicators of success in your field. I wonder how you could do this in other fields, such as politics.

  8. @Sara Martin

    I agree with you. One needs to learn how to learn.

    @Cal Newport
    How would you improve your chances in a competitive exam?
    Here in India we have national exams for getting into government funded Medicine and Engineering colleges. They only look at your rank and decide whether to admit you or not. How does a person become better at solving problems fast?
    Most of your posts look at challenges which require a person to use his logic and intelligence to solve problems.
    In this case, A person’s memory(Two years of intensive coursework, 3 subjects), practice(There’s a reasonable chance of you having done the problem before) and speed is equally important. How does one tackle these challenges?

  9. Hey Professor Newport,

    I’d have to agree with what you said – it reminded me of something I read a while back – it’s important to find a right mix of passion and whether there’s a market for your passion – a challenge that’s almost never instantly discernible for the masses. Will follow up by reading that post you’ve linked to on this train of childish reductionist thought. 🙂

    I’m also wondering, what are these systematic methods you mentioned Richard Feynman and Richard Harding use?


  10. As a physics student its always good to see another the Great Richard P. Feynman fan. Just to expand a bit, Feynman kept a list of 10 problems that he cannot solve. Every time he learns a new technique/math or physics trick he would try it on the 10 problems and see if new ground is made. It is part of his “developing a new skill in his tool box.” Feynman is particularly well known for his large set of tools, his mastery of differentiation under the integral sign is an example.


Leave a Comment