The cartography of ambition

The cartography of ambition

June 28, 2022

🌿 Sprout

First, a few notes on ambition. In the context of this exploration, ambition is not about relentlessly chasing your next goal or power, but about living a larger life — whatever that means to each person. Prestige might be a byproduct, but shouldn't be the end goal.

Ambition can be intimate — the size, scale and scope don't matter to anyone but yourself. We talk about ambition usually within a career context, but ambition is about generally wanting to do more, learn more and give a shit about making life/work/ self more meaningful. To borrow from Visakan V, "Ambition is a servant, not the master".

The popular narrative of ambition defines it as coming from a place of scarcity, and that leads to guilt over seeming thankless or wanting more than we have. True ambition ideally comes from a place of abundance, which means being ambitious in 'doing' and 'being' but being content in 'having'.1

This framework interlinks and builds on the separate ideas of applied and ambient ambition and exploitation and exploration first shared by Molly Mielke.

Ambient ambition and Exploration

This means floating between projects mostly to indulge curiosity and taste-test different paths. Ambition isn't static or goal-focused, it is more exploratory and all-encompassing.

It's the opposite of putting oneself in a box — it makes a competent multipotentialite out of you, and these sorts of people can realise many interesting things.

But when you're expected to take on a title and a cleanly defined role, ambient ambition can be hard to deal with because your attention might constantly spill outside the defined lines. One might see many interesting opportunities, but keep themselves in a cage to be more easily understood and categorised.

//How does ambient ambition relate to play?//

Applied ambition and Exploitation

Applied ambition is more like ambient ambition maturing, shedding unnecessary baggage and becoming rooted in the real-world context while still retaining a sense of artfulness and wonder in how it's executed. This is where you tap into your curiosity solely to gain compounding returns. It involves doubling down on one particular project over a long period of time.

I'm thinking jobs and careers are usually applied ambition because the objective is to exploit and gain returns e.g. titles, financial stability, job security, mastery over one subject, build expertise over time.

I've imagined this as a 2x2 matrix:

When they intersect, they create four quadrants with distinctly different approaches.

Ambient amibiton <> Exploitation

This is where a lot of people I know are: there are plenty of paths they see, but they've stuck to one out of fear or sunk costs. I'm thinking this is the most traditional form of ambition, the kind that anti-ambition propagandists dislike. External validation, prestige and expectations drive exploitation here but don't stop the eye roving for other opportunities.

There's the possibility that we romanticise what we don't have which either:

  • prevents us from choosing to settle on one job/ path because nothing is good enough

  • keeps us stuck in that one job/ path because we're scared the alternatives won't live up to our expectations or we're more attached to the dream than the action

Applied ambition <> Exploitation

This is where mastery comes in, and the 'maturing' of ambition from ambient to applied. This isn't the worst path to be on, especially if you're looking at reaping compounding and long-term benefits. If we started off broad, then this is where we go deep.

The caveat of this quadrant is that if ambition is applied on an external and/or materialistic factor, the disappearance of that factor could leave us feeling lost and purposeless.

Ambient ambition <> Exploration

The third quadrant is where untethered ambition resides. While this kind of ambition is an excellent playground for people still exploring their options, staying there for a long time can mean forever drifting and never committing.

Depending on the intensity of the ambition, nothing concrete might come out of exploration, or we might find ourselves being spread too thin.

Applied ambition <> Exploration

Most ambition needs a tether or an outlet, an action that realises it. But this application should also be balanced by indulging curiosity and seeking meaning and inspiration from within or outside one's domain. This quadrant seems like the ideal balance.

Some ways I've discovered to occupy the fourth quadrant:

  • Paul Graham's Two-Job route: have a day job that will make the money that allows you to pursue your ambient ambitions

  • Dhruv Saxena's Make Work Richer route: seek ambient ambitions within the context of your job by expanding your understanding of work

  • The Timing route: Timing your choice of applied ambition with the right opportunities coming your way. If your choice isn't timed (or isn't in line with your aptitude), it creates anxiety and "what ifs". It might also cause you to stay in the 3rd quadrant or feel stuck in the 1st quadrant.

Questions I'm trying to answer

  • Can this framework help us redefine how we see people who change jobs ever so often?

  • How can multipotentialites stuck in the ambient ambition <> exploitation quadrant find the right kind of work that suits us without giving in to temptation?

  • Again, for those who want to explore many things but also to monetise something, how might we move into the applied ambition <> exploration quadrant?